Saturday, May 29, 2010



Portland, TriMet, and the Bus/Rail Debate

Out of all of the flamewars which transit advocates find themselves participating in, the bus/rail debate is probably the third most intense. (#1, in case you were wondering, is debates with transit opponents; #2 seems to be the whole subject of Personal Rapid Transit). There are many supporters of transit who seem to care passionately whether the wheels on whatever they ride to work, have tires or not. In some cases, positions in this debate are constrained to a particular area or application--in other cases, though, universal claims about the complete and utter unsuitability of busses--or trains-- are advanced.

Needless to say, I consider the whole debate pointless--but not sufficiently pointless that I refuse to blog about it. :) While there are certain technologies which have virtually no application in modern transit systems--there's no reason to consider horse-drawn hay wagons for a given line, for instance--bus and rail are both mature technologies with many examples of successful deployment around the world. Categorical suggestions that one or the other is inappropriate for any situation, are hogwash.

In this corner, wearing the blue trunks...

Advocates of rail are fond of touting it's advantages (some real, some dubious). Among them--a more comfortable ride, less stigma of poverty in some quarters, much larger capacity, permanence of route, generally lower operating costs (especially with large passenger loads), attractiveness to developers, greater top speeds, and the possibility (given current technology) of driverless operation. Bus advocates counter with their own advantages: Much lower capital costs, much greater flexibility, more suitable for hilly terrain or cramped urban fabric, lower per-vehicle-hour operating costs (important for small loads), less association with gentrification, and the ability to maneuver around service disruptions which would stop trains--literally--in their tracks. For the record, I agree with most of both lists--which is why I consider one-or-the-other positions to be absurd.

I only rehash the above here for reference.

Portland, for quite a while, has been largely been free of the nastier controversies found in other cities, where the bus/rail debate has been at the center of some rather acrimonious public debates. (LA and the Bus Riders Union come to mind). However, that seems to be changing in recent years, as the rapid expansion of the region's rail network, and the recent funding crisis at TriMet, seem to be producing an anti-rail backlash in town.

Peeling the Orange

Last week, GOP gubernatorial candidate Allen Alley announced his opposition to the proposed Milwaukie MAX extension, also known as the "Orange Line" (which may or may not be its route designation) which is nearing the end of its design phase--ground will be broken on the project next year, and its opening is planned for 2015. The opposition of Alley--a conservative politician trying to win a Republican primary in the Tea Party era (as an aside: The Oregon GOP has been dominated by "tea party" politics for the better part of a decade, which is why the Democrats have a hammerlock on state government)--is no surprise; the political right wing has been hostile to capital-intensive transit projects for a long time. What is a surprise is the number of transit advocates questioning the project, or calling for its cancellation--and calling for the existing rail system to bear a larger share of budget cuts, in order to reduce the cuts to the bus system.

Admittedly, the optics on the current transit system are terrible. TriMet has added three new rail lines to the MAX system in the past decade--and while the Red, Yellow, and Green lines have been successful, none have had the impact that the original eastside and the subsequent westside project have had. The Portland Streetcar opened in 2001 and has been expanded several times, with the Eastside Loop project underway, and the Lake Oswego project in the works. And WES is generally acknowledged as a disaster. While these projects didn't directly result in the cancellation of non-redundant bus services--when the recession hit and both farebox revenue and payroll tax revenue sharply declined, services needed to be cut so TriMet could balance its books. And the bus system took the largest hit.

