This entry contains the transcripts from our recent interview with TriMet’s general manager, Neil McFarlane.
Please make your comments about the interview on the pages where the individual video chapters have been presented, so that the conversation is being carried on in one place. Here’s links to the videos (more to come):
(Continued after the break…)
(NM = Neil McFarlane, TriMet, DH = Dave Hogan, Portland Transport)
Part 1 – Service and Finances
(Part 1 transcription courtesy of EngineerScotty)
DH: We’re going to start off with finance and revenue-related questions… there have been a lot of concerns from the public concerning TriMet’s finances, and in particular, concern around issues such as the unfunded pension obligations, the ongoing labor negotiations, the economy and long-term demographic shifts, coupled with the failure of the funding measure at the ballot, and the pledge of future operating revenue to help fund Milwaukie Light Rail, many in the community are concerned that more service cuts will be necessary. What does TriMet’s future financial picture look like over the long term?
NM: Well, let me sort of take that question apart into a number of pieces, you may have to have to help me again as you go through some of the pieces, but the first thing that I would note is that I think, obviously, we’re all beginning to see that the economy is improving. And TriMet is an agency funded, to a large extent, by the payroll tax, and we’ve seen some improvement in that payroll tax rate, coming back into growth.
That said, we know that this was an incredibly deep and steep recession, and so we expect that it will take some time for us to grow out of that. But, the good news is that revenue is starting to come back, jobs are starting to come back, and so we’re looking at a much more positive outcome for the next year than frankly we have any of the last three years.
That said, there are some challenges on the horizon, and you mentioned some of them. First of all, I would say that one that you didn’t mention that we’re watching really closely right now is diesel fuel costs. That’s not a small cost to TriMet; it’s the state’s largest diesel fuel user. For example, fifteen cents on the price of diesel is a million dollars a year for us.
Related to the union contract, I do want to perhaps light on that a little bit. The board, last May, before I was General Manager, actually adopted the policy that we’re continuing to rely on as we talk to the leadership of the amalgamated transit workers’ union, the ATU.
The first thing that I want to say is that I have the highest regard for our workforce. They have an incredibly tough job, the operators on the front line are second to none in the nation, and all you need to do is be from outside Portland, to come and use our bus service and recognize what a quality job at providing good customer service our operators do, in a very challenging environment.
Second, I just want to mention our maintenance workforce, which has been, again, above and beyond the call in terms of keeping our fleet at the ready and working well, and responding to things, such as the snow emergency that postponed the first time that we wanted to do this interview. So that said, high regard.
But the board policy is very clear; that what we need to do is make sure that our employee benefit costs rise no more than our revenues, so that there is balance, if you will, between the revenue growth that is exhibited by the payroll tax, and the growth in the cost of employment, and that would include wages as well as health benefits.
I think that there’s no secret that the biggest issue is really health benefits in this conversation. And indeed, we have a very unsustainable health benefit plan in the ATU union agreement right now. It has $5 co-pays, it has no deductibles, it has no employee contributions for health insurance. Now obviously that has changed as of January 1st, when we implemented, for lack of a better term, a freeze, which basically said any new costs that occur because of health insurance would accrue to the employee, so there were some employee costs that have been imposed as of January 1.
That’s a substitute for getting to a longer term agreement, and so we’re working really hard, and trying every avenue we can, to move either to negotiations with the union, or to the last step in the process, an arbitration, where a third-party arbitrator actually decides the case.
I would love to be in that case of the arbitration today, I’d love to have it past us as soon as possible. Right now, the union leadership is continuing to use the procedural mechanisms available to it under what I have found to be sort of an arcane employment law world here in Oregon, that allows them to delay that, so we’re working really hard on that.
Meanwhile, the freeze of wages and the freeze of cost into health insurance is helping us sustain the budget into the new year. So, my hope, while I can’t say that there will be no service cuts, that would be really the last thing on the list right now, and we’re going to be looking, I think, at a much more sustainable financial future, particularly if we’re successful with the union contract over a period of time.
Final point that was in that question was about OPEB, or Other Post Employment Benefits, which is an interesting topic, and sometimes a topic only accountants can love, but its a very important one. First of all, just to note, that we began to calculate that number, which is a big number for TriMet, it’s over $800 million, and what it is, is a projection of what the current value of all the medical benefits that would be promised retirees after employment, after retirement, would be, so if you try to take all those costs over the next thirty to forty years, and bring them back to the current dollar, that’s what that is.
