Saturday, August 28, 2010

A new blog is born

This blog has been in existence for almost a year and a half now (and actively maintained for over half a year)--so it's time to announce the latest addition to my blogging empire. :)

the unpolished apple is a new blog covering public education from the point of view of a public school parent.  Whereas this blog focuses on transit issues (with a few other political forays), the apple will focus on education.

The two topics have some similarities which are worth noting.  Both are functions commonly provided by the government in the US (and elsewhere in the developed world), the structure of which is a hot subject of debate in this country.  Both public transit and public schools are also ground zero for discussions of organized public-sector labor, a topic which is becoming hotter as the economy gets tighter. 

A few differences, though, at least for me.  I'm a transportation nerd, so this blog is a bit of a hobby.  I'm not an education nerd--I don't have a love of (or expertise in) education theory.  So the apple will quite a bit more, pardon the term, consumer-focused than this blog--which tries to examine transit from all perspectives.

Go check it out!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Noticed on Twitter this morning:

Interleaved among the various tweets on politics, basketball, and other things I like to follow, were the following messages:

Joseph Rose pdxcommute
Can't believe I just saw a No 9 #trimet bus hit and run a parked car on NE Skidmore. #transitfail 

Followed by:

TriMet trimet
. @pdxcommute The incident was not a hit and run. Operator informed Dispatch and investigation is underway. #trimet 
Followed by one more tweet from Joseph Rose:

Joseph Rose pdxcommute
.@trimet ok. Thanks. It appeared that way. Operator didn't leave note on parked car she damaged. She just left the scene.

Interesting.  It appears that standard TriMet procedure for a minor accident (involving possible property damage, but no disability to the bus or injury to anyone) is to notify dispatch and carry on.  I am assuming that the notification to dispatch included the plate number of the struck vehicle, and that TriMet will be contacting the vehicle owner concerning settlement of any claims.

While I can understand the reason for this procedure--it's not good to delay a busload of commuters for a minor incident--is this legal?

ORS 811.700, which relates to the duties of drivers involved in collisions, says:

811.700. (1) A person commits the offense of failure to perform
the duties of a driver when property is damaged if the person is
the driver of any vehicle and the person does not perform duties
required under any of the following:
  (a) If the person is the driver of any vehicle involved in an
accident that results only in damage to a vehicle that is driven
or attended by any other person the person must perform all of
the following duties:
  (A)   Move the vehicle as soon as
possible off the roadway and to a suitable location. As used in
this subparagraph, 'suitable location' includes but is not
limited to an exit ramp shoulder, a frontage road and a cross
street that is not a main highway. 
  (B) Remain at the suitable location until the driver has fulfilled all of the
requirements under this paragraph.
  (C) Give to the other driver or passenger the name and address
of the driver and the registration number of the vehicle that the
driver is driving and the name and address of any other occupants
of the vehicle.
  (D) Upon request and if available, exhibit and give to the
occupant of or person attending any vehicle damaged the number of
any documents issued as evidence of driving privileges granted to
the driver.
  (b) If the person is the driver of any vehicle that collides
with any vehicle that is unattended, the person shall immediately
stop and:
  (A) Locate and notify the operator or owner of the vehicle of
the name and address of the driver and owner of the vehicle
striking the unattended vehicle; or
  (B) Leave in a conspicuous place in the vehicle struck a
written notice giving the name and address of the driver and of
the owner of the vehicle doing the striking and a statement of
the circumstances thereof.
(c) If the person is the driver of any vehicle involved in an
accident resulting only in damage to fixtures or property legally
upon or adjacent to a highway, the person shall do all of the
  (A) Take reasonable steps to notify the owner or person in
charge of the property of such fact and of the driver's name and
address and of the registration number of the vehicle the driver
is driving.
  (B) Upon request and if available, exhibit any document issued
as official evidence of a grant of driving privileges to the
driver.(2) Moving a vehicle as provided in subsection (1)(a)(A)
of this section does not affect any determination of fault or
liability for the accident.
(3) The offense described in this
section, failure to perform the duties of a driver when property
is damaged, is a Class A misdemeanor and is applicable on any
premises open to the public. 

The portion of the law that applies to striking a parked and unattended car is 1(b), which requires that the driver either "locate and notify" the owner of the vehicle, giving contact information, or leave a note providing those details.  Whether or not informing a dispatcher and permitting him to do so rather than stopping and doing it yourself, is a permitted substitute, I don't know.  (Certainly it falls within the spirit of the law, but as far as the letter of the law goes, IANAL).  There doesn't appear to be any exemption for transit operators, other professional motorists, etc.  However, ORS 809.404 does say the following:

   809.404 Disqualification from holding commercial driver license. (1) The Department of Transportation shall suspend a person’s commercial driver license or right to apply for a commercial driver license if the person is disqualified from holding a commercial driver license under this section. A person is entitled to administrative review under ORS 809.440 of a suspension under this section.
      (2) A person is disqualified from holding a commercial driver license if the person has two or more of any of the following in any combination:
      (a) A record of conviction for driving while under the influence of intoxicants under ORS 813.010 and the person was driving a motor vehicle or a commercial motor vehicle at the time of the offense.
      (b) A suspension of the person’s commercial driver license under ORS 813.410 for refusal to submit to a test under ORS 813.100 and the person was driving a motor vehicle or a commercial motor vehicle at the time of the offense.
      (c) A suspension of the person’s commercial driver license under ORS 813.410 because the person submitted to a breath or blood test and the person’s blood, as shown by the test, had 0.04 percent or more by weight of alcohol and the person was driving a commercial motor vehicle at the time of the offense.
      (d) A record of conviction under ORS 811.700 or 811.705 of failure to perform the duties of a driver and the person was driving a motor vehicle or a commercial motor vehicle at the time of the offense.

Given the consequences of hit-and-run for professional drivers, I would assume that all the i's are being dotted and all the t's crossed in his particular case--and that the procedure has been cleared with lawyers.

But to quote the epic poet Homer:


Update: Joseph Rose, who was apparently on scene and witnessed (and recorded) the incident, has video and commentary at the Hard Drive blog.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Detailed route map of 15-Belmont/NW 23rd, prior to service cut.  Courtesy of TriMet.

By now, Portland readers have probably heard quite a bit about the controversy surrounding TriMet's sudden decision to eliminate the NW Thurman branch of the 15-Belmont/NW 23rd line, due to stated safety concerns.  Residents along the affected stretch of Thurman are understandably upset about no more bus service (for some, the cancellation means a 3/4 mile hike to the nearest bus); and some have suggested that this is little more than a PR move, not a legit safety issue--as busses have been running this route for a long time without any major incidents.

I have serious questions about the lack of notice given to the public--it wasn't cool.  If this was done on advice of TriMet counsel, they should definitively say so. (On the other hand, I wondered over at if this might be a stealth service cut designed to save money; as TriMet appears to be simply routing all 15s on the Montgomery Park branch instead, it appears this is not the case--service hours are not being reduced).  TriMet appears to have gotten the message, and has announced plans to re-open the line starting Monday.  (If it isn't obvious, this post has been in the works for a few days...)

