The Addendum

Trimet: Time for some sobriety


Over the last year or so — and especially lately — there’s been a lot of rhetoric tossed around over TriMet. Between a bad editorial, a near-miss on a labor action, and lots of Internet drama, I think it’s time for some cooler heads to prevail.

1.) The Oregonian‘s editorial against measure 26-119. As of today, I don’t know how I’ll vote on measure 26-119, which would fund $125 million worth of improvements for TriMet’s transit system. Chief among the items that would be bought with the proceeds of this bond measure are numerous busses to replace aging vehicles and improvements for pedestrians, elderly, and handicapped citizens.

I can however tell you that the Oregonian‘s editorial against the measure in yesterday’s paper is a load of bunk.

First, the paper states that the bond measure will cost taxpayers “$30 to $43 more in taxes each year.” That’s dead wrong. 26-119 replaces an existing TriMet bond that is expiring. It’s cost will be the same as the old bond. In short, this is a renewal, and its passage will result in the same tax bill as homeowners get now. The editorial board for the paper had to know this was a renewal. I cannot believe they would be so incompetent as to not check the facts on this. So that means they ignored the truth and chose to intentionally portray this as a tax hike rather than a renewal.

Second was this gem:

Approving a bond measure is like buying something with a credit card. It may look appealing, but it multiplies the cost of a purchase by adding interest. That doesn’t seem like a smart way to go.

So if this is correct, the Oregonian just dismissed all funding of public projects via bonds as irresponsible credit-card-like spending. This is an insane notion. Bonding is one of the oldest, most respected, most stable ways of funding the purchase of new equipment or the construction of new projects. This is an intellectually dishonest position, unless of course the paper will now oppose all public bonds from this point forward.

Third, the paper suggests that TriMet should have been setting aside money for these things all along, and that because they haven’t set aside enough in the past, they shouldn’t get any now. This Monday-morning-quarterbacking must make the Oregonian’s editorial board feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but it contributes absolutely nothing to solving our problems. The reality is that we start from today, with what we can affect today, and navel gazing with coulda-shoulda-wouldas about the past will not result in one improved stop, one replaced aging bus, or one additional LIFT service for our elderly and disabled citizens.

In short, the Oregonian‘s editorial is both dishonest and dead wrong.

2.) Bus vs. rail budget rhetoric. Over the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of noise about how TriMet’s service cuts would not have been made if it hadn’t been building a rail system over the last three decades. A lot of noise is put out there — including by angry bus drivers — that MAX is only built at the expense of the bus network. There’s even transit equity activists out there now, trying to lobby for the agency to increase bus funding at the expense of light rail.

None of this is true and it’s time to knock it off.

Way, way, way back in 1969, an editorial in the now-defunct Oregon Journal noted that there could be no “taxation without transportation.” In this, the founding year of TriMet, there was concern that if the entire tri-county region was to pay to support the new agency, then the entire area needed service. In short, they argued in favor of transit equity, just as organizations like OPAL are doing today.

The irony: the Journal was warning about concentrating only on urban routes. “Already the idea is getting around that Tri-Met is to be operated primarily for the benefit of central Portland,” the editorial notes:

…the heaviest travel both on downtown streets and outlying roads comes during the morning and evening rush hours. Those drivers… are workers who earn their paychecks in Portland and take a large part of them out to the suburbs to spend. Both city and suburb will benefit by a smooth flow of traffic; neither can get along without the other.

What the Journal had recognized even in 1969 was that Tri-Met served two very distinct geographic markets: an urban, less affluent market, and a suburban and more affluent market. Despite the growth of high dollar urban living in Portland, this dynamic is still prevalent. To serve this mix, Tri-Met needed, in the Journal’s words, “truly metropolitan thinking.”

MAX light rail is part of that metropolitan thinking — in fact “MAX” stands for Metropolitan Area eXpress. Light rail is a key cornerstone to uniting diverse transit rider populations in one, cohesive system. Maybe in this era of tight budget constraints we’ve all forgotten that a little.

Just as importantly, light rail is a key cornerstone of our land-use system, our way of dealing with growth, and our very cultural fabric, as I’ve written about before. We as a region are not about to sacrifice our values or our long term goals because of short-term budget stresses. Our wallets are thinner, but what we believe in and stand for has not changed.

So let’s face it: we’re building the Orange Line to Milwaukie. And after that? Probably Southwest Portland, Tigard, and Sherwood, and maybe (if it’s ever built) a short stretch over the new Columbia River Crossing into Clark County. As a series of projects stretching over multiple decades, any delay we face creates a ripple forward that affects every project’s timeline.

So do you have to wait another 5, 10, 15, or 30 minutes for your bus in order to ensure that the community won’t have to wait another year, five years, or a decade for high quality transit to be built? Yes. And if the people at OPAL really support good transit, then they need to drop their rallying cry of “bus riders unite” and replace it with “transit riders unite.”

Lastly, remember that all those pro-bus libertarians aren’t pro-transit at all. They just know that the only way to sell their opposition to (what they see as) the socialism of light rail is to support the (slightly less odious to them) bus system in opposition to it. This unholy alliance of pro-enviro justice groups and anti-light-rail libertarians has got to stop. Don’t kid yourself. If the latter ever got their way and axed MAX, the busses would be next on the chopping block.