One has to recognize that that number will change, based on what the outcome of the union negotiations. Indeed we’ve changed it dramatically already for non-union employees at TriMet, by changing that plan dramatically, and by frankly reducing some of the benefits associated with, and the cost of some of the benefits associated with medical care.
TriMet’s no different than anybody else in the universe right now, at least the country, in dealing with this increasing cost of medical care and medical insurance, and we’re, like everybody else, looking for good solutions.
DH: So TriMet recently launched a dashboard feature on the web. Has TriMet considered an annual or quarterly “state of transit” presentation as a way to inform and interact with those who contribute to its services?
NM: We have considered that, and actually that is something that I would like to begin to add to our portfolio, if you will, of communication devices, whether its a report to the riders, or a report to the stakeholders, or whoever you might term that, I think we do have a good story to tell about our service and what we’ve been accomplishing over the last years. So, yes, we’d like to see that, and I would just also note on the dashboard, is that what you see right now, I think, is our first-blush attempt at putting out some good information, some transparent data.
We’re going to expand that particularly in the area of safety, we’re gonna put a lot more safety information out, and we’re very open and amenable to changing that dashboard. For example, some people have suggested that in addition to just the stats, that we should have some better explanations of what they are and what they mean, and what the trends may means, so we may be adding some of that as well.
DH: Is there any plan to charge a fee, even a nominal one, at park-and-ride lots, as a source of revenue?
NM: There isn’t right now. One of the things we’re finding, still, is that park-and-ride continues to be a relatively modest mode of access to the TriMet system, if you compare, for example, TriMet total park-and-ride spaces to that, for example, in Denver, or some of our other peer cities, in comparison you find we have a pretty small number.
And indeed, if you look at the Green Line, even though we’ve met our ridership expectations for that line, the park and ride lots are still well under capacity. So we don’t think that we’re at the point, in the market, the development of the market for park-and-ride, where we can charge, and there are probably a couple cases where we’re beginning, at Gateway and Sunset, where we are beginning to again, use meters to allow some short-term use of the park-and-ride in addition to the all-day use.
I think what you will see over a period of time, in the short term, is just the expansion of that, of that function.
DH: Some of our readers have a concern that the definition of “Frequent Service” has been watered-down during the recent cuts. Frequent hours have been cut back and some lines to not run at fifteen-minute or better frequencies. If service is not increased soon, is it better to retire the “Frequent Service” moniker rather than lowering it as a standard?
NM: Well, I think, first of all, the budget emergencies that we’ve been in because of this great recession, has required us to lower that standard in some cases, mostly during midday and shoulder periods. I would say that’s a temporary lowering of standards.
Our objective is still to restore that back to the fifteen-minute level of frequency that was originally defined with Frequent Service. Indeed, my objective would be to begin to see the frequent service brand to grow, and spread across the region, in terms of some additional great lines that I think deserve that level of service, and would benefit by that level of service.
I would just also note that we have been, over this year, been able to add some service during peak hours to some of the crush-loaded lines, so that we are beginning to recognize that we’ve got some crowding problems, and we’re beginning to respond to that. We did it on the 12, we did it on a couple other lines, and we believe that the budget next year will need to address that as well.
So while that doesn’t address that midday fifteen-minute frequency issue, it does address the high level of service that we need during the peak hour, to address our growing demand.
DH: Ridership trends have been lackluster recently, with buses even losing mode share. To what extent is the economy, and to what extent is this a lack of speed or frequency in the current transit service?
NM: I think that there’s a number of factors in play. First of all, recall, that we did do some fairly major changes to the system over the last year, and we’re beginning now to be at a point where you can measure cleanly, more cleanly, the policy changes from Fareless Square, where it became Fareless Square to Free Rail Zone, and so that shifted some riders from bus to rail.
Clearly, the Green Line, over time, shifted some riders from bus to rail, so we’re serving riders, still, but we’re doing it more on the rail system. So, I think that was a factor. I think the other factor is the economy, which is that our ridership has traditionally always followed employment, and so when employment goes down, so does ridership. And so that is a factor, again, and indeed, some of the peak-hour crowding, we’re beginning to see on the system, is a really positive sign that the economy is beginning to rebound some.
So I think, fundamentally, I think that those are the bigger drivers of the ridership change that you’ve seen. I would say, as a big picture, we have to be pretty pleased with where ridership is. We have reduced in the last couple of years, bus service by 13%, yet we’re seeing ridership down 2-3% on a regular basis. We have, I think, that shows we did a pretty good job of using a really sharp scalpel in terms of the service reductions that he had to use over the last couple years.