But this post isn't about the Terrible Thurman Truncation of '10.  It's about a possible solution to this problem, and to other problems, such as discussed in this post.

A possible solution:  A "micro-route"

Over in the same thread, I made the following suggestion:

My proposal would be to create a new line, which starts at PGE Park (where one can transfer to MAX or one of several other bus lines), takes 18th/19th to Thurman, and then heads up into the hills to the turnaround. And operate it with the paratransit vehicles. This line would be a short enough line that you don't need a full 40' bus, and the smaller vehicles, I would think, would alleviate the safety concerns. And add service to 18th/19th.
The details of the proposal don't matter much here--the 18th/19th routing and the PGE Park connection are features designed to provide service on a currently un-served street, and a connection to MAX; on further reflection a route down Everett/Glisan to Union Station might work better, simply because that routing provides a place where busses and drivers can take breaks.  (There's no room around PGE Park to park a bus for a spell).

30' busses (courtesy Wikipedia)
By "paratransit vehicles", I mean vehicles smaller than the standard 40' models used for the bulk of TriMet routes.  The agency has about 50 30'  busses, such as those shown to your right, and over 240 minibusses used for the LIFT paratransit service.  (Reportedly, there exists a 2400 series of busses are smaller than 30', though these don't appear to be in service any more).  Use of such rolling stock on the 15--a widely used frequent service route--would be inappropriate, but for a very short route, it's likely that a smaller vehicle will have more than sufficient capacity--and be able to execute the turnaround on Thurman safely and legally.

Hence the micro-route,

What is a micro-route?

A micro-route is a route which is shorter than standard routes.   Micro-routes will often have the following attributes:
  1. Short overall length, with a round trip time of an hour or less (and often a fraction of an hour).  A practical limit on standard bus service is no more than two hours or so from one end of the line to the other, with layovers at either end.  With longer routes, reliability suffers, and you start running interfering with the driver's breaks.  One-hour-each-way routes with a branch or loop (or both) at one end, such as the 15, are also common--the 15 lays over at Gateway TC but not at Montgomery Park.  With a micro-route, on the other hand, the route is run multiple times between breaks.  A bus running a Thurman/Union Station route could probably run the entire route 4-5 times in a two-hour span.
  2. Difficult geography which makes the use of full-size busses impractical.  This can be narrow roads, steep hills, tight turns--or politically-powerful NIMBYs terrified that a 40' bus rolling past their driveway is going to bring about Armageddon.  (Don't laugh).
  3. Connection to a transit center, both to provide a layover point, and due to attribute 1, it is expected that many riders of the micro-route will transfer.  Scratch that--it is expected that most of the micro-route riders will transfer; many micro-routes function as de-facto shuttle services.
  4. A reasonably predictable and continuous load pattern, so that passenger capacity isn't an issue (or if it is, can be dealt with by modest increases in frequency).  This is especially important for minibuses, which may not be configured to permit standing room.
Examples of such systems
Green public light bus (Wikipedia)

Hong Kong is an example of a city where such arrangements are commonplace.  In Hong Kong, in addition to the regular bus service, one encounters minibusses known as public light busses.  These busses come in two colors, green and red.  The red public light busses operate like jitneys or share taxis, and aren't relevant to this post, but the green ones operate fixed schedules just like regular bus service, simply with smaller vehicles.  Hong Kong bus operators also operate some of the "franchised" (full service) lines with two different vehicle sizes, with double-decker busses serving the busier routes, and 40' single-level busses serving he smaller and shorter ones. 

In both cases, these smaller types of busses serve generally short routes, connecting (for example) a transit center or marketplace (these things generally come together) with a housing estate (a common term for a large apartment building or other residential complex) or a small village communtity, both of which are abundant in the rural parts of the region.  The service that they often run is shuttle-like in nature, in that there are two distinct clusters of stops (often a single stop) on either end of the route, without much in between.  The primary franchised bus lines generally serve provide bidirectional service along a linear corridor, just like the vast majority of the bus lines in Portland do.

Where might such service work?

Besides Thurman, where the motivating factor is a geographical limitation, where else might similar types of service work in the Portland area?
  • Office park circulators.  One big issue with suburban office parks is that they are difficult to serve with traditional transit service.  They are often spread out over a large area, have tons of parking lots, and may contain streets that are difficult for large busses to maneuver on--and serving them adequately with mainline bus service often requires deviations which are annoying to the bulk of the riders, and inefficient to the agency.  The Cornell Oaks subdivision mentioned in this post (currently served by the 67 but not for long) is an extreme example of this, but many other examples abound.  Certain runs of the 43-Taylors Ferry, which nominally runs from downtown to Washington Square, venture west of the Square to run around the various industrial parks along SW Nimbus Avenue in south Beaverton, in a circulatory fashion.  This little jaunt has nothing to do with the primary corridor served by the line.  So, given that--why not disconnect it from the 47 and instead run a circulator service from the mall to the various office parks strip malls, and other commercial centers immediately surrounding it?  In addition to the high-tech businesses on Nimbus, it could also serve the strip malls and big-boxes on Cascade Avenue, the Tigard Medical Mall and Lincoln Center on Greenburg, and even venture over to the Tigard Triangle to hit Costco, Freddies, and the like.  (Many of these retail outlets employ low-wage workers who would benefit more from improved transit than would high-tech office workers along Nimbus).  
  • Shuttle service.  Many shuttle service connecting transit corridors with off-corridor destinations already exist, albeit provided by folks other than TriMet.  The shuttle from PCC-Sylvania to Barbur TC is one example--you can take the 44, but the shuttle provides additional frequency.  (You have to be affiliated with PCC to use it, however).  But there are other examples of major destinations with inadequate transit service.  Meridian Park Hospital, for instance, is a major full-service hospital surrounded by the usual assortment of clinics, doctors offices, and other ancillary medical services--but other than two 76s per hour, doesn't get any transit service.  Kaiser Sunnyside Hospital is in a similar situation--although the Green Line terminates a short distance away, the pedestrian exprience in the area is unpleasant, and the nearby bus services (155, 156, and 157) are all astonishingly infrequent.  Most other major Portland hospitals (OHSU, Emanuel, Good Sam, St. Vincent, Adventist) have one or more frequent service lines passing by the front door.
  • Other geographically difficult areasPortland is perhaps fortunate, compared to cities such as San Francisco and Seattle, in that early city planners didn't ignore topography when creating the street grid--Portland has no local equivalent to Lombard Street in SF or Broad Street in Seattle.  As a result, most of the area is reachable by bus, and the areas which aren't are in many cases not sufficiently inhabited to merit bus service.  But there are a few places which come in mind.  Were the Lake Oswego Streetcar project to be built, a line connecting it (in Riverdale) to Lewis and Clark College might be useful; but the most direct route up the hill is bus-unfriendly. 
A few other notes

I probably should add that the suggestions made above, are made as examples as much as anything--whether or not these would be productive lines (or be of sufficient importance to be funded in a limited-funding environment) is questionable.  TriMet has, I'm sure, considered many of these ideas.  Certainly, I wouldn't advocate cancelling any existing services in order to provide these.  But in the future, if gas were to become expensive and transit to become a first option for more resident, many of these routes might make sense. 

