Public transportation has bright future. Does TriMet?
Public transportation's post-pandemic future looks very bright in Clackamas County — for both users and taxpayers. TriMet's does not.
TriMet's ridership fell over the last decade while population, costs and taxes climbed. Information technology accounts for part of that. It's now easier to work from home, join carpools, use taxi-like services or even rent scooters. There are ever increasing alternatives to traditional transit and more are coming, yet TriMet is in denial. It sees its ridership losses as a blip and its predecessors' massive declines as errors to be corrected with unending tax increases. It has been spending more and more on underperforming rail systems while allowing buses to languish.
Clackamas County transit users are inordinately dependent on buses because we only have a fraction of the rail service offered in Multnomah and Washington Counties. TriMet isn't dumping on us; we just don't have the population and density to justify rail. The other two counties don't either. Since TriMet began MAX service 33 years ago, no rail project has ever been cost-effective. There have always been alternatives which would have provided better service at lower cost. TriMet data suggest that overspending on rail operations alone exceeds $70 million annually, or enough for a half million bus hours in revenue service.
Declining payroll taxes during the recession forced TriMet to cut service in fiscal 2010 just as WES and the MAX green line began service, adding millions of dollars to rail operations cost. Bus riders had to bear the brunt of the cutbacks. TriMet's bus ridership and per capita service never recovered and were still below 2009 levels going into the pandemic. The current shutdown again forces TriMet to cut bus service more than rail because high fixed costs (track and signal systems maintenance, e.g.) limit potential savings from rail service cuts.
TriMet's ridership recovery is likely to be slow and incomplete. People survive the shutdown using telecommuting, online groceries, telemedicine and other substitutes for personal travel. Some of these things are likely to stick. Many of us will do our best to avoid crowding transit vehicles, at least until social distancing becomes a distant memory. Autonomous vehicle technology promises to take a big bite out of traditional transit while reducing bus operating expenses to the point of eliminating any chance for MAX to be cost-effective. Please remember that long-term transit ridership trends are down over both the last decade and century. Why would that change?
TriMet and Metro are still pushing for a $2.8 billion MAX extension to Tualatin. While everything is in flux, they've been developing a multi-billion-dollar bond issue for November's ballot centered on almost $1 billion for the extension. The idea is to have a little something for everybody so that light rail bonds get through despite having little chance of passing on their own. Every $1 billion in bonding means an average of roughly $1,000 per capita in additional taxes for principal and interest.
While we're already taking advantage of new alternatives to transit, it may take a while for TriMet to adjust to reality, figure out what it can do best and start reducing taxes. Just don't expect the district to do so on its own. We may have to use our own initiative.
R A Fontes is a Lake Oswego resident.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.