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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

JASON MCHUFF'S BUDGET PROPOSAL

TriMet budget thoughts and savings ideas
By Jason McHuff, jm@jasonmchuff.net


Overall, while the district may have its problems like many large or government organizations do, it does a decent job. If I had to give it a grade, I'd give it a "B". With Transit Tracker it was, I believe, one of the first agencies to provide real-time arrival information for thousands of stops. And now, it basically co-created Google Transit, which is used worldwide, as well as provides data to 3rd-parties like me.

In addition, for better or worse, lots of Federal money has been brought to the region, and the region is near the top on many national lists relating to transit.

We have an environment that actively discourages transit use. For example, much of costly Big Pipe project has gone to treat street runoff, yet no money for it came from street users. Much parking has been required, and appears to receive favorable tax treatment.

Properties with even just a one-story building are taxed 60-80% higher than adjacent ones used only for parking. To a certain extent, it seems that land is land and should be taxed the same, instead of punishing better economic uses of it.

Nationally, much military funding has arguably gone towards defending oil supplies, yet none of it has come from the gas tax. In addition, the Federal government has funded highways long before transit, and at higher rates.

Thanks to these and other governmental policies and subsidies, suburban development is often hostile to transit and pedestrians who want to use it.

And there are inefficiencies in the transit system. Portions of the MAX lines could be faster, more reliable and better serve destinations. All of these factors can either reduce costs or increase revenues, lowering the amount of subsidy needed.

On the eastside, due mainly to the Willamette River bridges, there are three bus lines in the mile from Hawthorne to Glisan instead of the two that should be needed. People are willing to walk up to 1/4th mile to a bus, and to the south bus lines are spaced ½ mile apart.

Now, the bottom has been taken out from under the district. This graphic does not factor inflation or separate the money from tax rate increases that the district has received for new services, but still shows that revenues have gone down. This is in addition to lowered funding from the Feds and increased costs for things like fuel and health care.

In theory, if jobs are declining, it would be an acceptable time to cut a service for commuters, but the problem is that others still want to ride, to their job or for other purposes.

Even in this crisis, I see opportunities--ways to achieve the "more and better transit" that Neil has been talking about.
For example, instead of just bickering with the union over who's going to be stuck paying for ever-increasing costs, why not work with them to solve the problem? After all, what has the district gotten in exchange for huge rate hikes? Shouldn't one expect something more in exchange for unusually higher prices (beyond inflation)?

Overall, as a rider, I don't want to see more district money going towards health care, but I don't think employees deserve what amounts to a pay cut either.

Why not work towards a system where people are given an account and are responsible for their care. People could either choose the comprehensive insurance plan they want or, I believe even better, pay for care directly as they go. Now, how do employees know that they are getting the best value in their care? Are they encouraged to be healthy and avoid needing it?

I've seen multiple offers where the rate charged for cash customers is much less than for those with insurance. Are the doctors being charitable, believing that those without insurance can not afford it, or is dealing with insurers that much of a hassle? How many would love to take the equivalent of a debit card?

To further control costs, there could be co-insurance based on income above a certain level, and participants given a percentage of the remaining balance at year's end.

Why not get together with other unions and employers, who may also be suffering, and make that happen? How many businesses would love to give up a hopefully-predictable portion of their revenues in exchange for being guaranteed healthy employees and not needing to deal with the costs or hassles of insurance?

Furthermore, how much has the high per-employee cost of health insurance factored in the extensive overtime the district gives out? Are the tight schedules that operators complain about written to reduce the number of employees needed? Eliminating the cost link would allow the district to have more employees and create more jobs. Even if less than half of overtime premiums could be cut, the district could save $1-2 million.

And there may be many other organizations that would create new jobs, commuters and payroll taxes if it weren't for the health care burden.

Why not eliminate the zone system for fares? It is confusing, unenforceable, unfair and a hurdle that discourages ridership. I don't think even I understood it at first. Why not replace it with time-based fares instead, maybe charging $2 for one hour of riding and $2.50 or $3 for 3 hours? This could be seen as a price reduction, but for many it would actually be a fare increase. It would give the transit riders union the 3-hour fares they want, but makes the users pay for them.