Passive aggression


Time to take a bit of a break from transit issues, and engage in a bit of media criticism.  Criticizing the mainstream media is a lot like fishing out of a stocked pond, or throwing paint on the wall--you're bound to hit something.  And criticizing CNN is particularly easy--but here goes anyhoo.

On the frontpage of, in the "politics" section, is generally found a pointer to CNN's political ticker,a blog covering US politics.  An article posted today thereon is entitled TRENDING: Dems call Miller an 'extremist', referring to cricitism of Alaska GOP Senate candidate Joe Miller, who may (pending the tally of absentee voters) have upset incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski.  Miller has some pretty far-out positions (if he wins, he will likely displace Nevada's Sharron Angle as the looniest Senatorial candidate to win a primary this election cycle)--rest assured that I'm no supporter of Miller, and would tend to agree with his critics in the Democratic Party.

But on the headline page, pointing to the article, we find this:  Ticker: GOPer called an 'extremist'

Notice the difference?

In the teaser headline, CNN uses the passive voice to exclude a very important piece of information, which would take the entire space of one word to convey:  just who made the accusation in question.  Given that the accusation comes from the political opposition, it's not altogether remarkable--but the phrasing of the teaser makes it appear that some neutral, authoritative party has pronounced judgment.

CNN does this all the time.  In this case, the victim is a conservative Republican, but Democrats (including President Obama) also receive this sort of passive aggression on a regular basis.  Countless times I've seen headlines like "Obama said to be in over his head", only to find out it's Sarah Palin or some other GOP partisan doing the saying.  Who cares?

But I guess--that's the point.  If the teaser had the same headline as the actual blog article, many folks wouldn't bother to click through.  OTOH, if and when they do click through--it's like the disappointment of Ralphie Parker when he finally got that Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, and discovered that the "secret message" from Annie was nothing more than an Ovaltine advertisement.


Monday, August 23, 2010

More on induced demand

A quick hit... Yglesias his another out of the park.  He write:

I feel certain that if Financial Times did an article about how some country’s determination to provide free bags of rice to all its citizens was leading people to spend a huge amount of time standing on line waiting for rice, that they would highlight the fact that this is what happens when you don’t price things correctly. There’s only so much rice. There are only so many hander-outers of rice. If you try to make the rice free to everyone, you’re going to get lines and shortages.
At any rate, as Clive Cookson points out in the FT a comparable problem exists on most countries’ roadways:

Read the full article, and this one in the Financial Times (registration required). As Matt points out, trying to eliminate congestion on roadways by adding capacity is like trying to give away free rice.  (Or free beer, which doesn't sound like a bad idea).  It's not exactly the same, of course, as people can hoard rice but it's not really possible to hoard space on the freeway--congestion relief is more akin to a service than a good--but making something really cheap (or nearly free) tends to encourage over-consumption.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Induced demand and transit

Jarrett, as he usually does, has another interesting post up on Human Transit on the subject of whether or not rail attracts more riders than bus.  He points to some research done by a Munich transit planner (who subsequently joins the conversation in the comments) suggesting that this is the case, comparing various mid-sized (under 500,000) European cities with trams and without, noting that the cities considered in the study who have trams generally have higher ridership than those without.

Jarrett asked the fundamental chicken-and-egg question:  Was the construction of streetcars (in most cases, lines running in an exclusive right-of-way, functionally more similar to the MAX Yellow Line than Portland Streetcar) a driver of demand, or a response to it?  In other words, "did the trams cause the ridership, or did the ridership cause the tram?"

The chicken...

This is a good question.  A big technical advantage of rail over bus is vastly greater passenger capacity--and many successful rail lines have been built in bus corridors that got too crowded.  A common argument against rail projects (or against capital-intensive busways) in corridors that aren't already crushloaded to the gills at three minute headways, is "the existing demand doesn't justify the investment".   One commentor, "Danny", asserted that:

All successful high speed rail systems were capacity expansions for crowded low speed rail systems. All failing systems were constructed under the impression that speed causes ridership. 

While I respectfully disagree with his use of the universal quantifier "all"; and I  disagree with the first half of his statement completely (I can think of many counter-examples), the second half of the sentence has a lot of truth:  Many "failing" systems (by which I assume he means systems with usage levels far less than predicted) were constructed based on ridership increases which didn't come too pass.  If you build a rapid transit line in place of a local bus line and cancel (or reduce in frequency) the latter, you already have established a reasonable floor for the utilization of the rapid transit line--the bulk of the bus passengers will switch.  OTOH, if you are anticipating additional ridership that isn't there... there's a far greater chance you will be wrong.

...or the egg?

But, there's also a good chance you'll be right.  The Munich transit planner who produced the above-referenced paper surfaced in the comments, and had this to say. 

When you have cities of a similar size and density usually you should expect a similar ridership of public transit. But obviously, in average, it is not like that. So I sent Jarrett the data as one indicator for this "tram bonus", as we call it, that is able to get people out of their cars, like a bus system would never be able to do it.
Even the successful BRT systems in different cities do usually just channel a demand that already exist, a high demand of captive riders. Who ever has a car in those cities still uses it. 
We believe in the ability of a tram system to attract more people, people who would never set a foot into a bus, and we invest a lot of money in that. And: no matter if we are right or wrong with this "belief", it does work indeed. We see the numbers, we see the ticket sales and it makes sense, even from the economic perspective. It does not make sense for any bus line, but you can expect to increase ridership in a dimension of 50% to 100% on a line, compared to the bus service. If that makes sense for you, then do it.
Doug Allen, a local transit advocate (who was involved in the planning for the initial MAX line, and still works for TriMet--his words, obviously, aren't necessarily the opinions of his employer) added his two cents:
I would agree with "TransitPlannerMunich" that experience with the conversion of a bus route to tram, in a city with a mature system of bus and rail, can provide insight into whether passengers prefer rail over bus.

The implementation of the "Yellow" light rail line in Portland Oregon also showed that a rail line that is shorter and less frequent than the bus service that it replaced can attract higher ridership, no matter how irrational this may seem.
Doug refers to the now-gone 5/Interstate, which ran from Hayden Island along Interstate Avenue to downtown Portland.  The Yellow Line doesn't presently serve the island, and runs at 15 minute headways, so in at least two respects, it's inferior to the bus service it replaced.

Neither Doug or "TransitPlannerMunich" offered any explanation why they observe a presence for rail; formal research on the "tram bonus" is inconclusive.  And other commenters wondered whether or not reconfigurations of bus service (converting parallel downtown routes into feeder routes) might boost rail ridership without boosting overall commute share.  Many properties which riders attribute to bus and rail, are often properties of the local implementation thereof--if, for example a transit agency operates 40' diesel busses through rough neighborhoods with no capital improvements on the bus routes, alongside modern light rail that sticks to the nicer parts of town--don't be surprised if local residents characterize the bus as dirty, noisy, slow, unreliable, and full of unsavory characters.  Bus can be clean and fast, and rail can be slow and uncomfortable; there is much overlap in the service parameters for both.   On the other hand, if there is a demonstrated community preference for one mode over the other--even if entirely irrational--that's something that ought to be factored into planning.

