My View: New TriMet leader must provide vision
TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane's recent announcement of his upcoming retirement provides us an opportunity to reboot public transit.
Transit in our region is in crisis. Total bus, light rail (MAX), and commuter rail (WES) ridership has increased only 1 percent in the past decade, while the tricounty population has grown over 13 percent. For the past two years, ridership actually dropped more than 3 percent while population grew over 3.5 percent.
The next GM must reverse this loss. TriMet must provide service that works for people: frequent, reliable, low-cost, all-day service to the entire region.
TriMet must transform its funding and service models. The decades-old approach of expecting federal money to cover public transportation investments no longer works, for a variety of political reasons.
Climate change, caused in substantial part by transportation-related greenhouse gases, is quickly upending the calculus both of what is necessary, and what is politically possible. We can do better — Vancouver, British Columbia, a city roughly the same size as Portland, has three times as much transit ridership per capita. TriMet leadership must define the necessary agenda and win public support for it.
We need a leader who can articulate an inspirational vision for public transit. For years, TriMet has played a subservient role, bringing in federal money, but deferring to the car-centric interests of the Oregon Department of Transportation and local elected officials, who largely control major transportation investment in the Portland region through the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation (JPACT).
TriMet's most recent leadership role was advocating for three Portland-area freeway expansion projects to be included in the transportation package that recently passed the Oregon Legislature. Sold as solutions to congestion, these expansions run exactly counter to TriMet's mission.
Of course, congestion is a real problem, so the state Legislature also mandated congestion pricing (variable or peak-only tolls, assessed electronically, not with toll booths) on Portland's freeway system to discourage travel at peak times.
TriMet must design attractive transit alternatives to freeway travel, and explain why adding more freeway lanes will not reduce congestion — it will simply attract more traffic and increase pollution.
Better transit can address two common fears regarding congestion pricing: that people in poverty will be hurt disproportionately by tolls, and traffic will be diverted to neighborhood streets. TriMet service must provide a true alternative to the automobile for many trips. Less traffic overall will make it easier and safer to walk and ride a bicycle, and people experiencing poverty benefit the most from added transit options.
With our regional urban growth boundary, population growth increases density. Rather than producing congestion, increased density can make transit work more efficiently, but only if TriMet provides a comprehensive system.
TriMet needs to lay the groundwork for large capital expenditures for effective cross-regional trips, while simultaneously increasing bus speeds, frequency and coverage. These enhancements will again make our public transportation system useful for everyday people, and will help correct some of the inequities created by our affordable housing crisis, which has pushed community members with the least resources farther away from jobs.
When the cities of Los Angeles and Seattle got serious about their transportation problems, they spent years developing inspirational plans and building community support. In 2016 they went to their voters directly to pass $120 billion (L.A.) and $54 billion (Seattle) public transportation measures. These are investments that will yield dividends for generations.
Here in Portland, a city once known for our transportation planning originality, including TriMet's 60 miles of light-rail lines, we are simply falling behind. In hiring its next general manager TriMet has the opportunity to once again lead our community to efficient and sustainable transportation solutions, but it will require the political willpower to take the agency in a new direction.