DH: To follow up on that, to improve speed, has TriMet considered removing or consolidating some of the downtown MAX stations?
NM: You know, we have, at various points in time, looked at that. We haven’t launched any really serious community conversation about it. One of the things that you get to is, the general response we get is, well, you can remove stations, but don’t remove my station. And if everybody says, “don’t remove my station”, then you’re not removing any station.
So, I’ll give you a quick example, which is one of the stops that, you know, frankly we look at and say well, its pretty close to, if you look at Skidmore, its pretty close to the Old Town station, it’s pretty close to the Oak Street, maybe we should re… well then, the University of Oregon put in a major investment, to a large extent, as did Mercy Corps, to a large extent, to respond and to use the station as a sort of a focal point for those developments. So you begin to build in this infrastructure that makes it a little harder to change.
That said, I think that there will be a point in time when we’re going to go to want to have a broader community conversation about the sort-of realignment of stations along both First Avenue and along Morrison/Yamhill in particular. The model we do like is what’s on the Portland Mall now, which is about every four blocks there’s a station, which I think is providing a good service level with still, reasonable walk distances.
Part 2 – Service and Finances Continued
(Part 2 transcription courtesy of Ryan Porter)
DH: TriMet’s fleet has many buses which are 18 years or older. TriMet’s average fleet age is 12 years while the national average is considerably less. How soon can TriMet’s fleet be modernized and what funding is available to accomplish this?
NM: Well, we absolutely have to begin to replace buses, and you’ll see that as a priority in the next budget that I’ll release to the board next month. We believe that in the next fiscal year we’ll be budgeting for about 50, 51 new 40-foot buses. And then, for every year thereafter, our projections in our budget forecasts show about 40 buses a year.
What that will do is gradually bring the average age down to what we think is a reasonable level. We think buses should run pretty reasonably up to the about a 15-year mark. Getting them to 17, 18 even 20 years (as some of our current fleet) is way too old.
So, hope is on the way. We will use a series of grant funds in the next year that we have been able to piece together for those 51. After that, the 40-per-year will be debt-based funded. And, that’s our financial plan and included in our financial plan forecast for the future
DH: So what’s the future of the Free Rail Zone? The Portland Streetcar is considering decoupling from the Free Rail Zone so that its fares will be equitable throughout the loop when that project opens.
NM: Well, we’re certainly in the midst of the very beginning of a process where we want to have a conversation with Portland Streetcar, with the City of Portland, and with all of the users of the system about that. We started that by actually hiring an independent third-party to collect a lot of data about who uses the system and how they pay for it now, so that we have a good database to start from.
Right now, we don’t see any burdening need to change Free Rail Zone. But, there maybe some issues of sort of consistency–if you will–with the streetcar that we want to consider. So those–I think–are conversations for the future. I think we’d be very open to any comments and considerations people have on that.
DH: To follow that up, how seriously is TriMet looking at revamping the current fare system? The zone system creates a lot of problems with regards to consistency and equity. Is an electronic and/or distance-based fare system a realistic option in the near future?
NM: I think it’s a realistic option and it’s one that I would love to see us move to. I’ve never been a particular fan of the fare zone system that we’ve got right now. Just to give you examples of the cross-town service that runs for very long distances, that’s all in one zone. And the fare zone system really worked for a radial system. And, our system has migrated well beyond that, so it serves multiple destinations: north, south, east and west.
One of the things we are really looking at is the technology. And whether or not we need to think about smart card technology in the future or whether we need to think about other RFIC-style technologies that are being now piloted in some of the larger properties like New York MTA and some places in Asia.
So there is–I think–some hope that we will have a really exciting technology that will allow us to do really sensitive, distance-based fares in the future. I would say that that’s not a short-term option. I would say that’s a mid- to longer-term option that we’re looking at.
Part of the issue is that there’s a big cost associated with implementing one of those systems. I think the estimate that I’ve seen is around $20, $25 million dollars for TriMet. So, we’re not in a position that we can fund that now. I actually would think that even if we had the money, it wouldn’t be the time to do it right now, because we need to see technology advance just a little bit more, so we can do those distance-based fares. And, as frankly… it’s a little more challenging environment because we have this open system that doesn’t have turnstiles and so we need to make sure the technology is available and working for that kind of a system.
DH: Recently, a think tank posted a database of TriMet salaries to the web. A small but significant number of bus drivers put in a lot of overtime and earned over $100,000. At what point does it make sense to hire more full-time drivers than to be paying so much in overtime?