Induced demand

Which leads us to the subject of induced demand-- the "Field of Dreams" problem. ("If you build it, they will come").  If the supply of a given resource is increased, then more of it is often consumed.  This is especially true when the existing supply is insufficient (or barely sufficient) to meet the existing demand; there's often lots of pent-up demand that is more than happy to consume the new supply.  A related phenomenon is value-induced demand; if you increase the value (quality) of a resource, without increasing the cost, demand will also rise.  Both phenomena are in the realm of Economics 101.

Induced demand is frequently invoked in arguments concerning construction or expansion of freeways, where congestion relief is cited as a justification for the bulldozer and the mixer.  Highway opponents frequently point out that when freeway capacity is added, it frequently fills up with additional traffic, causing a failure to deliver on the expected congestion relief.  (Freeways suffer from a fundamental scalibility problem as well--additional traffic, even if below capacity, increases the chance of a wreck, stall, or other incident which severely impacts service.) 

But induced demand works for transit as well.  Transit opponents frequently point out the same thing about transit projects sold on the basis of congestion relief--even if the transit service attracts motorists out of their cars, other motorists often take their place.  But the principle applies:  When transit service improves, either in capacity or in quality, more people will elect to use it.  The improvement can be manifested in values which are easily measured--coverage, capacity, frequency, speed, reliability--or in those values which are less tangible and may reflect social facts or personal biases (comfort, prestige, sex appeal, environmental benefits, etc).  Either way, if you make a service more attractive to the population, more people will use it.  And the advantage that transit has over the automobile (considering only the geometric aspects of it, and ignoring the numerous negative externalities of cars which provide ample additional reasons for transit construction) is one of scalability at high density.
The reverse phenomenon is also readily observed:  when you cut service, ridership levels go down--decreases in line frequency or other service parameters will often drive riders to other modes, or to not make trips at all.

How badly do you want it?

These phenomena can be explained by the property of elasticity--a concept which is the way economists answer the question, "how badly do you want it?".  (Actually, it measures the inverse of that question--a lower elasticity means that the product or service is "wanted more badly").  Many transit advocates who know little about economics understand the fundamental concept of elasticity--the concepts of "choice riders" and "transit-dependent" refer to two different populations who express different elasticities with regard to their transit-using habits.  Choice riders express a high elasticity--meaning that their consumption (use) of transit is likely to change as the value proposition changes; if the fares go up or the frequency goes down, they stop riding, and if service improves, they may switch back to transit.  Transit-dependent riders express a low elasticity--they'll put up with a lot because they have no other choice, and conversely, improving service isn't likely to attract more transit-dependent riders, as those who need the service are already using it.  A third community to consider is the transit-averse:  those who won't use transit under any circumstances.  They also express a low elasticity, as improvements to the system are unlikely to entice them to increase their consumption (usage), which will remain at zero.

One interesting phenomenon concerning elasticity is that it goes up in a recession.  Even if the capacity remains adequate and the coverage remains the same, when a recession occurs, cuts to service are more likely to negatively affect ridership during hard times.  When a recession occurs and people lose their jobs, two things happen:  unemployed riders for whom transit demand was previously inelastic suddenly find it elastic, as they no longer need to be at work by a certain time.  And congestion on roadways decreases, increasing the relative value of driving for those who can drive (which is the majority of the population in most parts of the US)  .   This is why "death spirals" are a pressing problem for transit agencies during a recession--loss of revenue leads to service cuts which leads to loss of riders which leads to loss of revenue which leads to... you get the picture.  (When a transit agency finds itself in this situation, as TriMet appears to be, you had better hope that the pattern of panic/cut/cringe converges at a level well about zero).

Its all about the values

When publicly-operated rapid transit projects are proposed, there are often several reasons offered to justify the expenditure of public funds:
  • Increasing coverage
  • Increasing capacity
  • Increasing service quality
  • Decreasing operating costs
  • Environmental outcomes
  • Land-use outcomes
  • Economic development
The first three are important to transit users (and potential users).  The others are important to other constituencies (the transit agency, the public at large, etc) and won't be considered further.  Whether any of these are important to a given rider or group depends on what the rider or group's goals are.  And if a person takes a more minimalist view of transit--s/he may not be interested in attracting riders to the system--and consider expenditures for that purpose a waste of money. While I can't point to research to back it up, it seems apparent that many of those who adapt the minimalist point of view are those for whom transit demand is most inelastic.  the transit dependent, who have every reason to be skeptical of proposed new projects--many of which will benefit some other community and adversely affect the particular service they depend on; and the transit-averse, who won't ride the system at all, and may view the entire enterprise as a big waste of money.

This dichotomy may affect one's answer to the question posed by Jarrett at the top of this article.   It's a common psychological phenomenon to project ones thoughts and beliefs onto others.  Thus, if an individual's personal demand for transit is inelastic (or one's own personal value system WRT transit focuses on tangible service parameters such as coverage, capacity, and performance, and disregards things like amenities or social acceptance), s/he may assume that this is true for others--and question the claim that improving transit quality may increase ridership.  Likewise, if a person's personal transit demand is highly elastic (or is motivated by factors specific to a particular mode choice), s/he may assume that increasing service levels (including by conversion to rail) will axiomatically drive up demand--and further assume that what is important to him/her, is important to everybody, thereby causing an overestimation of the induced demand.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between, and ought to be determined empirically rather than by ideological catfights between different communities and constituencies.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The problem of wide corridors

One longstanding characteristic of public transit, is its linear nature.  Transit systems are generally (and ideally) organized in lines, on which some vehicle travels progressively from point A to B, and then in the reverse direction.  Not all such lines are geographically straight, of course, and many systems also feature loops with no discernible endpoints--but even in those cases, the vehicle makes progress towards some goal or direction, stopping along the way to let folks on or off.  Vehicles cannot be in more than one place at a time, nor do they (Amtrak's Empire Builder notwithstanding), split into two to serve different sets of destinations simultaneously.  Lines can branch, but you lose frequency on the branches--individual busses or trains running on the line can only serve one branch or the other, not both. (see Jarrett's excellent presentation for more on branching, and numerous other topics). 

But what happens when you have a wide corridor--a geographic area which is linear in shape, but where the key destinations don't lie in a convenient linear arrangement?


67 Map, courtesy of TriMet
Consider TriMet's 67 Jenkins/158th route, driven by our good buddy Al (who wants it known that he doesn't speak for TriMet, or his union, or anyone else but himself).   This route run between PCC Rock Creek and Beaverton Transit Center.  The primary routing is kind of zig-zag (the as-the-crow-flies direction is diagonal, but the streets for the most part are not), but that's close enough to linear for our goals.  However, the route contains two backtracking deviations, or as I prefer to call them, "cherries"--places where the bus leaves the main street, goes some distance to reach an important destination, turns around and backtracks, and then rejoins the primary service corridor.  One of these cherries, serving the Cornell Oaks business park, will be eliminated in September (a move praised by Jarrett).  The other, a shorter-stemmed cherry serving the Merlo/158th MAX station, remains in place. 

