And a few suburban governments, including the city of Wilsonville--which is not even IN the TriMet service district--are ticked about it.
A sharply-worded editorial in the Wilsonville Spokesman suggests that quite a bit of bad blood remains between TriMet and the city of Wilsonville, which withdrew from the TriMet service district in
Some critics of the agency have further noted that SMART has a pristine balance sheet, whereas TriMet is hemorrhaging red ink--suggesting that the latter is a victim of its own mismangement.
This is all very interesting. While this does appear to indeed be a battle over turf--it's also a battle over something more fundamental (and one which has been going on for three decades): Who gets the bigger piece of the service pie?
A bit of history
TriMet was formed in 1969 when the previously private bus operators in Portland went out of business. Originally, TriMet's service district included much of southern and eastern Clackamas County, but four cities located wholly or partially within the county later chose to withdraw from TriMet and operate their own intra-city transit agencies: Canby, Molalla, Sandy, and Wilsonville. The first three are exurbs which are (and remain) separated from the Portland metro area both geographically and culturally--Molalla, if anything, is more in the orbit of Salem than Portland. Their withdrawl didn't affect TriMet's finances materially; all of them have economies based on local agriculture or tourism.
Wilsonville was a different matter. A third-ring suburb of Portland, Wilsonville is only fifteen miles from downtown, and part of the contiguous (sub)urban area. It's also a major employment area within the metro area--Xerox, Mentor Graphics, and numerous other high-tech employers are either headquartered there, or have a major presence. At one point, Wilsonville had the distinction of having more jobs than residents within the city limits; though with many new residential neighborhoods this is no longer true.
Switching gears for a moment--let us consider the question: The TriMet service district has a population of about 1.5 million, and includes pretty much all of the Portland metro area located within Oregon--except Wilsonville. The city of Portland itself has a population of about 500 thousand--thus for every Portlander, there are two suburb-dwellers in Oregon. Many consider the regional nature of TriMet's service district to be a good thing--cities with Balkanized transit service (one agency serving the city center, others serving the outlying communities) often suffer for it, especially if the agencies involved battle over turf or otherwise decline to integrate their operations for the benefit of passengers.
Now take a look at TriMet's frequent service map, and its overall system map. What do you notice? The highest concentration of services is in Portland, not in the burbs--and much of the suburban service is designed to get you to and from downtown. There are exceptions, of course, but the bulk of the service is Portland-focused.
Is this state of affairs fair? Many transit pros will answer yes--Portland is generally where the density is, and TriMet can provide operations within Portland efficiently. Transit service to suburban sprawl is generally always going to be an inefficient proposition, as a) people are too spread out to serve effectively, and b) most of 'em drive anyway.
This analysis doesn't consider, however, who pays the bills.
Follow the money
TriMet has two main funding sources for its operations: Fares, and a payroll tax levied within the service district. Being a payroll tax, the tax is based on where a given employee works--someone who lives in Salem and works in Portland contributes to TriMet's revenue stream; someone who does the reverse, does not. If someone lives in Beaverton and works in Tualatin, their contribution to TriMet is "booked" as coming from Tualatin.
Were one to compare the percentage of payroll tax revenues coming from a particular jurisdiction, with the level of service provided to that jurisdiction--one could determine whether a given jurisdiction is a net donor or beneficiary to TriMet. Many of the 'burbs which are bedroom communities are net beneficiaries, according to the accounting--TriMet spends more money on service there than it receives in tax revenues. But some communities, mainly on the west side of town (where the high tech industry is centered), are net donors--their employment centers subsidize, to some extent, TriMet's operations. Much of Washington County is in this boat.
And prior to its withdrawl
How the pie is really sliced
Which brings us to the political realities of TriMet's service allocations. It needs to provide a minimum level of service to all parts of its service district, in order to keep the tax revenues funding--there are quite a few lines whose primary justification is preserving the service footprint. And those suburban communities which are net donors to TriMet, have leverage to insist upon a higher level of service than their land use and development patterns might otherwise merit. And leaders there are quite happy to let TriMet (and Metro) know this.
It's widely believed that the reason TriMet went ahead with WES, despite quite a bit of institutional doubt about the project (doubts which were proven to be valid), is that Washington County was threatening, behind closed doors, to pull a Wilsonville if it didn't get a bigger piece of the service pie.
If there's a good thing about WES--it's that its existence will likely keep Washington County from any secession threats in the future. After all, were the county to separate from TriMet, WES would then be their problem. WES is, in many ways, like an underwater mortgage that keeps a squabbling couple from getting that divorce that might just make one (or both) of them happier.
As a resident of the metro area who is concerned about good transit service for the entire region, it's a shame that things have to end up this way. As a resident of Washington County, it's a shame that county leaders blew their wad in way that backfired so spectacularly. But as a resident of the TriMet service district, and as a taxpayer and user of the service, I have little sympathy for residents and leaders of Wilsonville who are upset that WES might not run as frequently as they like.