Now, this trip from Sauvie Island all the way to Estacada is actually cheaper than this ride a short way up McLoughlin Blvd.
Also consider implementing discount 7-day passes to replace the 14-day ones and combining the youth/student and honored citizen fares.

For the youth pass, urge the state legislature to fix the law and give Portland Public Schools, and Eugene, the student transportation funding that every other district gets and allow alternatives to yellow buses. It would allow other metro districts to participate, and even rural districts might be able to link up with social service agencies that want to save money in providing transportation.

As for the Free Rail Zone, how about replacing it with free tickets given to customers, as an alternative to validated parking, as well as social service agencies? Give access to the whole system and not just a small part of it.

Why not give a payroll tax credit to employers who purchase passes for all of their employees? Get them to take advantage of tax savings and provide parity to free parking.

Why not give a payroll tax credit to employers who run shuttles for their employees? Limit it to 50% of the costs so that the employer is invested too and require that the service be open to all visitors, not duplicate TriMet and be approved by the district. Remind them that they contributed to the transit problem through poor development.

Plus, they can provide the service much cheaper, yet the issue of contracting out can be avoided. And if people decide to buy passes and ride transit, the district may come out even.

I understand that the district is worried about increases in LIFT costs. I realize appearances can be deceiving, but it seems many LIFT users could potentially ride regular service. The problem is that, today, the only options are a full-on LIFT ride or braving the fixed-route system on their own.

Why not have a middle ground and provide travel assistants who help the disabled get to their destinations successfully and safely? Even if the assistants have to be paid, the costs of fuel and vehicle maintenance could be saved. But there may be many people would volunteer in exchange for tickets or passes.

Why not look into setting up remote overnight parking for buses? Each weekday dozens of buses run empty from a garage in western Beaverton or southeast Portland to reach routes in Tigard, King City, Sherwood, Tualatin, Lake Oswego or north Wilsonville and then do the reverse in the evening. The operator gets full pay and fuel is burned but no passengers are carried.

To keep costs low, vehicles that are used only during rush hours would be fueled and serviced at regular garages during the mid-day and others would be switched out with what are now rush hour-only ones.

In addition, for operators who wish to start or end at one of the garages, some buses could still deadhead and drop off or pick up other operators at the satellite facilities along the way.

Why not see about contracting with C-Tran and offering daytime parking at Center Garage or elsewhere, in exchange for some of the savings from not having to deadhead all the way to and from Vancouver? This is done in Seattle and other big cities.

When the Eastside Streetcar opens consider extending Line 14 to Goose Hollow to combine Lines 6 & 70. It would create a direct connection between southeast Portland and Westside MAX, and there would still be quality service on MLK and Grand.

Why not reduce the overly-abundant Line 94 service to Sherwood? Based on ridership data, as well as anecdotal observations, very few people ride all the way, and operators must then deadhead back. Even if every other trip ended in Tigard or King City, there would still be service every 15 minutes.

Why not consider running Line 10 in a one-way loop past SE 92nd and the MAX Green Line? Time on inbound trips spent backtracking to 136th Avenue could instead be used to improve service and, before the Green Line, it did run in a loop past 122nd.

Why not combine Lines 22 and 23 in the Parkrose area, providing through service and possibly a connection to Parkrose TC?

Why not create through service in the West Hills by combining Lines 51, 55 and 39? A former long-time operator on those routes has suggested this, and it would provide a connection to Wilson High School for Youth Pass users, as well as Lewis & Clark College.

As for capital projects, consider working with Metro on a ballot measure to build sidewalks and other pedestrian infrastructure. It could include the stop improvement projects that the failed measure did, but also go beyond just transit and provide connections to stops.

And consider the option of a lower-cost Lake Oswego rail line. It's been argued that travel time on the proposed streetcar service will be much longer than on the through-routed Line 35, and that Highway 43 is not likely to get congested. In addition, the streetcar vehicles are designed for circulating and not commuting.

I propose either an upgraded version of the trolley that already exists, running half-hourly and designed for tourists and possibly local travelers, or possibly a commuter rail-type line.

Lastly, why not have a riders' advisory committee? It would provide a way for riders to discuss issues and provide ideas besides having to go to the Board of Directors and a way for the district to provide information.

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