The Ninety-FiveFourteen Theses

Many critics of the agency (who nonetheless support transit--the positions of transit opponents are excluded from this list as irrelevant) view TriMet (and Metro)'s past and future rail expansions as any one of the following:
  1. A sign of fiscal management. Objections here include specific funding practices (such as bonding operating revenue to pay for capital costs), to concerns that the agency is adding services which it lacks the ability to pay for.
  2. Evidence of excessive entanglement with development interests--sometimes to the point of allegations of corruption.
  3. An attempt at empire-building, self-aggrandizement, and/or resume-padding by public officials.
  4. An inappropriate focus on place-building and transit oriented development, rather than on providing existing neighborhoods with quality transit service.
  5. A distraction from what activists believe ought to be TriMet's primary focus--social justice.
  6. A switch of transportation resources (and dollars) from the inner city, where land-use patterns support efficient transit, and many residents depend on quality service, to the suburbs--where everyone owns a car (or two or three) and the main users of transit are commuters looking to avoid congestion and downtown parking hassles.
  7. Poor urban design--freeway-adjacent light rail has long been the subject of criticism due to access issues. (The Milwaukie Line, much it sandwiched between the UPRR mainline and OR99E, isn't easily accessible by pedestrians from either side).
  8. Poor network design. Some TriMet critics believe that the region, rather than building light rail (and commuter rail, and streetcars) should instead be focusing on high-speed metro systems, such as Seattle is doing with Link. Others take the opposite tack, calling for more locally-focused services rather than long lines reaching into the suburbs.
  9. An inappropriate focus on "choice riders", many of whom, it is believed, will ride rail but not the bus--viewing the latter as unsafe, or as a signifier of poverty.
  10. Too expensive. Some critics think the region would be better served with Bus Rapid Transit (whatever that means), and suggest that BRT could provide similar levels of service at lower cost.
  11. An attempt to reduce the power of transit unions--or to bust them outright.
  12. A refusal to admit or correct mistakes, in order to avoid embarrassment on the part of transit officials.
  13. An attempt to gentrify additional parts of the city--to erect Pearl Districts (or similar) in places where existing, functional neighborhoods already exist. Sometimes these objections are couched as claims that leaders want to "Eurofy" or "Starbucksize" Portland--to make it more cosmopolitan.
  14. Evidence of "railfandom"--a belief that planners and public officials are motivated to spend billions of dollars on rail infrastructure for little or no reason other than a love of or fascination with trains.
Some of the above criticisms are patently specious, and many others require an assumption that the public officials in question are either incompetent or acting in bad faith. Many of the objections are grounded in demographic issues such as social class. In some cases, the objections may reduce to "don't cut my line--cut his"; a position which is easier to defend when it can be hidden behind other issues, such as mode.

However, some of the criticisms--in particular, those addressing the overall competence of TriMet management over the past decade--are entirely legitimate, however, and TriMet needs to do a better job of addressing them publicly.

How should TriMet respond?
How TriMet should respond to all of this is an interesting question. One temptation is to bury head in sand--to assume that the recession will end soon, that the jobs and riders and payroll taxes will all come back to pre-2008 levels, and that the service cuts can be unwound, and everyone will be happy. However, there are two dangers with this approach:
  • Jobs may not come back: While the stock market has recovered since it crashed in the fall of 2008, unemployment remains at recessionary levels, and it is expected that many jobs lost during the recession will not return. Many companies around the country took advantage of the lulls in demand to restructure--resulting in many jobs moving overseas. Those jobs have come back, just not in the United States. This has been a particular problem in the Portland area, which has over the years become more of a branch-office town. It may end up being the case that reduced levels of funding are a long-term condition, not a temporary one.
  • Population growth may stop, or even reverse: Throughout much of the 1990s and 2000s, the Portland metro area's population has grown steadily--first due to the high-tech boom of the 90s, then the arrival of the "creative class" in the aughts. A common response to high inflation, however, is ex-migration, as many rust belt cities (most famously, Detroit) are experiencing--which may result in more infrastructure than we need to support the population, but infrastructure which must be maintained and operated nonetheless. Land use changes designed to increase density (which help improve transit outcomes) only work if the population is increasing--in a shrinking city, more desperate measures are frequently needed. Portland doesn't seem to be in a population decline--yet--but people can be jobless for only so long before they start seeking work in other cities.
My suggestions for TriMet (and Metro) are here. (See also my advice for TriMet's incoming director):

