Summary: Critics say show us the buses first, while the transit agency says show us the certainty of high ridership first
City officials in Tigard are working to implement a new agreement with TriMet. The agreement, only the second of its kind in the region after Portland's, calls for better transit service as the city seeks to improve circulation on local streets and prepares for the eventual arrival of a commuter rail line.
In Sherwood, only a few miles away, the situation couldn't be more different. Mayor Mark Cottle, never one to mince words, is so fed up with TriMet that he's thinking of following the leads of cities such as Wilsonville, Sandy and Canby by opting out of the regional transportation system altogether.
"TriMet, despite all evidence to the contrary, has decided that all roads lead to downtown Portland, come hell or high water," Cottle said. "It's just a pathetic display of wasteful government spending."
TriMet's relationships with its suburban satellites have, over the years, been marked by everything from beatitude to scoffing and scorn. That same combination of contentment and contentiousness continues as both the transit agency and its constituents wrestle with increasingly choking traffic levels.
Area mayors and planning directors say, for the most part, that conflicts with TriMet stem from fundamentally different perceptions of what it takes to solve transit problems.
TriMet, they say, wants the certainty of high ridership levels before it will put more buses on suburban lines _ a point, incidentally, that TriMet agrees with.
The mayors' view is just the opposite -- that the buses need to hit the streets first to cultivate ridership levels needed to sustain more buses.
"I think TriMet does an awesome job at what they do," Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden said. "But it's almost an annual event for us to say we need service out here. It's not like I want to secede, but we definitely need more money and service directed our way."
The transit agency takes the criticism in stride, saying it remains focused on working with any suburban jurisdiction that is serious about improving transit options.
"The suburbs have changed substantially from the days in the 1950s when fathers quite literally stepped out their doors and headed to their jobs in downtown Portland," said Ken Zatarain, TriMet's transportation planning director. "Our goal now is to adapt the system to better serve the nondowntown market. To do that, however, we have to grow the system."
TriMet, as reflected in its 2003 Transit Investment Plan, holds that frequency of service and expanded hours -- rather than adding vehicles to infrequently used routes -- are better bets for getting people on buses.
"The idea is to get frequent service lines out to these areas and bring them more and more into the transit system than they have been previously," Zatarain said. "To the extent that these are problems, they are the ones faced by large transit systems all over the country."
TriMet's 15 frequent-service lines -- routes that run at least every 15 minutes -- now account for 48 percent of all trips on the agency's 95 bus routes, according to recent agency figures. Plans to add frequent-service lines serving area suburbs include Line 76-Beaverton/Tualatin (2006) and Line 35-Macadam, linking Oregon City and Lake Oswego with Portland (2009). Frequent service on Line 12-Barbur Boulevard from Portland to Tigard and King City is scheduled to be extended to Sherwood after 2009.
Since 94 percent of the region's population lives within half a mile of TriMet service, it's reasonable to focus new service there, the agency contends.
"The way things are developing," Zatarain said, "pretty soon the whole region will be urban. More and more, we won't be able to distinguish urban service from suburban service."
In some cases, local discontent with TriMet seems to grow more intense the farther the city is from downtown Portland.
Wilsonville, at the southern edge of the region's urban growth boundary, scrapped its agreement with the transit agency more than a decade ago. Local businesses, which provide the payroll tax dollars needed to finance the system, led the move, saying they were highly dissatisfied with what they considered meager service levels for too much money.
The city promptly formed its own transit service, Smart, which assesses local employers at a rate less than half of TriMet's payroll tax and provides free service both around the city and to stops in Portland and Salem.
"We had the same complaints other suburbs had," Mayor Charlotte Lehan said. "We felt like we were putting a lot of money into a system that wasn't providing very good service in return."
TriMet's Zatarain doesn't take issue with Wilsonville's decision to go its own way.
"The question of how you provide higher service to the edge of a district is being wrestled with all over the country," he said. "You need high levels of ridership to justify high levels of service."
Wilsonville's move, however, didn't amount to a complete break with TriMet. Smart buses heading to Portland still provide passengers with links to TriMet stops. Canby, which opted out of TriMet in 2001, and Sandy also allow riders to link with TriMet buses heading into Portland.
Hillsboro, by contrast, remains relatively content with TriMet's service, Mayor Tom Hughes said.
"TriMet is never going to be the kind of transportation system where you can hop on a bus in any suburb, name a place and get there," Hughes said. "As such, we've talked over the years about maybe doing some things locally to supplement what TriMet is doing. But we're firmly committed to being part of the TriMet system."
Forest Grove is also in line for increased service, with the Line 57-TV Highway from Forest Grove to Beaverton Transit Center scheduled for upgrading to Frequent Service next year. The improvements are expected to double transit ridership between Forest Grove and Portland within a few years, TriMet's Zatarain said.
In Tigard, city planners are busy implementing a recently signed memorandum of understanding with TriMet. The memorandum seeks to incorporate nine specific transit strategies into the city's planning efforts. Those strategies include such steps as building more bus shelters, providing access to the city's employment centers and establishing express routes to commercial areas.
Still, despite regionwide improvements, area cities find themselves facing a familiar conundrum where TriMet is concerned. What is boils down to is this -- which comes first, the riders or the buses?
"It's one of the big Catch-22's of transit systems everywhere," said Scott Chapman, associate project manager with NelsonNygaard Consulting, a Portland transportation consulting firm. "What comes first? The buses or the riders? If no one's screaming for local circulation, TriMet is not about to experiment with hundreds of thousands in public money to see if people would ride it."
Dana Tims: 503-294-5973; email@example.com