Or consider the proposed Barbur Boulevard corridor for a new MAX or BRT line.  Between downtown Portland and Tigard, there are several highly-important destinations (Tigard TC, Washington Square mall, PCC Sylvania, Barbur TC, Hillsdale, OHSU-Marquam Hill)--all of which, except for Barbur TC, aren't on Barbur.  A simple line parallel to the existing boulevard misses most of the action in the corridor--which is why various proposals for tunnels get floated about.  (I have no objection in principle to the proposal, but I seriously doubt that TriMet can afford it).

Or consider the Washington Square WES station.  Of course--there is no such thing; the nearest station to the mall is the Hall/Nimbus station (which isn't even located on Nimbus Avenue).  The mall is located about 2000' to the east, across a busy freeway and a major thoroughfare.  Connecting bus service is actually pretty good (between the 76 and 78, and the occasional 43, up to six busses per hour connect the Nimbus Avenue stop with the mall--that's more frequent than WES itself), but the transfer to the bus lines plying Hall Boulevard is a bit inconvenient, especially in bad weather.  WES was constrained to operate on the existing freight tracks, which lie on the opposite side of the freeway--but the mall is one of the most important destinations in the corridor. 

Wide corridors--sets of destinations which are clustered around some linear corridor but not sufficiently close enough to it (or across some barrier)--cause lots of problems for transit.  Serving them adequately requires diluting available service hours over greater numbers of route-miles--resulting in a net decrease in service quality.  In some cases, rapid transit lines may not be practical due to dispersed demand--and in the worst cases, the only sorts of services which are practical are inefficient "social service" routes.

What to do, what to do

Some possible solutions to wide corridors are discussed below.  These aren't solutions in the sense that they solve the fundamental problem; however they are different ways to provide service in a difficult situation.
Courtesy of

  • Longer routes.  One way to serve the major destinations in a wide corridor is to lengthen the route.  The "cherry" mentioned above is one case; serpentine routes such as a proposal for Maryland's "corridor cities" are another example.  Either way, lengthening the route to cover the greater distances imposed by dispersed destinations effectively slows down the line, making it less attractive to riders.
  • Splitting and branching.  If most of the trips are between destinations along the corridor and destinations elsewhere, branching may be an option.  Branching reduces frequency in the branches, of course, so doing so may also make the service less attractive; it makes travel between branches more difficult.   If the line requires fixed infrastructure, such infrastructure needs to be built on both branches.  One useful option here, though, is "open BRT"--the trunk can often be built to high busway standards, with the branches running in mixed traffic--if the branches are short, this arrangement often results in service of reasonable quality.
  • Transferring.  One reason "grid" or "fishbone" arrangements are useful is that intersecting lines can be used to provide service to destinations which are slightly off-track, while keeping the trunk line straight and fast.  This depends a lot on the quality of the transfers, obviously--if getting the last mile requires a 20-minute wait on the side of a road in the rain, this is not an attractive option.  If, on the other hand, transfers can be timed and waiting occurs in a protected space, this is an excellent option.

Mid-levels escalator (HK), image courtesy Wikipedia
  • Dedicated connecting service.  This is a subset of transferring, but the previous paragraph assumes a generic line that happens to pass close to a point of interest, but serves much else beyond.  A dedicated connecting service, on the other hand, provides point-to-point service between a station on the trunk line, and a given destination.  Such services may take the form of shuttle busses (such as the shuttles running between PCC-Sylvania and Barbur TC), a dedicated people mover (the Portland Aerial Tram functions in this fashion; even though its primary purpose is not connecting the Marquam Hill campus to the Portland Streetcar), or even a special-purpose transit line (such as the "Disneyland Subway" in Hong Kong).  With a dedicated service, there's ample room for creativity--the mode used might be outside the norm of services typically provided by the transit authority--and might not be funded by the transit authority anyways.  The dedicated service might even be passive--a skybridge or tunnel where people walk, for instance, but one which lets users avoid weather, obstacles, traffic, or difficult terrain. Generally, a destination has to be fairly major to justify this sort of infrastructure, but things like gondolas, shuttles, elevated walkways, public elevators and escalators, moving sidewalks, and such are all pressed into service to connect a transit line to the places people ultimately want to go.  (Many of these things additionally benefit pedestrians who aren't using the transit line as part of their trip).

Of course, as numerous writers cited above have pointed out, the best way to deal with this problem is to avoid it.  Good land-use planning can avoid widely-dispersed destinations--and result in land-use outcomes which are easier to provide service to.  The benefits accrue to well beyond transit--many other public goods, from police and fire protection to utilities, are cheaper and easier to provide if confined within a smaller space (It ought to be noted that automobiles, on the other hand, frequently benefit from dispersion--mainly due to their need for parking when not in use).  But there are many existing wide corridors which need service; and many popular corridors can be victimized by their own success--attracting development which widens the corridor as the closest lots become scarce and/or expensive.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Transit minimalism, and why the left and the right frequently come together to oppose rail

The Milwaukie MAX project, and its escalating costs and increasingly unstable funding, has become a prime target of criticism.  While I'm critical of quite a few particulars of the project (its cost, for one; it's routing, for another)--most of my criticisms center around particulars of the project itself and the current economic climate.  I think the corridor in question needs to have rapid transit of some form--by which I mean "real" rapid transit that runs mostly (if not completely) in an exclusive right-of-way.  Rail or bus is a secondary concern.

However, much of the criticism of the project goes well-beyond the details of Milwaukie MAX, and instead takes the form of an outright anti-rail position.  Several different identifiable factions have been advancing anti-rail positions, asserting that TriMet ought to cancel the project outright, and not advance any other rail projects for the foreseeable future.  (Occasionally one even sees the suggestion that the existing MAX lines ought to be dismantled and replaced with something else; a position I won't consider further).  Many of these factions have entirely different motivations and goals--in some cases, they even conflict--but their positions all lead them to the same conclusion.

The positions in question, and several others, were previously discussed in this post on transit agency missions; here we focus on only three.  Some of the criticisms discussed herein extend to other forms of rapid transit as well, such as BRT; others are rail-specific.

Social justice

One common set of light-rail critics are to be found in the community of activists desiring social and economic justice.   A prominent such organization in Portland is OPAL (Organizing People/Activating Leaders), which has, on numerous occasions, called for TriMet to halt future light rail constructions and instead provide more bus service.  OPAL's John Ostar, speaking to TriMet on the proposed property tax levy now on the November ballot, had this to say:

What we're doing – what you're doing, essentially, is requiring voters to pass bonds for absolutely essentially service, essential infrastructure, basic infrastructure. Things that we have payroll tax revenue to pay for. But instead, we're now using that payroll tax revenue to pay for non-essential service – light rail - and requiring voters to pass bond measures to pay for essential service. I think that we have it backwards.

