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TriMet’s bizarro fare enforcement policy

TriMet’s broken fare enforcement policy for its busses.
I mentioned it in the open thread, but I will repeat it here. Before you go read the rest of this article, go read Michael Anderson’s excellent report on fare enforcement on TriMet. Go read it now, and come back and click through when you are done.
As Michael notes, TriMet let go of nearly 3/4 of its fare enforcement staff last September. And as expected, fare evasion has shot up considerably. What the optimum number of fare inspectors is, I don’t know–but as indicated in the report, TriMet has seven full-time inspectors covering 1500 miles of lines (bus and MAX; WES has onboard conductors so in theory does not need separate fare enforcement).

The need for fare inspectors on MAX, a service which openly operates on the proof-of-payment system, is obvious. But there’s only 50-odd miles of MAX tracks, not 1500. So what gives?

Types of fare enforcement

Ignoring systems which don’t have fares, there are essentially three types of fare enforcement systems:

  • Secure platform: In a secure platform system, all places at which one can board a transit system are secured–entry into stations or platforms requires proof of payment of fare. Such systems are commonly referred to as “turnstiles” or “fare gates” in the trade, and many such systems also require proof of payment on exiting, to support enforcement of variable fare policies. There are a few MAX stations secured in this manner, but in general, TriMet doesn’t operate on this principle. This is generally found with grade-separated metros where access to stations can be easily controlled; surface light rail and local bus service is incompatible with this.
  • Secure vehicle: In a secure vehicle system, often called “pay the driver” or “pay as you board”, proof of payment must be presented in order to board a vehicle. Generally, technical barriers like turnstiles are not possible on board, so enforcement is by humans–the driver or an onboard conductor.
  • Neither. The third choice is to secure neither vehicles nor platforms. When doing this, either fare enforcement is not done (“the honor system”) or random inspection of passengers is done, who must possess proof of payment and show it to inspectors on demand (thus, “proof of payment”). This is the least intrusive and most flexible system, as it permits things like all-door boarding, street-level boarding, and other niceties. The problem, though, is it is the easiest system for scofflaws to abuse.

MAX, as mentioned above, uses proof-of-payment, with a few secure platforms located in neighborhoods where fare-jumpers are known to originate. The Portland Streetcar uses proof-of-payment as well. WES, with onboard conductors, is essentially secure-vehicle.

But what about the busses?

The dirty little secret

A not-very-well-kept-secret about the busses is that they essentially operate on proof-of-payment as well. But many people think that busses operate on the pay-as-you-board principle.

And it sure looks like it.

When you step on a TriMet bus, the driver generally asks to see proof of payment–either a pass, or a valid transfer or rail ticket, or two-bucks-and-change dropped into the hopper. And you only get to board at the front door–the back door is for egress only. But a subtle thing happens if you pay cash, that ought to tip you off: the driver hands you a transfer slip, whether you ask or not.

Normally, transit agencies which operate on pay-the-driver only issue transfer slips to those passengers who request one–typically, those passengers who actually have to transfer to another vehicle to complete a journey. After all, transfer slips can be used by scofflaws to avoid fares on subsequent trips–even if drivers are thorough about ensuring they are unexpired, they can be passed from one passenger to another. And once a passenger has got past the driver, she’s presumed to be on board lawfully, so no reason to hand her a piece of litter.

But on TriMet, everyone who doesn’t already have a fare instrument in their possession when they hop on the bus, gets handed a transfer slip. And what’s more, as Michael notes–passengers who refuse to either pay or show a valid pass, are still let on board–fare enforcement isn’t really part of the driver’s job. You’re handed that transfer for a reason–a fare inspector just might ask to see it.

The worst of both worlds

What is the point of this bizarro fare enforcement policy? Were I to hazard a guess, it’s that TriMet wants the flexibility of proof-of-payment without the enforcement cost. Proof-of-payment has numerous advantages over pay-as-you-board: Transfers are easier to deal with, it’s easier to implement such things as zone-based systems and time-based ticketing, and fare enforcement is a pain for drivers–especially when it involves dealing with irate or uncooperative passengers. But for it to work, you need to have a corps of fare inspectors to keep things honest. TriMet has demonstrated that this is not a budget priority, even before the recent cutbacks–so many of the trappings of pay-as-you-board are in places, in order to convince the deadbeats out there that drivers were guarding their busses. It appears that the drivers are the gatekeepers to the busses, but in reality, that’s not true. Fareless Square was a big gaping hole in this arrangement–people knew that they could board a bus downtown, say “fareless”, and chances are nobody would bother them as they rode out to Gresham, which is one reason I suspect it was moved to rail-only–but the system is there nonetheless.

But it sounds like word may well be getting out (and I realize that this article may advance this knowledge–it’s not my job to keep TriMet’s secrets secret), that drivers don’t enforce fares at all. And given the present labor dispute, it’s unlikely this will change.