NM: Well, there is a break-even point. And, I would say that when you get to the point of the $100,000 category, that is probably, first of all, not best practice in my view. It’s a practice that’s really controlled by current union contract; we’re entering some conversations with the ATU leadership about that. And it’s because it’s now assigned seniority-based. So if a high-seniority person wants to work that much, it’s their choice right now to do that. I think there should be some tamping down of that.
That said, the good news is that we’re hiring our firs, and beginning to train our first class of new operators in really quite some time, so we are hiring new operators.
Largely that’s taken place for two reasons: One is the safety initiative where we’re actually taking more operators out of the seat for in-classroom training time and behind-the-wheel training time. So, as we begin the recertification program, we needed more operators, so we’re doing that. The other thing is that we’re actually, of course, retirements and other attrition is occurring so we’ll be needing to replace that.
So, new drivers are coming. Hopefully we’ll be in the position that we can… we will not need as much overtime.
DH: So what are TriMet’s plans regarding bringing on more fare inspectors, and why does TriMet only hire fare inspectors who are already bus drivers? Does this need to be a supervisory role?
NM: Well, I agree that we need more fare inspection on the system and that we would benefit by that. I do think it needs to be a supervisory position because in addition to inspecting for fares, these positions also enforce the TriMet code overall. And, so it requires–I think–a really strong level of knowledge about the overall operation.
There’s also a sort of the advantage of having a flexible resource out in the field that can really address a number of problems at times, so while they may be on a fare inspection mission, there could be another issue that could come up that requires knowledge and expertise and having those people in the field is very, very valuable.
One of the things I hear from our operators is that they really want to feel supported, and one of the ways that we support them is with the supervisory staff out in the field addressing problems as they occur. So I think for all those reasons it makes much more sense to keep them at a supervisory level. And, again, I hope that we can begin to expand those numbers over the next year.
DH: Why is rail considered to be such a good long-term investment? Why are we expanding rail at a time when there have been so many cuts to existing service?
NM: Well, I think… let me talk about, specifically, about the next rail investment, which is the Portland to Milwaukie project. I can talk about it in a number of different ways.
But first of all, I think it’s a long-term investment for the transit system. It provides that regional spine for regional development and growth. And, that has been fundamental to the regional transportation plan–really–for decades here in Portland, and so building out that system continues to be important.
Number two, right now, we have the opportunity to leverage in $750 million of discretionary federal dollars. That’s a very base economic improvement for the region. The project is projected to bring during the construction period 14,000 jobs. And as I’ve often said, that these are jobs to this region when we need them the most.
Finally, from a transportation perspective, it really does move the system to more efficiency. TriMet, as an agency, will be contributing something on the order of 5% of the capital costs of the overall project overall. But when we look at what it does for operation, the light rail operation will actually carry passengers–given that 5% investment and our additional operating costs for it–at about a $1.50 per passenger. So it’s a very cost-effective way to carry people, so what is this is doing is moving our system to more efficiency over the long run.
I think our average cost-per-ride for light rail is on the order of $1.80. Many rail lines are $1.50 or less. Milwaukie’s in that category, by the way, because it’s a very efficient line that throws a relatively fast run from Portland State University down to Park Avenue… carries a lot of people, so the average cost per ride is really quite low.
So I think the other thing that it clearly does is provide development opportunities. One of the great, really exciting things about the Portland-Milwaukie project is that at the same time we’re developing the light rail line, the Oregon university system is developing a new major facility down…right at the station, right at the corner of Moody and the alignment of Porter Street.
And, again the kind of economic development and growth we see around that is really important to the region and I think, again, it’s another major reason to see light rail continue to be a part of the plan.
So, as we look ahead to other corridors… could Bus Rapid Transit be part of the solution? Absolutely. Could Rapid Streetcar be of the solution? Absolutely, as well as potential consideration of light rail.
So I think, again, what we’ve seen here in Portland is that… the other part of it is that we have developed a system that is attractive to choice riders. 81% of our riders are choice riders. That means they have a car at home; they have another way to get to their destination. And, by having such a broad base of ridership, including choice riders, I think we grow support overall for public transit, and I think that’s good for everybody.
DH: So, could you speak a little further about the Milwaukie Light Rail and the gap for bonding future operational revenue?
NM: Let me talk a little about the finance plan in general. It’s about a $1.49 billion project. The federal government would contribute 50% of that, or about $750 million. The rest of those funds are coming from one local source or another, and the local sources include the state, ODOT, the City of Portland, Clackamas County, the City of Milwaukie and TriMet.
