TriMet Violates Clean Air Act While “Regulators” Stay Silent

In previous decades the Portland region failed to meet national air quality standards for carbon monoxide pollution and was designated a “non-attainment” area under the federal Clean Air Act. As a result, the region was required to develop and implement strategies to reduce carbon monoxide.

One of the strategies is that TriMet must increase transit service by 1% annually for the period 2006-2017, on the premise that more transit service will reduce auto-related carbon monoxide emissions. TriMet’s compliance must be measured on the basis of a 5-year “rolling average” of actual hours of service. The “baseline year” for compliance is 2004 and includes the opening of the Yellow MAX line, which began operating that year. This strategy was specifically devised by TriMet to grandfather in the Yellow line, thus giving the agency the best chance for compliance.

However, even with this advantage, TriMet has not met the obligation to increase service. In fact, TriMet service has been steadily decreasing. This is a potential problem not only for TriMet, but for other local governments. If the Portland region were to be found out of compliance with the Clean Air Act, the federal government could delay or cancel federal dollars for such projects as Milwaukie light rail and the Columbia River Crossing. For regional politicians, this would be a disaster.

In January, the crisis was taken up by one of the obscure committees run by Metro―the Transportation Policy Advisory Committee (TPAC), comprised mostly of local government bureaucrats. TPAC agreed to recommend that compliance be measured on the basis of cumulative average of service hours for the 10-year period 2007-2017. The new “baseline year” would become 2008.

After TPAC, the plan had to be approved by the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission (EQC), the governing board for the state DEQ. The EQC took testimony in August and rubber-stamped the TPAC recommendation in early December.

Last week the issue moved to JPACT, another obscure Metro committee that approves all regional transportation spending. The free pass for TriMet was quickly approved.

The final stop will be the Metro Council, which will approve the change on December 19.

Sadly, none of the four entities approving the recommendation ever seriously considered enforcing the Clean Air Act. The top priority at every level has been to craft an escape hatch so that business as usual can continue. However, even a cursory look at the evidence would have shown that TriMet had no excuses for non-compliance.

For example, Metro/TriMet/DEQ have all claimed that the “abrupt drop” in TriMet service was “caused by the recent deep recession.” However, as shown in Table 1, the drop in TriMet fixed-route service has not been abrupt; both hours of service and miles of service were lower in 2012 than they were in 2004, so this has been a problem for years.

 

Table 1

Annual Fixed Route Service Trends for TriMet

2004-2012

 

FY 04

FY 06

FY 08

FY 10

FY 12

Change

Veh. revenue hours

1,698,492

1,653,180

1,712,724

1,682,180

1,561,242

-8.1%

Veh. revenue miles

27,548,927

26,830,124

26,448,873

25,781,480

23,625,960

-14.2

Moreover, the recession had little to do with the cuts because TriMet’s operating budget has grown by 62% since 2004 (Table 2).

Table 2

TriMet Financial Resources

2004-2013 (000s)

 

 

2004

2006

2008

2011

2012

2013

% change

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Passenger fares

$ 59,487

$ 68,464

$ 80,818

$ 96,889

$ 102,240

$ 112,500

+89%

Payroll tax revenue

$ 168,378

$ 192,450

$ 215,133

$ 226,456

$ 248,384

$ 259,233

+54%

Total operations revenue

$ 315,130

$ 342,274

$ 404,481

$ 410,388

$ 488,360

$ 508,971

+62%

It’s interesting that the pollutant in question here―carbon monoxide―is a serious one that can permanently injure or kill people, and has been explicitly regulated under the Clean Air Act for over 40 years. Yet, local air quality regulators don’t care about TriMet’s non-compliance. Meanwhile, Metro is squandering a vast amount of public money on its co-called “Climate Smart Communities” plan, aimed at decreasing carbon dioxide―a harmless trace element that has never been explicitly regulated by the Clean Air Act.

In fact, the most notable consequence of increased CO2 levels in lab experiments is the faster growth of plants, which is generally thought to be a good thing. But CO2 has been demonized by environmental activists as a cause of “global warming,” so it must be regulated.

The new compliance plan for TriMet subtly changes the goal posts. By moving from a five-year rolling average to a 10-year average, and shifting the baseline year to 2008, TriMet picks a better year to begin measuring (service levels had already dropped by 2008), and gives itself more future years to “forecast” increased service, even if there is no reason to think such service will materialize. TriMet has publicly stated that the cost of employee fringe benefits must be reduced by 50% in order to restore lost service, and everyone who has watched public employee union negotiations knows that such concessions will never be made.

TriMet is a federal clean air scofflaw, but the local “regulators” are all in on the scam. For a region that prides itself as an environmental leader, this is a disgrace.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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