Policy Picnic – October 28, 2015


Please join us for our monthly Policy Picnic led by Cascade President and CEO John A. Charles, Jr.


Topic: Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail: Comparing Promises with Reality 

Description: TriMet’s newest MAX line opened on September 12. At $210 million per mile, this was the most expensive light rail line in Portland history. Now that it’s open, is it making the traveling public better off?

In this seminar, we revisit the Utopian predictions made by transit planners in 2008, and measure those against the early performance of the line.

There is no charge for this event, but reservations are required as space is limited.  To reserve your free tickets, click here.

Admission is free. Please feel free to bring your own lunch.
Coffee and cookies will be served. 
 
Sponsored by:
Dumas Law Group

Aging Roads? New Ideas!

Cascade Policy Institute

presents

Aging Roads? New Ideas!

 Adrian Moore

featuring

Adrian Moore, Ph.D.

Vice President of Policy at Reason Foundation

The City of Portland is grappling with ways to pay for the rising costs of maintaining and building roads. The Oregon Department of Transportation is facing a similar problem with the state highway system. Adrian Moore is Vice President of the Reason Foundation and an international expert in transportation finance policy. His presentation will feature the latest innovations in highway, tunnel, bridge and road finance from around the world, with commentary about how these ideas might be applicable to Oregon.

About Adrian Moore:

Moore has testified before Congress and regularly advises federal, state and local officials on policy initiatives.  He is a member of the Transportation Research Board, and in 2006 he was appointed by Congress to serve on the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Finance Commission.  In 2009 he was appointed by Governor Schwarzenegger to California’s Public Infrastructure Advisory Commission.

Mr. Moore is co-author of the book Curb Rights: A Foundation for Free Enterprise in Urban Transit, published in 1997 by the Brookings Institution Press, which was runner up for the Sir Antony Fisher International Memorial Award, and of Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century published in November 2008.  And he is author of dozens of policy studies and articles.  

Mr. Moore earned a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of California, Irvine. He holds a Master’s in Economics from the University of California, Irvine and a Master’s in History from California State University, Chico.

Dessert buffet

Complimentary coffee, tea, iced tea

No-host bar (cash only) 

$15 advance payment (April 27th) — $20 after April 27th and at the door (if seating available)

***

Cascade Policy Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Donations are tax deductible and accepted with gratitude.


Portland’s “F” Doesn’t Stand for “Transportation Friendly”

R Street Institute, a D.C.-based think tank, released its Ridescore website last week. The site grades 50 large U.S. cities based on taxi, limo, and transportation network friendliness. Portland received an F, making it the second-most transportation-hostile city in the survey. Why did Portland rank so poorly?

For taxis, competition is restricted through the use of a fleet cap, which limits the number of vehicles each cab company can operate. A recent study by the Portland Bureau of Transportation shows demand for taxis far exceeds supply on weekends, a direct symptom of fleet caps which prohibit even one more cab unless consumer demand for that cab can be proven before it is even put on the street.

As for limos, Portland forces customers to wait a minimum of one hour before receiving service. On top of that, fares for limos must be at least 35% more than those for taxis, keeping prices artificially high.

Finally, Portland is so hostile to transportation network companies like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar that they have not been able to enter the market at all.

Portland is known for having one of the best public transportation systems in the country. Despite this, our misregulated private transportation system is one of the worst. Until this changes, we’ll continue to be stuck in the transportation dark ages.

No New Street Fee: City Council Should Approve Street Maintenance from the General Fund

Last week Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick suggested that the City Council approve $7 million in General Fund dollars to help pay for street maintenance. The City expects to have a surplus of some $9 million this fall, allowing new discretionary requests from individual bureaus.

Such a transfer would be far preferable to enacting a street tax, which has been widely opposed. Continuing to push the tax would be divisive and a huge waste of time for the hundreds of city residents who would show up to oppose it. Street maintenance is one of the most basic responsibilities for any municipality. Therefore, it is appropriate to use property tax dollars from the General Fund to maintain the road network.

Moreover, the City Council has an abysmal track record of managing dedicated transportation user fees. This was highlighted in a report issued last year by the Portland City Auditor, showing that dedicated transportation revenues had been going up over the last decade, while actual spending on road maintenance had dropped. This conclusion makes any proposed tax increase a non-starter.

The unexpected budget surplus gives the Council a graceful way to put the street tax proposal to bed. They should take the opportunity and move on.

Time for a Third Bridge to Vancouver

Last week a conceptual plan for a new bridge over the Columbia River was unveiled at a public forum in Vancouver, WA. The plan, presented by Florida-based Figg Engineering, calls for a four-lane bridge east of I-205. The new bridge would have 144 feet of river clearance – the same as the I-205 Bridge — and include sidewalks and bikeways completely protected from highway traffic.

The financing is still to be determined, but could involve user fees, known as tolls. In fact, one option would be for the bridge to be privately owned and operated, paid entirely with tolls. Those drivers unwilling to pay could continue to use the Glenn Jackson Bridge, as they do today.