All in all, as I mentioned earlier, the TriMet share of that overall project is about 5%. And for that we get some really great ridership benefits: We get a growth in ridership; we have very effective service; we have great development opportunities.
What I think is really important is that the only part of that financial plan that is at all fungible–if to use that word related to the overall TriMet budget and could be available for bus-related uses–would be that 5%. So, it’s a relatively small number and the additional operating costs associated with it, which is also a relatively small number. So, if you add both our debt service and our operating costs together it would require about $9, $9.5 million addition to the TriMet budget in fiscal year ’15 or ’16. And, we think that that’s a very small price to pay for the additional 20,000-some riders that we’re going to see on that line.
The rest of that 95% is discretionary money being drawn to the region, being drawn to our public transit system because of the light rail project. So we’re seeing a great investment in the region, a great investment in our overall transportation system, at very little cost and at very little trade-off in terms of additional operating costs.
The final point, which is actually, that many people don’t realize, again, when we sought authorization from the Oregon legislature to increase the rate of the payroll tax, that increased revenue was for new service. And, all the costs of Milwaukie light rail–including operations and capital–are coming out of that rate increase, are coming out of what was to be dedicated for new service. And essentially, every major light rail expansion we’ve had, have brought new revenues to the table in the region for the public transit. And because of those projects we’ve seen resources from public transit grow over time.
So, A) we’ve grown the resources, B) we’re operating more efficiently and carrying more passengers at lower costs. So those working together–I think–have helped actually improve bus service over time, if in terms of the resources that would be available for bus service.
I think we have to be careful not to–if you will–confuse the effects of this last recession with sort of the long-term trend. After all we are, according to U.S. News and World Report, the #1 city for public transit in the U.S. Sunset Magazine recently told us we’re the best city in the West to ditch a car. We got there for a reason, and by making these smart investments over time, we’ve been able to build a strong transit system
Part 3 – Emergency Preparedness, Bus Technology
(Part 3 transcription courtesy of Bob Richardson)
DH: So in light of the recent events of Japan, if we were to experience a worst-case scenario incident within TriMet’s emergency planning, how long would it take to get all services back online, and how would services be reallocated in the interim?
NM: Well, there’s obviously a lot of, it depends on the event, and the response, but let me just address emergency preparedness. Certainly the events in Japan have really focused us all on our vulnerability here in the Pacific Northwest related to the same sort of major event.
The first thing I’d say is that TriMet is very tied-in to emergency planning activities around the region with all the counties and major cities. We have a full-time person dedicated to emergency management planning. We have our own emergency plans that we draw with all these agencies on an annual basis.
Our hope is that that ongoing communication and infrastructure planning and backup materials is really helpful in terms of responding to any event.
I would note that related to the light rail system, there would be inevitably be some period of shutdown, but I think the good news is that most of the light rail system and certainly everything we’re building in the last few years and as we build ahead, is going to be built to very high seismic standards. So will there still will be a shutdown related to inspection and making sure things are right, perhaps if something may fall across the tracks that has to be dealt with, but our infrastructure will be pretty robust.
The best example of that will be the new Portland-Milwaukie river crossing bridge which will be, first of all a beautiful structure, but second of all, a very seismically safe structure.
There are some vulnerabilities in the system. One of the big ones is the Steel Bridge — One of the oldest bridges in town, and it has some big seismic issues associated with it. So, I think one of the things that we as a region need to begin to think about is how do we begin to address some of these really critical constraints. That one has a particular problem associated with it and that is it’s owned by the Union Pacific even though it’s primarily used by the public. So there’s some other sort of institutional issues that address that one.
Finally I’d say that one of the most flexible, important, features of the TriMet system of course is the buses. And, as everyone knows we often use buses to respond to emergencies, even small ones, around the region, where we provided warming services or a place to go or transportation if there’s evacuation required. So, we would, I think, continue to see in the aftermath of any event, a large part of TriMet fleet used for those humanitarian purposes and then, second of all, we would begin to restore the service and we would obviously focus first on what we can do with the MAX lines after inspections and any work that’s needed to repair, and then obviously our frequent-service lines come to mind first.
But all that said, I think all that depends largely on the circumstances of the event, and those are very hard to predict.
DH: Will TriMet consider articulated buses for high-capacity lines, is TriMet willing to look at double-decker buses like this in Vegas, or of course London, for long-haul limited-stop, maybe BRT-like service?