Emphasis added by me.  Clearly, Ostar considers light rail to be a "non-essential" service--an interesting position to take given that 1/3 of unlinked trips are on MAX and not bus.  But when you consider what OPAL considers important, and what they do not, it makes perfect sense:
  • OPAL, and similar advocates, think that a key part of TriMet's mission ought to be providing transit to the "transit-dependent"--people who cannot afford an automobile, or who otherwise cannot drive.  Given that the transit-dependent (and their destinations) are often widely-dispersed in the region, that leads to service patterns which require coverage of a large area rather than focusing on a smaller corridor--a pattern of service that is easier to provide with busses (and in many cases, with paratransit).
  • Poverty advocates are generally less concerned with attracting "choice riders", providing extensive service to wealthier parts of town, increasing transit's mode share, or using transit as a land-use tool.  Amenities beyond basic coverage and service frequency/speed/reliability are deemed unimportant.  They are especially  wary of anything that looks or smells like gentrification--almost always a bad thing if you're poor.  (Your neighborhood might improve, but you won't be able to afford it anymore).  Many of the stated goals of rapid transit--especially rail--are simply unimportant to advocates to the poor, and some are viewed with hostility.
  • Many poverty advocates are generally distrustful of government--which is often seen as in the hands of the wealthy and powerful, and inherently indifferent (or hostile) to the interests of the disadvantaged.   Such advocates, when a large project is proposed by the government, frequently start to smell a rat.
In a world with unlimited funding (or at least in one in which comprehensive, quality bus service is provided), I suspect that capital-intensive projects would not raise much objections among the social justice community--especially if the projects were demonstrated to improve service in ways that were considered important--but in a limited funding environment, any concentration of resources on a particular corridor is problematic--especially if the result of such concentration is higher rents along the line.

Economic conservatives

A second group who can be counted on to oppose capital transit projects are what I'll call "economic conservatives"--a group which includes libertarians, many Republicans, and a broader spectrum of the population that objects to high(er) taxes for services they consider to be wasteful or non-essential.  Motivations can range from ideological ("transit shouldn't be provided by the government"), to financial ("I don't want to pay for transit I don't intend to use"), to skepticism concerning particular agencies ("Sam Adams/TriMet/Metro are all crooks"), to hostility toward the community of transit users ("Those damn hippies ought to get a job and buy a car like the rest of us").  This community also includes a fair amount of lobbyists for industries (auto, petrochemical) which frequently regard transit as competition.  With the financial crisis and economic downturn, calls for greater fiscal austerity ("light rail is a luxury we can't afford") get added to the mix. 
The overriding concern for this group is that dedicated-ROW rapid transit, particularly rail, is too expensive.  While some in this group would eliminate public transit altogether, there is a significant faction that supports what I call "subsistence transit"--transit that provides basic mobility to those who have no other choice, but of a quality which is so low that only the desperate (or dedicated) would use it.  Almost invariably, this means POBS ("plain old bus service"), usually running at low frequencies--virtually any capital improvement to the system or attempt to provide frequent service (other than in places and times where the busses are crowded otherwise) is, by definition, superfluous.  This may superficially appear to be similar to the social justice position--which also isn't interested in expansive service--but differs in several important ways.  Where as the social justice advocate generally wants to provide decent transit to the communities s/he represents, those supporting subsistence transit generally care first and foremost about cost.
While some conservatives do generally care about (and will defend) basic levels of transit service; there are others who want to do away with it altogether--and frequently use the characteristics of "social service" transit to attack transit.  Social service transit is inefficient by its nature (the busses are often empty); and that is used to advance arguments that the transit agency is incompetent (otherwise the busses would be full!), or that transit is not environmentally friendly (an empty bus is less fuel-efficient than a single-occupant automobile, after all), or that it's wasteful because hardly anyone uses it (which is, after all, the point).
Conservatives are also frequently skeptical about politics and government in general--especially in large cities, where the political scene is often dominated by liberals.  Charges that rapid transit projects are exercises in "social engineering", or represent forthcoming Soviet-style totalitarianism, or are intended to enrich labor unions, are common.

Speaking of unions...

A third constituency which is often hostile to rapid transit, especially rail, is transit unions--and the reason is obvious:  Jobs.  The biggest operating cost for transit agencies is labor; and one of the selling points of rapid transit--especially rail--is that you can provide the same capacity and service levels with fewer payroll hours.  While this can mean increases in service without corresponding increases in labor cost, in practice it often means reductions in hours, or layoffs.  And while some transit agencies (such as Muni in San Francisco) are notoriously labor-friendly, in most cases, the agency and its workforce have a relationship that is at least somewhat antagonistic.

What do these all have in common?

What do these positions have in common?  Several things:
  • A belief that the specific benefits provided by rapid transit are unimportant, and thus not worth spending money on.
  • A desire for transit minimalism--lack of interest in increasing ridership or service beyond some baseline level which is held to be "good enough"; in particular, a lack of interest in attracting "choice riders" to the system.
  • A lack of confidence in transit management/governance, often causing disbelief in the stated goals of the project(s) in question, and/or the projections concerning population growth, future ridership demands, and future revenue used to justify such projects.  In many cases, this is expressed as a public officials are acting in bad faith.
Of course, the different groups have lots of things which are not in common--fundamentally, social justice advocates are interested in service quality; conservatives in minimizing public costs; and labor advocates in maintaining payrolls and jobs.  These things are all somewhat in conflict--if you reduce the budget, you either have to slash service (and hours) or wages.  Increase wages, and either revenue must increase or service must be cut.  And increasing service requires either new revenue, or wage concessions. But in all cases, there is a fear that if money is diverted from the taxpayers, or existing uses, to fund new capital construction--that there won't be any return on that investment or expenditure.   And driving that fear, in many cases, is a lack of trust in the transit agency.

When someone makes a statement that light rail is not an "essential service", or that it is "anti-transit"--it is good to ask of them what their vision for the transit system is.  Chances are, their vision is one of minimalism--they believe that transit has a limited (and specific) role to play in the overall economy and infrastructure of a place, and that attempts at expansion are out of line.

A few final thoughts

Many transit activists, including yours truly, don't subscribe to the minimalist philosophy.  After all, we (as a society) haven't practiced minimalism when it comes to road-building over the past century--there's scarcely a capacity problem on the roads that doesn't provoke calls to build more of them.  And the result is a mess--and will become a larger mess the next time gas heads north of $4 a gallon.  I'm not a maximalist, either--I'm fully cognizant of the political and financial constraints which are in place, and believe that projects need to undergo public scrutiny.

However, the absolutist positions expressed by some, are extensively troubling.  They're political arguments couched as technical arguments.  (This is true for light-rail supporters as well).  It's far more open and honest to say things such as "I think TriMet should focus on social service to the poor, and not on trying to attract motorists from their cars", rather than attacking a particular mode choice as unsound.  It's better to have an open debate about values--what sort of service should be provided, then cloud that debate in pissing matches about bus vs rail.  Because that's what the debate is really about.  Arguments about mode choice are really arguments about values, and the vast majority of participants in transit blogs (including myself) have only a superficial understanding about the limitations of various technologies--often colored by what TriMet (or whoever the local transit agency is) does in practice. 

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Transit and safety

Over at, a frequent poster who is a harsh TriMet critic posted a news item concerning a recent act of violence involving the MAX system.  Apparently, a pair of hoodlums were having a smoke at Gateway TC, when a TriMet employee and an off-duty deputy (who flashed a badge at 'em) told them to put it out.  They did, but got on the same southbound Green Line train as the deputy, and after the cop got off the train at Clackamas Town Center, the two men jumped him.  The attackers were quickly subdued and arrested, but the deputy suffered a few minor injuries.

