This is the 2nd in a series of four videos of our interview last week with TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane, featuring many of your suggested questions.
Today’s topic is “The Suburbs”, looking at service levels, political support, future planning, and transit equity.
Transcript after the jump:
Chris Smith: So lets shift to the second major topic, which I’m calling the suburbs
Neil McFarlane: OK
CS: So, not withstanding the existing contracts between TriMet and Clackamas County, at least the political environment for PMLR in Clackamas County has gotten somewhat hostile in recent months or recent years. What’s the impact of opening service to a district that doesn’t appear to be particularly enthusiastic about having you come to them, and what’s that going to mean in the short term and the long term do you think?
NM: Well first of all, I would tell you that really, just about every light rail line we’ve ever opened has had opposition. And what has happened over time is communities have embraced them in a very big way. I would also tell you that within the environs of PMLR, there is a lot of support for the project and a lot of embedded support. We have a very dedicated for example, citizens advisory committee, we have a number of champions, primarily from the Oak Grove area and Clackamas County, but also from Milwaukie. Now, no doubt there’s controversy associated, that has been stirred up, but one of the things we have to demonstrate is what a great alternative it is, and how important it is for the residents of Clackamas County to be connected to the jobs engines, for example, OHSU and the South Waterfront, to the educational opportunities at OMSI, to Portland STate University, to the jobs inventory downtown and elsewhere through the light rail system. So I think that, plus the speed of that alignment, will be very efficient alignment and make a very efficient trip for the residents of the county, I think we’ll win the day with the residents or with the riders. I think long term we have to continue to build relationships, there’s no question, and one of the things I think is an opportunity to do that, will be our, and you probably will want to talk further about this, is our Service Enhancemnt Plans that are underway with around the region. And our service planning for the Portland-Milwaukie opening will embed in it, will be embedded in the Service Enhancement Plan we do for the Clackamas County area. So that’s an opportunity to talk more broadly about transit service in Clackamas County.
CS: So thats actually the next question. A dynamic we’ve seen in the last few years with the economic and budget challenges is that long-planned rail projects are opened, the Green Line, Eastside Streetcar, that utilize service hours, at the same time, service hours are being cut on busses. Not a popular place to be. Are we going to see something similar with the opening of Portland-Milwuakie, or all the service hours incremental, and what will happen to the bus system at the same time when Portland-Miwaukie opens?
NM: Well there will be some reallocations of service. For example, the 33 doesn’t need to run all the way to downtown Portland with Portland-Milwaukie. So some of that savings will go back into the operation of light rail lines, but there is an increment that is new going to light rail, and that is part of the last increment of the payroll tax expansion, which, as you remember Chris, was dedicated to new services. And one of the new services is the PMLR project. By the way, the last increment of that payroll tax is included in our budget for FY14 starting in January ’14, that’s the last of the increment of the .7% range that was authorized in 2004.
CS: So shifting to another part of the suburbs, were in planning of the SW Corridor. I don’t hear a lot of optimism about actually being able to fund construction for a number of years yet. Why are we spending resources now to do planning for something that we can’t really see the horizon when we can fund the construction?
NM: Well, I think that’s a great question, but if you think about any of our major light rail projects, they’ve been 10-15 year endeavors. They are not flash-in-the-pan proposals. I think the most.. other than the airport, which was a public-private partnership, using the federal process, the fastest that we saw was probably the Interstate MAX light rail, and that was really a portion of the South-North light rail project, so even that one, when you think about the work that we’ve done prior to kicking the Interstate MAX project, probably ten years. So, one of the responsibilities I think of Metro, and we’re their partner in that regard, is to not think about just tomorrow, but think about what the future’s going to bring. And part of that, I think, the interesting thing about the SW corridor is that it is bringing land use planning up front and close to us first. And so, they’re starting with what is the land use vision that the communities in the corridor, whether it be portions of SW Portland or Tigard or others, what’s that vision, and how do you begin to form a transportation/transit system that begins to service that vision the right way. A little bit different than what we’ve done before, and I think a little visionary, and good, but I think it underscores the long term nature of these plans.
CS: And I appreciate that. I’ve a had wearing my planning commissioner hat to work on the Barbur Concept Plan, work with the stakeholders committee, the mayor, to get a vision for what Barbur Boulevard wants to be when it grows up. But just to look at the timeline I think maybe some of us would expect if we, they’re undoubtedly long processes, but we look at the gap between milestones, from Locally Preferred Alternative to a Full Funding Grant Agreement, is it likely that this one will be longer than most, or do you think it will be in the same?