NM: You know, we have looked at this question, and there are a couple lines in the TriMet system that would really benefit by the added capacity of articulated buses, but there are also costs associated with it, because you’re running a bigger vehicle during times of day, perhaps, that you don’t need the capacity. And in addition there are issues, as some of our maintenance facilities actually don’t fit the articulated buses. So, when we sort of put it all in balance, we would prefer right now, still, to just have a fleet of 40′ buses. That said, I think there will be a time in the future where we want to begin to look at some articulated buses for some of the urban routes that we’ve got.
Related to double-decker, you’re right that the only thing that they really work well on, in my view, is long-haul service. I know for example Community Transit in Everett, Washington is purchasing some, but they’re long-haul Everett-to-Seattle routes.
They don’t work for the kind of service that really is the hallmark of TriMet services, frequent, urban, many-stop service because, frankly the articulated buses are better because there are more doors and more access and more ability to get on and off, and the difficulty of climbing the stairs to the top level. So I really don’t see the double-deckers in our future just because the practicalities and our services patterns. I do see articulated buses, not in the near-term, but perhaps in the mid-to-longer term.
DH: Do electric trolleybuses make sense to bring quieter, higher-quality service to corridors where light rail or streetcars won’t fit?
NM: You know, I have always been a fan of electric trolleybuses. But, to be honest with you as I’ve sort of studied bus technology over the last year, become more familiar with some of the technology, there are some really advancing bus technologies – electric bus technologies – that I think we need to keep our eye on, and may be able to offer some of the advantages of the trolleybus without the capital expense of installing the overhead wire and the electrification systems.
An example of that, that I think is out in the industry, is the Protera electric bus, which has been used in down southern California, beginning to be manufactured in this country. It uses battery tech and capacitor technology, basically to charge for 10-minute quick charges at the beginning and the end of the line, and then run for some distance, simply on batteries.
Those are the kinds of technologies I think we really want to keep our eyes on. As a progressive region I think we’d really, frankly, accomplish a lot of what I think trolleybuses would hope to accomplish, but do it perhaps at a more reasonable cost.
I would say that we’re keeping our eye on it because right now they are not a reasonable cost, the per-unit cost of those kinds of vehicles are very high, but as with electric cars we hope that over time battery technology will allow that cost to be reduced.
DH: The fact streetcars are now being constructed locally has generated a lot of news. Could TriMet start lobbying for the local development and manufacture of next-generation buses? Can policy-makers jumpstart bus production, both as a showcase, and a way to help operate our fleet?
NM: Well, I think that I would love see that, and I’ve actually wondered that about out loud to more than one person over time, and I think actually we should be beginning to look at that. It’s a lot more complicated because bus manufacturers are pretty well-established, for example, Gillig down southern California, and many of the others, New Flyer for Minnesota, so there’s sort of established bases.
One of the interesting pieces of that, though, is that of course we have the former Freightliner, now Daimler, truck manufacturing facilities. Many people know that Daimler is actually a major manufacturer of buses. And so, we’ve had some beginning conversations about that.
I think it’s a big challenge to think about moving an industry here, it’d be better obviously if there were some increment of bus manufacturing capability in the region, there isn’t right now, other than components. So I think it’s something we should continue to look at and look for the opportunities to do.
I think one of the more positive things related that is that the Obama administration is really focused on making sure that the funding it produces is really producing American jobs, so there may be some opportunities that we can pay attention to in the future.
Part 4 – Future Projects and Misc.
(Part 4 transcription courtesy of Juke)
DH: The proposed Lake Oswego Transit Project would be the first application of so-called “rapid streetcar” in Portland. The existing Portland Streetcar services are essentially a local mixed-traffic circulator. A rapid streetcar is also discussed as a possibility for the Southwest Corridor project. Do you see TriMet operating streetcar-class vehicles on TriMet branded routes in the future and/or sharing alignments with MAX where it makes sense such as perhaps the Transit Mall beyond the planned Milwaukie Light Rail Bridge?
NM: Take that questions in some pieces… I think one of the things we’ve been very good at in Portland is trying to match the corridor and its requirements to the technology and so I think, for example, recommendations that have come out of the steering committee for the Portland-Lake Oswego Project make a lot of sense for that corridor. I do see sort of a continued partnership between the City of Portland, which is really the operator of the Portland Streetcar, and TriMet. And that partnership will continue to mold and grow over time as the different lines and the different characteristic come into play. But, it’s not my decision alone, the board will obviously weigh into this, I would say that my sense of the Portland to Lake Oswego line is that it’s a regional line serving regional travel movements and so therefore it should be supported largely by TriMet operating resources, when it’s time to build it.