The thread quickly turned into a heated debate about transit safety, or Why (Everyone Thinks) Transit Is Dangerous.  The incident is an isolated one, no civilians were injured, and the security personnel involved did their jobs.  Yet the attack was featured on no less than three different evening news programs, and prompted a few of the local anti-transit advocates to fan the "TriMet is unsafe" flames.  (Disclaimer:  Some of the content here was taken from my comments on that thread...I'm a sucker for a good heated debate).

Is TriMet dangerous?

The safety of TriMet has been in the news quite a bit.  There are two essential components of safety--risk of accidents, and risk of crime--and TriMet has attracted much bad press (some of it deserved) on both counts.  A series of high-profile attacks on the Eastside Blue Line a few years back prompted TriMet to install fare gates at some platforms (the system mainly runs on the proof-of-payment system; the fare gates are intended to keep thugs off the line under the theory that potential violent offenders are also likely fare-jumpers).  Recently, the Clackamas County Sheriff complained that crime had risen in the vicinity of Clackamas Town Center since the Green Line opened.  TriMet disputes these claims, and has been trying to get clarification on these claims--including information as to whether apprehended miscreants were (ab)using MAX, or whether the new park-and-ride is an attractive target for thieves, or whether this is just a result of increased traffic, increased law enforcement presence, or coincidence.  It's worth noting that the sheriff has publicly complained about tax-increment financing for the Milwaukie Line, so there's some evidence of a strained relationship between his department and TriMet.

TriMet has been fortunate in that it has not experienced any accidents resulting in serious injury to passengers in quite a while.  However, pedestrians and cyclists have not been as fortunate, and there have been several incidents in recent years of walkers and bikers being struck by busses and trains--in some cases, the fault of the operator, in others, the fault of the person struck.  After the April 2010 accident where a bus ran down five pedestrians in a crosswalk, killing two, the agency engaged in much navel-gazing, culminating with the appointment of a director of safety; who reports directly to the general manager.    

Or are standards too high?

Certainly, TriMet has had problems.  But are expectations too high for the agency (or conversely, too low for other forms of transport?

One common area of criticism from many critics is that the agency doesn't "do enough" to promote safety.  There are often calls for the agency to hire more security and more fare inspectors, to install fare gates on more of the system, or to even close stations in blighted areas.  Often, such calls come with the expectation that the cost of this will be borne by the agency and its passengers--not by additional tax increases beyond what the agency already receives--implying that the difference will need to be made up by lesser service, higher fares, or both.

But is this fair?  States, counties, and local governments in Oregon spend hundreds of millions, if not billions, on police officers (and other emergency responders) designated to traffic patrol--essentially, security services for roads and highways.  The Oregon State Police patrol division--which doesn't do anything but patrol the state highways of Oregon--has a budget of over $100 million.  The thirty-six county sheriffs and numerous municipal police departments in the state likewise devote considerable resources not to crime prevention or investigation, but to nabbing speeders and drunks and cleaning up accidents.  And virtually all of this police work is paid for out of the general fund.  There aren't suggestions that ODOT ought to pay for the OSP Patrol Division out of gas tax proceeds (in fact, OSP was funded by gas taxes in the past, but the law was changed twenty years ago).  Patrolling the highways and byways (and many other public speces) is generally assumed to be part of the job description of police--they just do it.  However, patrolling transit is treated by many law enforcement agencies like a budget-busting headache.

Of course, the "transit is dangerous" meme is an old one.  There are some places where public transit is (or was at one point) the exclusive province of the poor, and violent incidents on bus lines or subways are not uncommon.  Many people are uncomfortable travelling with other demographic groups, and this discomfort is often perceived as a safety issue.  Even in New York City, where busses and trains run every few minutes, you can get anywhere on transit, and driving is miserable--there are lots of residents who use taxis to get around.

A question of structure

But this debate poses an interesting question:  Why has there been complaints from law enforcement about servicing transit, when you don't hear the same complaints uttered about patrolling parks, highways, local streets and sidewalks, shopping malls, and other public (and quasi-public) places? 

Part of the issue might be one of structure.  There are several different arrangements by which public services (public works, police, fire, transit, schools, ports, utilities, etc.) can be provided by the government:
  • As a department within "general" government (a city, state, county, or national government agency)--where the head of the department in question reports to, and serves at the pleasure of, elected officials.
  • As a department within a larger general government, where the department head is him/herself an elected official; a common example in Oregon are county sheriffs.  
  • As a "special district", separate from any mainline government agency, where a board of directors is elected by the voters, and in turn hires a manager, approves budgets, etc.
  • As a commission, or similar arrangement, where an independent agency has directors which are appointed by an elected official.  Unlike department heads, who serve at the pleasure of their superiors in mainline government, the commissioners in such an arrangement are often appointed for fixed terms, and in many cases cannot be removed without due process (and generally not without cause).
Many public services can also be provided by the private sector; those arrangements aren't relevant to this post.

In a post at The Urbanophile, Aaron Renn mentioned an article concerning mergers among fire departments in the Midwest, and whether that would produce cost savings or not.  He concluded his remarks with this:

I’m generally all in favor of eliminating non-general purpose units of governments that aren’t controlled by elected officials of a real government that people actually care about (e.g., a city or county). But not for merger related savings, which don’t seem to exist. 

In a comment, he added the following:

I do dislike special districts that aren’t accountable. Indiana township government is a perfect example. Indiana townships are not general purpose governments. They provide only certain functions like poor relief and fire departments (mostly in rural areas). They are controlled by their own elected officials, who operate largely out of sight, out of mind with the public. Unsurprisingly, the trustees and boards who run them do so as if they were personal fiefs, often employing relatives, and giving themselves generous pay and benefits for almost no work. Center Township in Indianapolis, for example, which is entirely inside the city limits, has amassed a huge property portfolio and over $10 million in cash for no apparent purpose.

Schools are another interesting one. They are often a similar case. I support mayoral control of schools, generally.

This old school notion of Tocquevillian style government with a plethora of elected officials and a patchwork of jurisdictions is simply not relevant in the current era. For sure it doesn’t work, or get the benefits that Tocqueville saw from it today. I do happen to think there’s a loss there. For example, we’ve seen the rise of the political class versus the citizen government ideal of old. But we can’t roll back the clock, and today’s urban scale is very different from the past.

In general, my preference is for competent governance.  Muni is subordinate to the city of San Francisco, and the service their stinks in large part because city government is famously dysfunctional.  However, Renn has a point.  Many special districts are run by officials who are elected in noncompetitive elections that nobody cares about.

But another issue, that is relevant to this post--is that in Oregon, transit authorities are generally special districts (TriMet is run by a governor-appointed commission); whereas the police and public works are generally part of mainline government.  While Metro and other MPOs can help bridge differences; it often remains the case that public agencies which are not part of a common reporting structure will have different organizational missions and goals.  Communication may be deficient--as nobody is responsible for the intersection of the services provided.  They may compete with each for public resources, and in some cases, may actively try to undermine each other.  Such arguments may occur within mainline government of course, but when two departments are part of the same larger organization; there is a built-in means for resolving such disputes. 