But here’s the problem. This system gives us the worst of both worlds as far as the fare policies are concerned. Fare evasion is still a big problem. But the need to file past the driver increases dwell time at stops, especially for cash passengers trying to jam wrinkled bills into the bill-acceptor. And the driver still has to check passes and transfers, and issue transfers to cash passengers, many of who wonder why TriMet is wasting money handing them litter in a budget crisis.

So why not simply bite the bullet and switch to explicit proof of payment?

Staging the transition

The transition could be staged, of course–the lines on which proof of payment is most likely to be useful are the busiest and most frequent ones. The designated (and future) frequent service lines would be excellent places to start–on these lines, make it known to the public that boarding through any door is permitted (cash fares can still board at the front and receive a transfer), and that fares will be enforced by random inspection. The hard part, of course, is actually doing the enforcement–TriMet seems to have trouble policing the lines as it is; could it handle an open PoP strategy on a larger part of its network?

A second possibility would be to switch to real pay-the-driver on the less-used “social service” routes–the ones that frequently run empty and seldom run full, and which could be replaced with minibusses were TriMet to decide to do so. On a service with few passengers boarding, drivers could check for fares more reliably and without causing service delays–particularly for those routes that don’t cross fare zone boundaries. Differences in nomenclature or livery could be used to tell the two types of busses apart if some bus lines are PoP and others are pay-the-driver. And of course, if a line has true pay-the-driver fare policy, it need not be subjected to random fare inspection–the inspectors could be sent to those parts of the system where they are really needed.

Transparency improving at TriMet?

Michael at PortlandAfoot reports on a transparency initiative at TriMet:

Michael at PortlandAfoot writes the following:

As somebody who thinks the best way to solve problems is with eyeballs, TriMet’s defensiveness sometimes drives me crazy. So I was really pleased to learn the agency has just introduced a new website, which it calls a “performance dashboard,” to clearly display basic trends and statistics about the agency: ridership, on-time performance, operating cost per ride.

Among the other improvements are better communication of board meeting agendas. TriMet is also soliciting ideas as to what other things it should make public. Michael gives a good list in the comments at PortlandAfoot–go read his entire article. To Michael’s list, which mainly focuses on operational performance stats…I would add one biggie: Detailed (long-term) budget assumptions, showing assumptions and projections of revenues, ridership, fuel prices, labor expenses, capital projects, grants, etc–one of the biggest concerns many have is the agency is building infrastructure that it cannot afford to maintain. Showing us the numbers may help alleviate those concerns.

And to answer Michael’s question: Yes. :)

TriMet board approves start of Milwaukie MAX construction

TriMet board votes to fund construction of first stage of MLR, and authorize bonding of payroll tax revenues to finance project

Updates to come throughout the day… but the bottom line is that the TriMet board today approved a $127 million contract to start building the “Caruthers Crossing” bridge, a key component (and first step) of the Milwaukie MAX project.

Lots of heated testimony, as lots of people came to weigh in. Quite a few Milwaukie business owners testified in favor; and quite a few folks from OPAL, ATU757, and other community members opposed. Regular PT reader Cameron Johnson gave an impassioned speech against, which is here.

Also, the board voted in favor of one of the more controversial parts of the project, the proposal to commit future payroll tax revenues in order to back a $63 million bond. Neal McFarlane answered in the affirmative when asked (by a board member) if he is comfortable with the financials on this. (Ed: It would be nice if more data could be shared, so that we could be more comfortable with this–right now, the narrative that this is all pork-barrel politics seems to have a whole lot of traction).

Both votes were unanimous in favor.

In other news, the family of one of the victims of the April accident where a bus ran down five pedestrians, killing two, has filed a $20 million lawsuit against the agency. And the board also voted to ban electric cigarettes from TriMet vehicles, and limit the definition of “service animal”.

Thanks to Joseph Rose, Michael Anderson, and Cameron for covering the meeting on twitter this morning.

UPDATE: First press coverage, from Jim Reddin of the Portland Tribune, here. One obvious issue with the Tribune article is it paints MLR opposition as mainly coming from ATU 757 members who would rather have the funds spent on their compensation and benefits–when in fact, there were many other factions present in opposition.

UPDATE 2: Oregonian press coverage of the lawsuit. In addition to TriMet, other named defendents include former GM Fred Hansen, New Flyer (the manufacturer of the bus involved), and Hadley Products, who manufactured the mirror which it is claimed blocked driver Sandi Day’s view. The $20 million award requested by plaintiffs is well in excess of the liability cap for public agencies according to Oregon law ($100k for pain/suffering plus $100k for economic damages). Another lawsuit against TriMet, filed by a woman injured in an unrelated accident, seeks to lift the cap using the landmark 2007 ruling against OHSU as precedent.

UPDATE 3-5: Johnathan Maus’ coverage at bikeportland.org. And more from Michael Anderson, here. And Joseph Rose of The Oregonian here.

OPB’s “Think Out Loud” program to cover TriMet woes

Oregon Public Broadcasting doing a show on TriMet’s budget and service woes, featuring several local notables.