3.) Bus driver / anti bus driver rage. These last few years have been tough for everybody, and nerves are fraying at the edge. A number of incidents have occurred over this time period wherein bus drivers have been involved in accidents, sometimes fatal. With press coverage of these incidents, the riding public has become more alert — perhaps downright paranoid — about their drivers following the transit agency’s rules. Some citizens have appointed themselves honorary TriMet supervisors, recording bus driver behavior on cameras and lodging complaints with TriMet about employees who talk about their work on the web. Two bus drivers who blog about their work ended up in hot water, with at least one of them yanking their TriMet related blog. The agency seems to be disciplining and firing drivers at higher rates than usual, and facing pressure from tight budgets has begun to question paying some of the cushiest medical benefits for transit workers in the nation.

It should come as no surprise that tensions are running a little… high.

The reality is that TriMet drivers have some of the hardest, most thankless jobs in the region. Think about it. When you drive the area’s major arterials, do you feel happy? For many of us, just 15, 20, or 30 minutes on the freeways and highways of the region at the beginning and end of day are enough to make us start yelling at other drivers and wanting to move to the wilds of Montana, never to see another soul again. Now imagine driving in that all day. Fun, huh?

Most bus riders probably know how stressful the job is because most bus riders probably have seen the same things I’ve seen: crazy drivers, accidents waiting to happen, the odd stray bicyclist not paying attention, the pedestrian stepping into a crosswalk against their light. But there are a few bus riders out there who have appointed themselves Captain Safety, their cell phone cameras at the ready.

You’re not helping things.

And to the drivers, forget that annoying, self-righteous moron who is stalking you on the bus hoping to send in their video to TriMet HQ and the local FOX affiliate. He or she is not representative of the rest of us, your riders, who you take care of every day.

As for the drivers themselves, I’m thankful that you didn’t stage a sick-out this morning. A soft strike such as a sickout will only serve to make the commutes of TriMet riders longer, slower, and more painful, and that anger won’t get turned against an agency that is trying to reduce what most perceive as over-inflated benefits packages for drivers. No, that anger will turn towards the drivers who called in sick, and in turn to all drivers. So it was a good strategic move not to call in sick.

But moving forward, we’re all having to deal with reductions to survive these times. Everyone. So by all means, fight for keeping the most benefits you can — that’s in your interest — but accept that they are on the table. Negotiate. Work towards a deal. What we all want — what we all want — is to have a functioning transit system that benefits the most people across the entire region. We all do have common ground to start from.

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8 Responses to Trimet: Time for some sobriety

  1. Very smart & thoughtful, Alex. I don’t know how many regular riders would agree with you that rail to SePo would be worth 5 minutes more of waiting for their bus/MAX (let alone 30!), but there’s no accounting for taste.

    It seems to me that the best argument against rail expansion is that government, like all quality of life services in the US, is entering an era of long-term decline. I assume you wouldn’t deny that TriMet is in deep long-term financial trouble?

    I’m just playing devil’s advocate on the rail question, though.

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  3. ABC says:

    Michael, devil’s advocacy is always important, it’s how we stay honest.

    I would agree that TriMet is facing serious financial issues.

    I don’t agree that it’s a quality of life service. That implies that roads are somehow basic service. All major modes of transportation are basic services and thinking of some modes as essential while others are “quality of life” (read: extra, non-essential, fluff) is a fallacy and a legacy of the Interstate Highway era of thinking.

  4. Oh, I definitely didn’t mean that TriMet is a quality of life service while ODOT is a basic service. I meant that all government services are, in the end, quality of life services. Rousseau and all that.

    Yes, I am that pessimistic about the future of our economy.

  5. Al M says:

    Some of what you write is really good, and some is debatable.
    All in all the essay deserves a B+ meaning your mostly on the mark!

  6. Al M says:

    Oh yea, the sickout was always a rumor with very little support.
    The media blew it up, which should be no surprise to any serious Trimet blogger.

  7. Phil says:

    Isn’t a big part of the problem that there’s plenty of money from DC for building new rail lines, but there’s no money sustaining them? So now we’re building the Orange Line to Milwaukie largely with funds from DC – gotta use that money while it’s available. But in the end it’s up to us to sustain all of these new lines.

    As for the bond measure, yes, bonds are like using the credit card (but with, hopefully, much lower interest rates). And we’ve certainly hit the credit card for lots of things over the last 30 years or so which is, in part, why we’re in the credit crisis we’re in now (yes, it’s more complicated than that – the big banks perpetuated a lot of fraud, etc, but credit demand had gotten way out of control). I’d like to see more “pay as you go” type funding via a tri-county gas tax. We need to make it more expensive to drive in order to reflect the true cost of driving.

    …and it would be great if DC would figure out that maybe they should be helping sustain that which has been built – and again, that could be done via an increase in the federal gas tax.

  8. Al and Phil, thanks for the comments.

    FYI to everyone, one minor correction, when the Oregonian stated the numbers for the cost to homeowners they were referring to the combined cost of both the PFD and TriMet bond measures. This still, however, incorrectly portrays the TriMet measure as a tax hike rather than a renewal. My thanks to Galen Barnett at the Oregonian for correcting that.

    Second, a shorter adaptation of the first two portions of thise post will appear in Oregonlive’s “The Stump” opinion section soon.