There are different kinds of streetcar lines, like lines between PSU and South Waterfront for example, which is maybe more of a development-focused line that serves the circulator function in the City of Portland; maybe that has a different mix of TriMet support versus local support. So I think that the streetcar system as it grows over time will have the mix of those kinds of different types of operating support formulas associated with it.
DH: Milwaukie MAX is often referred to as the Orange Line, though many have the opinion that it would be better suited as an extension of the Yellow or Green Lines. Has the color been determined yet and if so what color will it be?
NM: First of all, it will operate as an extension of the Yellow Line, so they are not separate train lines, they are actually through-service lines. Some of the Yellow Lines may turn around or some of the Milwaukie lines may turn around, so bottom line is it really is a through route of the Yellow Line in terms of the way it will operate.
In terms of the color, no, we haven’t really decided. As we get closer to the opening, we do a whole series of outreach and service planning characteristics, and right now it just sort of helps us, I think, in terms of the description of talking about it as the Orange as opposed to Yellow which is a line in service, and so we get a little, you know, hopefully we clarify our terminology on that, but a lot more conversation to come on that.
DH: What will the procedure be for naming the new Light Rail bridge, assuming it isn’t going to be called the Caruthers Bridge?
NM: Well, it will not called Caruthers Bridge because it actually isn’t on Caruthers street. It actually connects between Porter on the West and Sherman, I think it is, on the East side, and so it will have a name and we will have a very public process about it. I can’t say that we’ve designed that process yet. I know that what we’ll do is, obviously, be soliciting as we always do, lots of input from the public on that, as well as from of the stakeholders of the project and we’ll begin to, then, perhaps, put a panel together that would probably ultimately include an approval by the TriMet board. So, I don’t know that I have a process to define, it feels a little early to do that still, but within a year or two we’ll be in the midst of that.
DH: When will TriMet build an actual underground system for MAX service through the Downtown area?
NM: Well, I might change the question from “when” to “if.” I think there are, first of all, there’s philosophical questions to answer about that, and then there are practical ones about the cost and when is our system grown to the point, when does it grow to the point, that it is really justified. To the sort of philosophical point, I think one of the great things about the system is the way that it’s integrated in the city streets and it is really an animation of the sidewalks and the city life. It reflects the city life it; it really is just an extension of the sidewalk. That’s the way it was designed and I think there are great advantages to that.
There are some disadvantages in that it obviously moves a little slower, number one, and number two we’re limited to two-car consists because of the block size in downtown Portland. So I think there still is a question about whether or not we should have a subway, and I think that’s a very valid conversation to have over the long term, over the next few years, as the regional transportation plan for example is updated on a regular basis.
The practical side of it, is that it’s obviously a very expensive project and right now we are beginning to look at a federal environment that is not, if you will, overflowing with funds, and so we’re need to be very I think careful about projects that we put together for the future to make sure that they really are a very cost-effective solution.
To be a little bit more “nerdy” than sometimes I like to talk, one of the things that we try to do when we put together investments is look at the cost-effectiveness. From the FTA standpoint, they use that as a fairly significant measure about whether or not they’re going to grant New Starts funds to a particular region, and the more people who are using the system, and who would use a potential subway, the greater cost effectiveness. So one of the things is fundamental is the system has to grow to a large, to some extent, in order to be in a position to justify that kind of big capital expense, which I have no idea but I know is multiple billions of dollars to [inaudible] a subway. So I don’t see it any time in the future. I think there is still a fundamental question about whether or not it is the right direction for Portland.
DH: As somewhat of a follow-up, if we did build for underground trains, the downtown block size would no longer be a limit. Has TriMet looked at what it would take for stations outside of the downtown area to accommodate more than two-car train sets?
NM: We have looked at it over some time, some stations can accommodate it relatively easily, other stations it’s very hard, and I’ll give you a perfect example is the Washington Park Station, obviously that’s one where it’s very hard to see it grow to three-car trains.
I might also note that there is a trade-off between frequency and size of trains, and so one of the things that’s… there may be a point where that is not as critical, but right now, I think, our thought is that we still get great operating efficiencies out of light rail even with the two-car trains, and so at a certain point in time we would rather improve the service with more frequency than have larger trains and we are still at that point, I think, in our system development and growth.
DH: This year MAX turns 25. The original Eastside line opened in 1986. What’s planned?