Oregon political officials are notably cold towards the idea of a third or fourth bridge over the Columbia. Local politicians believe that the two bridges we have now are all we should ever get – even though Portland is served by nearly a dozen bridges over the smaller Willamette River.

As the Portland-Vancouver region grows we will need much more bridge capacity. Since government won’t provide it, we should welcome this opportunity to pursue a private investment option.

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

Portland Should Be Fair to Taxis by Setting Them Free

By Everet Rummel

This issue affects almost all city-dwellers, and cities around the world are taking action. Some view it as their own livelihoods being at stake. It has even sparked mass protests in Europe. The issue? Whether or not cities should allow Uber, and other GPS-based ridesharing services, to operate within their jurisdictions.

Ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft connect commuters with certified drivers willing to offer rides for a fare. The idea sounds innocent enough, but Portland and other cities strictly limit the number of taxis and for-profit drivers who are allowed to operate, how small each cab company can be, and how much or little they can charge.

Across the U.S., governments have rushed to regulate ridesharing and sometimes ban it altogether. California has warned ridesharing companies to stay clear of the airports. Virginia and Austin, Texas have banned them completely.

The European protesters claim it isn’t fair that ridesharing services can operate unregulated, while taxis are heavily regulated; the playing field isn’t level. And they’re right. But rather than cooking up expensive regulations and restricting taxis and ride-sharers in cities, which hurts customers, let’s make taxi and ridesharing drivers free to operate and earn a living. Let’s deregulate so more drivers are on the road and more customers are getting rides. As Portland and other cities consider allowing Uber to operate legally, we should keep these points in mind.


 

Everet Rummel is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Testimony to TriMet Board About WES Expansion

John A. Charles, Jr. presented this testimony to the TriMet Board of Directors on May 28, 2014 with regard to their proposed expansion of the Westside Express Service.

 

Board members:

Below are my comments on Resolution 14-05-27, Adopting the Fiscal Year 2014-15 Annual Budget and Appropriating Funds, for your May 28 meeting:

Assumed cost of fringe benefits: According to the introductory narrative, the proposed FY 15 budget “assumes management’s initial offer for active and retiree health benefits.” This is consistent with the budget statements from previous years, which have tended to “assume away” unpleasant aspects of labor negotiations. It does not seem prudent to continue making these assumptions, based on the history of TM labor negotiations over the past 22 years. As much as I like seeing the proposed expansion of service, perhaps it would be better to scale back service enhancements and set aside more funds for a worst-case outcome on the cost of health benefits.

Plans for WES expansion: The staff recommends purchasing two additional vehicles for WES, at a cost of $8.5 million, or $13.2 million over 20 years of debt service. All of those costs will cannibalize other general fund programs. I’d suggest that this proposal be pulled from the budget and possibly added back later, after further public vetting.

WES is TriMet’s most expensive fixed-route service, but I’m not aware of any justification that has ever been offered. Fewer than 1,000 TriMet riders benefit from these subsidies each weekday. Why are WES riders so privileged?

To put the issue in context, below are the costs of WES compared with those of similar bus service offered by SMART of Wilsonville. While WES is undoubtedly a nicer and quicker ride for users, the cost premium is difficult to justify to non-riding taxpayers who have to make up the difference.

Express Service from Wilsonville Station to Beaverton Transit Center

Operating cost/mile Operating cost/hour
TriMet Express Rail $43.74 $949.84
SMART Express Bus $   1.30 $   83.17

In addition, WES is an energy hog. According to a new report by the Federal Railroad Administration, the average energy consumed by all commuter rail systems in America during 2010 was 2,923 British Thermal Units (BTU) per passenger-mile. WES was close to the bottom: It consumed 5,961 BTU per passenger-mile, more than twice the national average (by comparison the top performer was Stockton, CA: 1,907 BTU/passenger-mile).

Not only is WES inefficient compared with its peer group, it is wasteful compared with other modes of travel. The national average for all transit buses in 2010 was 4,240 BTU per passenger-mile; for light-duty cars, the average was 3,364.

WES has always been a planning mistake. Before the Board decides to double-down on failure, there should be careful consideration of an alternative action: terminating service. None of the current board members had anything to do with the original decision, so no one should feel a personal need to defend it. Certainly terminating service would result in some short-term costs because of likely re-payment penalties to the federal government, but at some point the lower operations would provide net benefits to taxpayers (including those outside of TriMet’s district in Wilsonville, who pay TriMet more than $25,000/month to subsidize train operations).

In a typical year, there are very few opportunities for the Board to actually express a clear policy choice for TriMet’s future; most decisions are made by the staff. This is a rare chance for the Board to isolate two distinct policy options, consider the long-term effects, and express an independent preference for one of those options. I strongly encourage you to defer action on the proposed purchase of additional WES vehicles for at least another 60-90 days in order to have that public conversation.

Sincerely,

John A. Charles

Cascade Policy Institute

Should Portland Residents Pay Another Fee to Cover Basic Road Maintenance?

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales is proposing a new transportation tax for 2015. He claims this is needed to offset a decline in revenue.

However, the facts show a different story. Total revenue for transportation has been growing for decades. For example, from 1996-2007, Portland transportation revenue grew by 60%. According to the city auditor, that was the largest increase among all city agencies during that period.

