Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Just how SMART is Wilsonville, anyway?

TriMet, after two rounds already of budget cuts due to declining revenues caused by the recession (both in terms of tax receipts--higher unemployment means fewer payroll taxes to collect--and ridership--higher unemployment means fewer people riding the bus), is now looking at a third round.

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 19801988 to operate their own transit agency, SMART.   Wilsonville, apparently, is upset that TriMet is considering reductions in service to WES, the commuter rail boondoggleline which connect Wilsonville to Beaverton (where one can continue on to Portland or Hillsboro via MAX--without paying any additional fare).   The editorial also expresses dismay that the city of Tualatin, which is still part of TriMet, augments the WES service with a city-provided shuttle service--something which the writer thinks that TriMet ought to provide, instead.

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.

What's fair?

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 in 1980, so was Wilsonville.  In 1980That year, the city of Wilsonville was a mixture of high-tech campuses, farmland, a mental hospital, and a truck stop on I-5.  It had a very small residential population, and tons of high-tech, high-paying jobs.  It provided a significant part of TriMet's tax revenue, for which it received a handful of lines heading downtown.  In 1980, Wilsonville decided to take the money and run.   To its credit, it launched its own transit service--SMART, which provides circulator service within the city.  SMART also provides connecting service to TriMet in Tualatin and Tigard, and a line into the city of Salem.  Most SMART services are free, and as mentioned above, SMART has a nice, clean balance sheet.

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.


  1. LOL!
    Interesting analysis indeed!

    However, Washington county has no contracts on their back, that's a Trimet problem.

    To me, a west-side bus driver, Washington county does indeed get the short end of the Trimet stick.

    Westside is the part of Trimet that Fred does not want the news media to see.

    As long as Fred and Trimet keep focus on Portland then they will be 'respected' in the transit hierarchy where the big shots live.

  2. A few things:

    1) Wilsonville withdrew from TriMet in 1988, not 1980.
    2) SMART's 2X route not only goes to Tualatin P&R, but it continues on to Barbur TC.
    3) Up until about 4 years ago, all SMART services were fare-free (including Salem).... Then there was a fare for Salem, and then a fare for the 2X (if you leave town).

    Wilsonville pays a share of WES operating costs, it paid the cost of building the WV station. It rearranged its entire transit system to meet WES. It even introduced a new route (the 6) to handle shuttling people directly to/from WES to employment centers. I don't think it's unreasonable for them to expect the current skeleton system to be maintained -- afterall they have invested significantly in WES; including the ongoing operating costs.

  3. Thanks, Max, for the corrections.

    One issue that I (and others) have with recent TriMet decisions--is that many of them restrict the agencies freedom in dealing with the present budget crisis. As you are probably aware, TriMet ultimately decided not to reduce WES service this time--despite ample evidence that the money could be spent on other services with a higher bang-to-buck ratio. No offense at all to Wilsonville or Tualatin commuters, of course--just that there is so few of them using the system at the present time.

    But again--how should finite transit dollars be spent? The political reality of the situation is that areas with significant levels of employment can dominate the allocation process by threatening to leave. I'm not sure what can (or should) be done about this, as changing the underlying tax structure of TriMet is probably undoable, but there you go.

  4. Hope I found and fixed all the 1980 references. :)

  5. Great post, Scotty. I especially enjoyed the underwater-mortgage metaphor.


Keep it clean, please