This arrangement can have consequences beyond law enforcement complaining about the cost of patrolling transit.  Jarrett blogs about a recent event in Ottawa, wherein construction crews tore up a downtown stretch of the Ottawa Transitway, without informing the transit agency--resulting in a major disruption of bus service.  And many efforts to install BRT are routinely stymied by public works departments, who view signal priority for busses with hostility--understandable, as their organizational mission is often centered on efficiently moving cars.

Quick hits

  • Next Monday, leaders from various local, regional, and state governments will get together to vote on what design for the Columbia River Crossing to proceed with.  Metro and the City of Portland have jointly announced that they will vote for the 10-lane solution, initially striped for 8 lines if possible, with a separate connection to Hayden Island from Marine Drive (across the south channel), instead of an interchange on I-5.
  • TriMet bus driver Al Margulies, whose blogging activities prompted a rule change at the agency concerning what drivers can do while operating a bus, is shutting down his blog, apparently at the behest of TriMet management.  Al has long been a great source and great friend for the Dead Horse Times, I'll miss his online presence.  (And hope he keeps commenting here, at, and elsewhere...)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Tax increment financning and transit

Last week, the web site posted a five-part series of an interview with new TriMet director Neal McFarlane.  The interview touched on numerous topics, but a significant portion of the video dealt with the current financing crisis at the agency (and at many other transit agencies, and state and local governments in general).  One of the more contentious topics was the use of tax increment financing to pay for improvements to transit infrastructure and service. 

The video included several people giving testimony at a TriMet board meeting, in opposition to the practice--including the sheriff of Clackamas County and the chief of Clackamas Fire District, whose territories are served by the MAX Green Line, and the planned Milwaukie extension.  Both of them complained that TIF, which has been used in the past to finance improvements to the transit system, was hampering the finances of their respective departments, by simultaneously creating new demands for service and depriving them of revenue with which to provide that service.  Also appearing in the video was conservative political activist Steve Schopp, who has engaged the producers of the video (and yours truly) in the comment threads at portlandtransport.

And while I disagree with much of what Steve has to say, on this issue he's got a valid point.

What is TIF?

Tax-increment financing (TIF) refers to a means of public financing whereby the portion of property taxes (or other taxes) collected on certain parcels of land, which goes to the general fund, is frozen--with the difference being used to finance capital projects designed to improve the value of said parcels (and bring about some public benefit as well).  Generally bonds are issued to finance the actual project, and the tax-increment is used to pay back the bonds until they are retired.  This is especially important for Oregon, where Ballot Measures 47/50 limit property tax increases to 3% per year; unless the property in question is , or the taxes are to service bonded indebtedness.  TIF seems simple enough, but it has a few issues, even when used "properly":

  • Inflation may not be accounted for--if baseline costs to provide government services are rising due to inflation, but the revenue provided is frozen, cuts to service may result.
  • Sometimes the new development may increase the need for government services, such as turning a brownfield into a dense mixed-use residential zone.  Brownfields seldom need service from the police or paramedics, whereas places where people live often do.
The graph to the side, apparently designed by local TriMet critic (and frequent commenter) Jim Karlock for an anti-urban-renewal article at, demonstrates how it works.  Whether or not the section labelled "red ink" is truly red depends on how expenses grow or shrink; in a well-designed TIF the red ink is minimal or nonexistent.

When does TIF work?

TIF works best when the following conditions are met:
  • The improvements are largely specific to those parcels being tabbed for tax-increment financing. 
  • The improvements may decrease, or at least minimize the increase, the need for public expenditures
  • The resulting property value increases are of sufficient magnitude that the bonds can be paid of quickly, returning the full value of the tax base to the general fund.
A common use of TIF that meets these requirements is certain types of urban renewal; where blighted neighborhoods are rebuilt.  Urban renewal of this sort satisfies the conditions--specific lots are affected, the improvements are frequently substantial, and the elimination of blight and the related social pathologies may well reduce public expenses.  (This analysis ignores the effects of gentrification--in particular, the beneficiaries of such projects are often landlords and developers, not people who live there who may be forced out due to higher rents or taxes.  But that's another subject).

What about infrastructure?

What about public infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, or transit lines?  At a neighborhood level, TIF (or better yet, Local Improvement Districts, where specific local taxes are levied against a neighborhood to pay for improvements), it can work.  But for major regional infrastructure projects, such as freeways or MAX lines, not so much:

  • Many demands for service are not reduced, and may increase, if the improvements result in more people living in the area (or travelling through).
  • Such things are built on public rights-of-way (whether on easements or owned by the public outright), not on private lots subject to taxation--in other words, the directly affected land is off the tax rolls.  Instead, TIF depends on general increases in the value of nearby properties to work.
  • For large-ticket projects, the size of the TIF district needs to be also large; magnifying the risk to other government functions should the projected increases in value not materialize, or should inflation or other causes increase government expenses unrelated to the project, which must be met with a frozen tax base.
What's the best way to finance major infrastructure projects?  For large capital projects which are regional in scope--the traditional way (an explicit bond measure backed by a specific tax levy) is probably the cleanest way to do it--it doesn't affect existing services, it demonstrates political will to do the project, and it represents a stable source of revenue which makes lenders happy, lowering the cost of financing.


Unfortunately, TriMet lost a measure in 1996.  Actually it was a statewide measure, Measure 32, that authorized using lottery funds to fund the N/S MAX project and numerous road projects elsewhere--one that was put before voters during the height of the Oregon tax revolt.  But it failed--and since then, TriMet seems terrified to go before the voters to raise money for capital projects (or to use existing bonding authority that it has used but has not exercised).  Instead, we get things like TIFs, bonding payroll tax revenues (the source of much of TriMet's operating budget), and the like to fund capital projects.

Some parting advice

A bit of advice to TriMet.  Your service area includes Portland.  A place which is highly transit-friendly.  The greater Portland metro area, excluding Vancouver, presently sends THREE Democrats to Congress.  I don't expect either Wu or Blumenauer to lose this November; Kurt Schrader is a bit more vulnerable, but the GOP has nominated yet another nutcase.  While the following advice might not fly during the current recession, what with everyone grabbing their wallets, I will nonetheless offer it:

Trust the voters.  The bulk of the populace supports transit, especially if you can convince them that you know what you are doing, and aren't just wasting taxpayer money on patronage projects.  Demonstrate some fiscal soundness, quit f---ing around with crazy financing schemes, grow a pair, and put a bond levy for Milwaukie MAX on the ballot.  Or better yet, put a levy for MLR, Barbur, and improvements for the WES corridor on the ballot, so all three counties get some cake.  Even better than that, put different proposals on the ballot (light rail, BRT) and let the people decide what quality of transit they are willing to pay for.  Or not.

But enough with the current "system" of scraping together funds from a zillion different sources to pay for major infrastructure projects.  It makes it look like TriMet and Metro are trying to hide something; it puts you in hock to a whole lot of folks who don't give a damn about quality transit, and when it results in service cuts, it alienates the demographic you can least afford to alienate--your current supporters. 

As stated previously, the appointment of a new GM is an opportunity, a chance to wipe the slate clean, and break from the past policies of the agency which have been met with much scorn. 

And after all--if you don't trust the voters, why the hell should they--should we-- trust you?