NM: Well, I can’t tell you the specific plans but we’re definitely going to celebrate it. You’ve missed another milestone, by the way, which is last month I met my 20th year at TriMet…
NM: …but it is a bit of a reflection about how long in the tooth I am and the fact that the Banfield line as it was originally is now 25 years old. That’s really, pretty amazing, and you begin to think about the transformation in Portland since that first line was built. We’ve built a whole lot more lines, and transit has become now embedded in the lifestyle of this region, and it is a really important element of our mobility and our lifestyle. And that’s all because of that initial investment and that initial change of beginning to build smart infrastructure and beginning to link land-use planning together with that infrastructure.
So that’s the course that we’ve been on. That’s why we’re the 23rd largest city/region service area in the country but number 8 in per-capita ridership, so we’ve had some great successes. We’ll find a great way to celebrate the birthday of 25 years – great milestone.
I might also note that we’ve continued to make some improvements in original infrastructure. We’ll be opening this year a new station at the Rockwood area which will, I think, be a great enhancement to that community. We opened up the Gresham Civic station, a brand new station, serving the redeveloping Gresham Civic Neighborhood as well, so we’re beginning to see improvements along that original investment as well.
TITLE CARD: When are you going to finish painting the light rail vehicles?
NM: (Gesturing off screen) That’s a good question. So, you probably recognize that we now have sort of two brands out there – we have the old orange and red stripes and we have the blue and yellow swirls, if you will, and what we intend to do is as our fleet goes through midlife body overhauls, which we do something by the way very intelligent and best practice for light rail vehicles, which is something we call progressive rehabilitation. So we just replace parts as they age out. One of the things we do is in the midlife, we redo the body, we actually take it down to bare metal, re-putty it, and repaint it and that’s when they’ll be repainted to be the consistent new TriMet markings. So that will occur really over the next few years, as we get to what were originally the cars that were purchased for the Westside light rail project which were, remember, the first low-floor cars in North America
DH: The last one we’ve got here is: What do you invasion the TriMet system will look like at the end of your tenure? What kind of system and what type of governance would be your ideal?
NM: Well I think, I would love again to see this system to continue to grow and prosper, as I think it has over the long haul. We need to obviously grow out of the recession and that’s going to take some time, so we’re going to have some times where I think we’re going to be challenged to meet the demands of our region just given the resources we’ve got.
Long term, I’m absolutely bullish on TriMet, the system in this region. I know that we’re going to have a great system in the future. Let me think about few of those things we’re planning right now. First of all is the restoration of some of the really important bus service that was reduced over the last two years. While we may not be able to get that restoration fully in the next year my hope that in the years ahead we’ll begin to phase that back in.
Second of all, is we’ll have this great Portland-Milwaukie project, and let me note again I think it’s a right time to do that project. Fourteen thousand jobs during the construction period when we need them the most. We’ll get good prices because of the way the economy is, and hunger in the contracting market. And I think it will provide great service to the Southeast Corridor.
The other thing that many people perhaps don’t focus on is that it will also prove very valuable for the riders of some of our key Southeast Portland bus routes. It will provide express route across the bridge into Downtown Portland, and it will close the loop and actually make the Portland Streetcar loop a loop, so a lot of important functions are provided by that project. So I think that will be a very exciting thing to see.
I think we’ll continue to see the growth of the streetcar system, and my hope is that what many of the advocates have called Development-Oriented Transit continues to prosper, continues to be tied to strong land use and economic development in the region. And the Lake Oswego Corridor may be a part of that as well, obviously that’s amidst the decision process.
And I’d love to see the Columbia River Crossing with the great light, strong light rail connection developed. And I think that’s really important. I am really pleased and excited by the leadership Governor Kitzhaber and Governor Gregoire are providing right now and I think that that is a really positive sign for moving ahead with that project in the long term, so that will be key component of, I think, the future.
And then we’re beginning to work, just beginning to work, with Metro and many other jurisdictions on the Southwest Corridor. The Barbur-to-Tigard and beyond. And again, very major corridor, huge concentrated ridership in that corridor, and we need to look for more efficient ways to serve that corridor and good ways to make sure that we continue to build a strong land use pattern in that area that reflects the hopes of dreams of the neighborhoods.
So I think those are all, that means of a very full plate, but I wanted to emphasize my commitment first of all to make sure that the top of that list is restoring some of the key, important bus service that we’ve had, and again continue to grow our bus system, because that is the workhorse of the system, and I really do want to send a really strong message that I’m going to do everything I can, to make sure that we improve bus service over time.