  1. First and foremost, acknowledge the possibility of continued economic malaise, and population shrinkage, in planning--and do so publicly. Many of the planning documents released by Metro and others assume a continually-growing population, and a need for expanded infrastructure to serve these new arrivals. But if they don't come, will you still build it?
  2. Open the first envelope. Since TriMet has a new director, he has a bit more leeway to change course than did his predecessor--and to acknowledge, publicly, that mistakes were made. Since Neil McFarlane is an insider, this only goes so far--but he can say and do things that would be much more difficult for Fred Hansen.
  3. Make a better public case as to why it cut the services that it did. Cutting MAX service is actually--in many circumstances--a poor choice; as MAX enjoys greater operational efficiencies than do bus lines--but a good number of people seem to think the service is a boondoggle. In the case of those things (such as WES) which really are boondoggle, suggestion #2 is important: It's easier to make the case that "we have to operate this line because we promised the Feds we would, as a condition of funding" if you are no longer in the position of trying to defend it as a viable service.
  4. Shift capital focus to improving operating efficiencies. Look for places where you can, by adding bus lanes or signal priority or other investments, reduce the number of busses needed to operate a given service at a given headway. Upgrade the ticketing infrastructure. Consider making Ruby Junction Yards and the 17th Avenue barns bi-modal facilities, in order to reduce deadheading of both eastsid busses and trains.
  5. Show public support for the bus system--beyond issuing press releases proclaiming such. Make it a point for TriMet administrators to use the system which they run--all modes. Don't act like the transit director in Chicago who was forced to admit he hadn't used the system he directs in a long time.
  6. Clearly state what the agency's priorities are, and act accordingly. Social justice? Comprehensive transit? Environmental outcomes? Land use? Well-paying jobs for transit workers? Economic development outcomes? If TriMet's top priorities don't include the first two, then its customers are not its passengers, which puts the agency in a difficult position.
The bottom line, I think, is that TriMet and Metro both are facing a credibility gap. In the past decade, the mode split between bus and rail has shifted dramatically towards rail. I don't consider this a problem, per se--TriMet should be concerned with running a transit system, and what vehicles it uses for what routes ought to be a design detail. But when it's the bus that takes you everywhere you need to go, and you see those busses being cut--it's not hard to develop an anti-rail position as a result. Much of the present anti-rail backlash is evidence that TriMet hasn't done enough to convince its riders that a) it knows what it is doing, or b) it has the interests of riders at heart. If TriMet can convince riders of these things, then it is less likely to earn their wrath when it looks to expand.

Bus/rail and the funding crisis, part troix

Click the links for parts un and deux of this series.

I've been busy lately, and another full article will be coming soon. But in the meantime, more material on the bus/rail debate (and in particular, on Peter Rogoff's controversial remarks last week).

  • The Urbanophile's take.
  • Jarrett quotes The Urbanophile
  • Yonah does a followup.
  • TriMet announces its latest round of service cuts.
  • Bojack bashes Milwaukie MAX. While ordinarily, this wouldn't be particularly noteworthy, as Bogdanski is generally suspicious of big-ticket infrastructure projects, his commenters make a salient point: The State of Oregon is contributing $250 million to the project, funds which--unlike the Federal match--are completely fungible. Could TriMet make better use of the money?
And a few other items:
  • The Cascadia Corridor is getting nearly $600 million from the feds.

An update on the rail/bus argument

A few days back, we dealt with a bit of a rail/bus argument brewing in Portland--wherein many transit advocates are assuming an anti-rail posture, on the belief that continued focus on rail expansion was jeopardizing bus service. Some held this simply to be unwise choice; others saw more sinister motives.

This debate is hardly unique to Portland of course; though this blog likes to focus on Stumptown. Many transit agencies are having all sorts of trouble with operating deficits; one county in Georgia has dropped bus service altogether.

Yesterday, FTA chairman Peter Rogoff wandered into the briar patch--and gave a speech at the Boston Fed, that will make rail critics all over the country happy. In said speech, Chairman Rogoff blamed many of the financial woes of many transit agencies on overzealous rail expansion. He called for a focus on repairing dilapidated transit systems (by this, he means bringing them into functional working order, not sparkling-new status), and also endorsed Bus Rapid Transit as a substitute for rail in many circumstances--the BRT systems he described at least have a dedicated ROW and signal pre-emption; rather than just being a fancier bus).

Yonah Freemark at was not amused, however--noting that part of the problem is the fact that the Federal Government generally refuses to satisfy operations at all. Transit administrators who want their share of federal dollars will only get it if they build something shiny and new. Operations are often seen as a local problem--in large part out of concern that the money will go to pay raises for transit workers, not for improved or expanded service. If DC's funding priorities change, excellent. However, the government has been essentially encouraging the construction of capital projects, by not funding anythine else. (And one way to improve operational efficiencies is to build rail, assuming an appropriate corridor).

One commentor at TTP pointed out another important factor: Federally-funded projects generally have to be operated at a certain level of service, for a set number of years, as a condition of funding. This is one reason, I suspect, that bus service in many places has borne the brunt of service cuts--were rails to be cut instead, the Feds would want their money back.

While I'm not quite as annoyed by Rogoff's advice as Yonah--he certainly points out a disturbing trend that is obvious to many--the current policy of the Feds exacerbates the problems tremendously. Much of these policies were inherited by the Obama Administration--and the prior administration seemed determined to make construction of quality transit as difficult as possible--but changes are needed. Blaming transit admins for not doing their jobs--while in some cases true--is far from the whole story.

1 comment:

EngineerScotty said...

You got part 1 and part 3, but missed part 2 (here)