NM: No, I think it will be longer than most. And I would say I think that’s the right thing, and gets to the exact point that you are making. Which is I think this is the time and this the space, to really build our bus system, to build the best bus system we’ve got. That’s going to be my priority moving ahead. Now, the corridor projects are great support for that, you know the underlying network is our bus system, and we’ve got to do a good job with that. That’s why I’ve emphasized bus replacement for example in our budget moving ahead. We’re trying to accelerate the bus replacements so we have, we’re essentially caught up from the lean years of the great recession when we didn’t replace any busses, and we’ll actually be caught up by 2016. So, again, every penny of our service improvement dollars we can scrape together for the next budget, fiscal 14, that’s going to bus service, and that will be my priority moving forward.
CS: So while we’re on the west side. The financial performance, or I’d say the required subsidy for WES, is still a pretty staggering number. I know ridership is increasing gradually, is there a point at which we have to take a hard look and say, we should just be putting those public benefit dollars into more productive forms of transit, in that corridor or elsewhere?
NM: Well, there may be, but I don’t that think we’re at that point. We’re seeing, every year that WES has been open, ridership continues to grow. And recall that we opened in the leanest employment years, much leaner than we anticipated in terms of outlook forecast that justified the project. So I know for example, there’s currently a call center that is located out at our Millikan light rail stop on the west side, that call center is moving down to the former Hollywood Video site in Wilsonville, so frankly we get an incredible amount of riders in that employment zone. So it’s those kinds of system changes that will really affect ridership on WES. The other thing to recognize about WES that it’s really a fixed cost. Every rider we have will reduce the overall average cost per ride, and we still have room, so we want to continue to lure more riders to WES. I think it’s still fair to say it’s not a completely proven concept, but it is, I think, providing an important service. I spent some down at the Oregon Legislature, and it’s interesting to know how many of the staffers, and even members, are using WES to get to Wilsonville to get to…
CS: (SMART) 2X to Salem…
NM: …to get to a bus to Salem. And I think it’s beginning to demonstrate its utility in that regard.
CS: In general, as we’re continuing to evolve the system and the frequent service line system seems to be relatively fixed at the moment, we’re trying to get service back but we’re not adding new lines. What’s the state of equity between service in the center of the region vs the suburbs? Are there changes we should look for there, or are things relatively stable?
NM: Well, Just a couple things about that, is that one of the things I really really want to do is get our frequent service intervals restored. And so I’m going to be spending a great deal of time scraping up the pennies over the next year to see where and how we can do that. A lot of that of course depends on labor negotiations, but even independent of that I want to begin this effort of getting that service restored because I think it’s really important. Second of all, your question I think is an excellent one, and that’s why I mentioned earlier the Service Enhancement Plans that we’re underway with. And we’re essentially at the cleanup stage of the Service Enhancement Plan for the westside area. And I’d encourage any of our listeners to go to our website and look at that plan. But what it begins to do is create a network of bus service that begins to, frankly, look a lot like the network of bus service we have on the near-in east side of Portland, from 82nd in. So in other words, it provides multiple, the ability to serve destinations within Washington County and multiple connections as the grid on the east side also allows. So that’s, I think, a great vision that has been really embraced by many of our stakeholders on the west side. But it also begins to tell us how much demand there is for transit. Everywhere we go, everywhere, every community I go to, people want more transit. Now that’s a terrific thing, and I wish I had the dollars in my pocket just to put out more service. But I think it does indicate that there is strong potential in the future for some good partnerships. You know, first, for me is, we’ve got to demonstrate to our taxpayers and our fare-payers that we’ve got our financial house in order. Then, I think, we can begin to look for the parnerships to begin to grow service. I can give you another example. Our next sector that we’re looking at in terms of our service enhancement planning would be the Southwest Corridor, sort of parallel planning effort we talked about earlier. I was down at the Tualatin Chamber recently, and I was talking to a number of the businesspeople there, and they are offering on the market jobs that are good entry-level jobs, you know, $15-$20/hour jobs, and they’re having a heck of a time getting people to apply for them because of the lack of transit alternatives to the Tualatin industrial area. And I hear this message throughout the region, so what I know is we’ve got a great product that is truly important to the region, and that really need to expand the service. Yes we need to restore frequent service to those lines who have it now, yes indeed we do have some gaps in the frequent service network side. I’m a fan of turning the 35 and the 44 and a few others into frequent service before we get too far along. But we’ve got these great sectors of employment, new employment opportunities in our suburban areas, we need to connect people to, and do a better job of that.
CS: Well I’ll put in a plug that, the planning commission I serve on has been spending a lot of time looking at East Portland, and needs out there, and having a north-south frequent service line in East Portland would go a long way to the need of that community.