Portland’s general fund has also been flush. Between 2003 and 2012, the amount of annual tax revenue the city received from each Portland resident increased from $2,292 to $2,656. Total property taxes grew by 27% during that time.

Despite all this money, the city’s streets are poorly maintained. The problem is that local politicians have preferred to spend vast amounts on frivolous toys like the eastside streetcar and Milwaukie light rail, rather than taking care of basic maintenance. As a result, transportation debt service has increased from 10% of discretionary spending to 20% in just the past four years. The charge card is getting maxed out.

Instead of demanding more tax dollars for shiny new objects, the City Council should maintain and improve the basic road network. If this task is too difficult, taxpayers should ask why we bother to have a city government at all.

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

As TriMet Sinks, Should Portland Suburbs Go Down With the Ship?

Last week Cascade released a report encouraging cities and counties to consider leaving TriMet due to its financial mismanagement.

TriMet has long admitted that its labor costs are unsustainable. In addition, the agency’s addiction to costly rail construction has cannibalized bus service, which has been cut by 14% in the past five years.

Comparison with other local transit districts paints a stark picture. The cost per mile of operation for the TriMet commuter rail line is $43.74. TriMet’s flagship service, light rail, costs $11.96 per mile. Yet, the small city of Sandy runs its own bus service for $2.57 per mile.

TriMet predicts that additional service cuts will be required by 2017 and every year thereafter to balance the budget, which essentially would shut down the agency by 2025. TriMet’s only strategy has been to seek contract concessions from the bargaining unit representing most workers, but this is unlikely to succeed. The ongoing PERS crisis shows that once management agrees to expensive fringe benefits for unionized workers, it’s almost impossible to reduce them later.

TriMet is in a death spiral of its own making. Local jurisdictions might be hoping for the best, but they should plan for the worst. Leaving TriMet is an option that needs to be on the table.

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

The Portland Streetcar: Time to Reset the Vision

If some Portlanders are confused about why we have a 19th century trolley operating in a 21st century city, they are not alone. City leaders are confused as well.

According to the Streetcar Concept Plan adopted by the Portland City Council in 2009, there are three primary policy goals related to streetcar expansion: (1) help the city achieve its peak oil and sustainability strategies; (2) provide an organizing structure and catalyst for the city’s future growth along streetcar corridors; and (3) integrate streetcar corridors into the city’s existing neighborhoods.

Oddly, providing transit service is not an explicit priority, even though that’s the primary reason people ride. Instead we have a mishmash of peak oil mania―now a quaint artifact due to the shale oil and gas booms, coupled with advanced technology―and vague references to real estate development. Given that this plan was estimated to cost $750 million and the city is broke, perhaps we should rethink the objectives.

First, the fundamental purpose of any transit program is to move people. On this criterion, the trolley is a weak performer. It’s slow, it doesn’t go many places, and each car only has 30 seats. It has high costs and low capacity, when what we need is the exact opposite.

If a secondary purpose of the streetcar is to encourage development, there are much better ways to do so. Subsidizing the streetcar means that most property owners will never benefit, because the system is tiny―seven route-miles after two decades of planning. If the city were simply to streamline the permitting process and lower System Development Charges, we would incentivize far more development in all sectors of the city compared to laying another mile of track.

Advocates claim that streetcar lines are “permanent” and provide stability for nearby development, but thousands of miles of streetcar tracks in the United States were paved over when they became obsolete 80 years ago. More recently, the streetcar tracks in South Waterfront along Moody Avenue have been torn up three separate times since 2011 to accommodate light rail. Nothing is really permanent; and when change is needed, it’s a lot easier moving a bus line than it is ripping up streetcar tracks.

A Better Way

We should insist that the streetcar be treated as a transit expenditure and evaluated on those terms. If we do this, it’s clear that rubber-tired vehicles traveling on the existing road network make much more sense.

Of the bus options I’ve examined, the best one is the Metro Rapid in Los Angeles. This system relies on distinctive, low-floor CNG buses with red stripes providing fast, reliable transit service. It operates in general purpose traffic lanes and achieves relatively high speeds by having stops spaced 0.75 miles apart, on average.

Also, the Metro Rapid buses have the technical capacity to shorten a red light or extend a green light at intersections to improve travel time.

A summary of the key characteristics of this system compared with the Portland Streetcar is shown below:

LA Metro Rapid Bus

Portland Streetcar

Year opened

2000

2001

Annual boardings

72 million

4.1 million

System length

400 miles

7 miles

Capital cost/mile

$0.35 million

$29 million

Peak frequency of service

Every 3-10 minutes

Every 14-19 minutes

Average speed

14-30 MPH

7-12 MPH

The Portland Streetcar is 83 times more expensive to build than the Rapid Bus alternative. Is it 83 times better? No. In fact, it is not superior by a single metric. The Rapid Bus is cheaper, twice as fast, and has much greater coverage throughout the city. It’s an actual transit system, not a Disneyland ride.

We should stop further expansion of the streetcar and shift public resources to low-cost, higher-speed bus transit.

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

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