Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Streetcar Named Liar

Everything you’ve heard from the city of Portland about its streetcar lines is a lie. That seems to be the conclusion of the latest review of the operation by the city of Portland’s own city auditor.
Portland Streetcar, the private organization contracted to run the streetcar for the city, claims to have met the city’s on-time goals. The audit finds that it hasn’t. Portland Streetcar claims to have increased ridership by 500,000 riders in fiscal year 2014. The audit finds that that Portland Streetcar overstated ridership by 19 percent and actually ridership was 1.1 million trips less than claimed.
The auditor is also unimpressed by claims that the streetcar has generated billions of dollars worth of economic development. “Based on studies [Portland Bureau of Transportation] provided to us,” says the audit, “we conclude this research has yet to describe a causal relationship of how streetcars may affect economic development.” In other words, it’s just another fabrication.

This audit follows up on another review earlier this year in which the auditor concluded that the supposed public-private partnership imposes all risks on the public and no responsibility on the private partner. What else should we expect when Portland Streetcar is less a business and more of a revolving door for left-wing politicians and city bureaucrats? The latest audit points out that the streetcar maintenance facility, which is supposed to be run by Portland Streetcar, is staffed by 51 people from TriMet, 16 from Portland’s Bureau of Transportation, and all of 3 from Portland Streetcar.
There’s one good thing about the streetcar, at least if you are a Portland auto driver annoyed by the city’s aggressive cyclists. More than two-thirds of Portland cyclists surveyed in 2008 said they’ve crashed on the streetcar tracks. There’s an engineering fix–putting rubber flaps on the rails that are flexible enough for the streetcars to push out of the way but too stiff for bicycles to sink into. But Portland Streetcar doesn’t want to install them because it’s too expensive and they’d have to replace them every two or three years.
As a cyclist myself, I’m not too impressed by this argument. Considering that the 2013 American Community Survey found that more than 18,000 workers living in the city of Portland bicycle to work while only 7,800 take some form of rail transit–including both streetcars and light rail–it seems like the city has its priorities exactly backwards. I hope officials from other cities who look to Portland as a model for transportation planning take the time to read these audits
A Portland transportation official told city auditors it was "unnecessary" to highlight Portland Streetcar's inflated ridership numbers in a new report, according to documents obtained under the state's public records law.
City auditors reported Dec. 11 that estimated streetcar ridership last fiscal year was 4.5 million, about 1.1 million fewer rides than the 5.6 million originally reported by Portland Streetcar Inc.
Officials overstated ridership by 19 percent.
TriMet uncovered the mistake in response to questions from auditors. Portland Streetcar provided accurate streetcar ridership to auditors Dec. 3.
In response, auditors revised their draft report to highlight the discrepancies, adding a chart to show the gap between reported and actual ridership.
But when a new version of the audit was shared with the Portland Bureau of Transportation before publication, to ensure its accuracy, the city's streetcar manager, Kathryn Levine, complained.
Levine argued that officials provided the revised figures to ensure that readers of the audit had accurate ridership data. TriMet, she wrote, had "acted with integrity after finding an error" and worked to correct the numbers.
"This late addition of a new section to the audit appears unnecessary, particularly as the information has no impact on the audit recommendations," Levine wrote in a Dec. 5 email obtained by The Oregonian.
"I am disappointed by the text and a graph ... that appears designed to highlight a mistake rather than recognize the agency for taking corrective action."
An auditor responded by telling Levine they had an obligation to highlight the discrepancy.
While auditors originally found some minor problems with ridership numbers, which they planned to note in a methodology section of the audit, the new numbers needed to be called out more clearly, auditors wrote.
The "corrected data recently provided by TriMet resulted in an error effect which we could not ignore," Tenzin Choephel, a senior management auditor, wrote in response. "Nineteen percent is a significant difference for a measure that was already described in the scope of the audit and a fiscal year which was clearly within our audit period."
While the overall audit recommendations didn't change, Choephel concluded, "we consider the ridership error as another example of questionable Portland Streetcar performance results."
Had auditors not publicly called attention to the inflated ridership, would Portland Streetcar or the Bureau of Transportation highlighted the problems?
Dan Bower, executive director for Portland Streetcar, told The Oregonian on Tuesday that he initially scrambled to get correct ridership information to the nonprofit's board of directors and posted online.
"My intention was, and still is, to post an explanation on our website and share that through social media just as we would with any other ridership information," Bower said in an email to The Oregonian.
While Bower didn't complain to auditors about their decision to spotlight the ridership mistakes, he did express displeasure about how the audit would ultimately report on-time performance.
In a Sept. 15 email, also obtained through a public records request, Bower told Choephel that he didn't agree with how the figures were represented graphically.
Portland Streetcar sets an on-time performance target of 98 percent and reported that those goals were being met. But the audit found streetcars are on schedule 82 percent of the time.
Bower suggested that monthly performance should be graphed on a chart from 0 percent to 100 percent, rather than 60 percent to 100 percent, as auditors had done.
Starting that scale at 60 percent "overemphasizes the difference between reported performance and actual," Bower wrote in his Sept. 15 email.
"It's far enough apart that it doesn't need to be further distorted by scale."
 Reporting inflated streetcar ridership dubbed 'unnecessary,' city tells auditor: Portland City Hall Roundup |

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