Tuesday’s edition of Think Out Loud, a public-affairs program produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting, will be all about TriMet and the recent debate concerning its budget and its choices regarding bus and rail service. The panel will feature the following guests (list cribbed from OPB website)

  • Neil McFarlane: TriMet General Manager
  • Michael Anderson: Editor of Portland Afoot
  • Carlotta Collette: Interim Metro President, District 2 councilor and lead councilor on the High Capacity Transit System Plan
  • Jon Ostar: Environmental law attorney and co-director of OPAL
  • Andy Vobora: Director of service planning, accessibility and marketing for the Lane Transit District

The show will be broadcast Tuesday, November 30 from 9-10 on KOPB 91.5 FM, and rebroadcast at 9 that evening; after broadcast the show will be made available online at OPB’s archives.

More on TriMet vs ATU 757: Whose cuts?

A list of cuts (benefits/salary reductions, layoffs, etc.) affecting TriMet personnel over the past decade, particularly those affecting the agency’s non-union personnel.

There has been much public discussion of the various cuts to benefits that TriMet is asking its operators’ union, (Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757) to make–and to what extent TriMet’s management and non-union staff has been asked to sacrifice as well. A email, from one Josh Collins, a TriMet communications manager, has been forwarded to portlandtransport.com, and contains a list of concessions made over the past decade or so by TriMet’s non-union workforce. All of the items on this list, including editorial comments, are taken verbatim from the email.

  • In FY2003 management health benefits changed. Employees enrolled in the PPO medical/dental plans pay an annual deductible co-insurance for most services with higher co-insurance for prescription drugs and premium cost sharing to cover dependents. This reduced costs and cost growth. Between 2003-2010, management health benefit costs per employee have increased at an annual rate of 5.8 percent, while per employee unionhealth benefits costs have increased 11.6 percent per year. In FY11 the management increase in the monthly contribution to health care premium basically doubled. Management now pays six percent of premium costs and single employees, who used to pay nothing, now pay six percent.
  • In FY2003 the management defined benefit pension plan closed to new employees. New employees participate in a defined contribution plan and TriMet contributes eight percent of the employee’s salary to the plan. This limits TriMet’s pension obligation to eight percent of salary, which is more comparable to private sector retirement benefits.
  • In FY2009 new non-union employees with 10 years of service are eligible for retiree health benefits but must pay the full cost. More comparable to private sector.
  • In FY10 and FY11, management received no wage increases.
  • FY11 increase in management monthly contribution to health care premium.
  • Between FY01-FY11 management staff was reduced by 10%.
  • TriMet implemented a hiring freeze, we have laid off non-union employees and reduced the hours of others.
  • TriMet discontinued tuition reimbursement for all employees for FY10 and FY11

Many of these items are already public knowledge (recent changes to benefit plans for all classes of employee are described in the annual report, for instance). Others are non-material items which I haven’t seen publicly documented elsewhere. Some of the items on the list are limited in scope to “management” (whether that includes only senior managers, or anyone who has direct reports; I do not know). Others refer to “employees” generally (or “non-union employees”), classes which may or may not include management.

And some of the indicated cuts do apply to TriMet’s union workforce–while the agency hasn’t laid off any union employees yet, it has cut hours. After all, service hours have been reduced–if you reduce service hours (and thus payroll hours) without reducing headcount, the only way to do that is by having your employees work less. My assumption is that overtime hours are being cut, and that full-time employees are not being asked to work less than full-time hours. This seems to be the preference of the union, which sees excessive overtime as dangerous (and understandably so), and probably would prefer to avoid layoffs. An interesting question: Would it be more cost-effective for TriMet to lay off employees instead of cutting overtime–given that escalating healthcare costs (which TriMet must pay on a per-employee rather than per-hour basis) almost certainly exceed the cost of overtime wages? Given the safety concerns of overtime, and the human cost of firing people, I’m actually glad the agency hasn’t done this; though I’m sure it’s crossed the mind of people both at TriMet and at the union.

In several key areas, however, TriMet’s union employees do get a “better deal” than its non-union employees are currently getting–particularly in the area of healthcare and pension benefits. New non-union employees are on a defined-contribution plan (similar to a 401(k), I suppose), an arrangement where the employee assumes much more financial risk; whereas union members continue with defined-benefit plans (where TriMet assumes the risk). And as has been noted, union employees currently do not contribute to healthcare benefits, whereas the non-union employees must do so.

The interesting question, of course, is what is fair–and what is not.

ATU 757 members (both regulars on this blog, and anyone else who cares to comment) are encouraged to respond to this posting; and/or to refer to commentary on this issue posted elsewhere. (Though as always, keep it civil–this applies to everybody). We are also inviting representatives of the union (an email will be sent to union representatives), should they wish, to submit material for rebuttal–either as a guest column, or as material we can incorporate into a follow-up article. We realize this article contains mainly “management” talking points, and are more than willing give ATU757 equal time in this important debate.

[edited for grammar]