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.

Moving Forward from the Columbia River Crossing

By Kevin Sharp

With the recent suspension of the Columbia River Crossing project, people are already asking, “What should replace it?” The answer, at least for right now, is, “Nothing.” While it is frustrating that the government spent $170 million to not build a bridge, the cost of a poorly conceived bridge would be much greater.

Before Portland and Vancouver do anything else, they need to look seriously into the root of the transportation problems facing each city and plan accordingly. They also need to understand that just replacing the I-5 Bridge with a different bridge is not a lasting solution to the traffic problems. A new bridge needs to be a supplement to the existing Columbia River bridges.

To make the project viable, Portland also needs to abandon its inherently political goal of spreading light rail anywhere and everywhere. A simple bridge to ease traffic congestion is all that is necessary; but Portland transportation planners continually insist on expanding the MAX line to Washington―while Washington residents obviously do not want that. Any attempt to send light rail to Vancouver will only waste more time, taxpayer dollars, and resources that could go to more productive and valuable projects. A bridge should connect the cities; it doesn’t need to drive them apart.

Kevin Sharp is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market think tank.

Saving Transit by Shrinking TriMet

In the past eight years, the all-funds budget for TriMet has gone up by 125%, but transit service has dropped by 14%. This trend will only get worse. In what future historians likely will refer to as a suicide note, TriMet recently predicted that within seven years, much of its bus service will have to be cancelled due to the high costs of operation.

Several bills have been introduced in the legislature to address this problem. Rep. Chris Gorsek (D-Troutdale) is sponsoring HB 3316 to expand the TriMet board and change the board composition. This bill is tentatively scheduled for a hearing on April 15.

Sen. Alan Olsen (R-Canby) has sponsored SB 826, which would allow local jurisdictions to leave TriMet at any time, for any reason.

Both bills actually could be combined. A more diverse board could bring better oversight, and allowing cities or counties to leave the district (as Wilsonville, Sandy, and Canby already have) would encourage innovation and reduce TriMet’s unsustainable operating costs.

After 44 years, it’s time to admit that TriMet has failed. Its cost structure is too high and cannot be reformed. The policy objective from now on should be to serve transit riders, not the TriMet bureaucracy. Transit advocates should speak forcefully to these points at the April 15th hearing in Salem.

How Many Feet Should Sellwood’s Sidewalk Be?

If we build a new bridge over the Willamette River, how much space should we allocate for walking and bicycling?

 

This shouldn’t be a very controversial subject, but Oregonian writers Janie Har and Steve Duin have made it one. They both attacked Cascade Policy Institute recently for our efforts to save taxpayers money on the new Sellwood Bridge. Some clarification is in order.

 

Last summer we decided to count all the person-trips going over the Portland Willamette River bridges at the morning peak (7:00 a.m. – 9:00 a.m.) to see what we could learn about space allocation and user demand. One conclusion  is that space per se does not appear to be critical to bridge use by cyclists and pedestrians.

 

For example, the Hawthorne, Broadway, and Burnside bridges all have modest facilities for those modes, yet they have large contingents of cyclists and pedestrians. In contrast, the Morrison Bridge has a new 15-foot, barrier-separated bikeway, yet it is virtually unused. Non-auto travel accounts for only 1.8% of passenger throughput on that bridge

 

Clearly, there are other factors besides dedicated right-of-way that determine the intensity of bridge use by non-motorists.

 

Unfortunately, local politicians haven’t learned from this experience. The new Sellwood Bridge will allocate 24 feet for two motor vehicle travel lanes, 13 feet for cyclists with dedicated bike lanes, and 24 feet for sidewalks. There is no reason to reserve  this much space for walkers. If cyclists are traveling in their own exclusive road lane, a 6-foot sidewalk on each side will be adequate. Such a space reduction would have saved taxpayers some $15-17 million.

 

Also, heavy trucks will be prohibited from using the new bridge, due to a legislative funding dispute. This doesn’t make non-motorists on the bridge better off, but it will increase total regional driving and worsen congestion elsewhere.

 

In an essay published last summer, we criticized the bridge design, noting that trucks should be allowed and that the sidewalks should be narrower. The latter point seemed especially relevant, given that only 2% of all passenger-trips on the current bridge are by walking or cycling, and the potential for drastic increases seems slim given the distance from downtown.

 

Ms. Har, a professional fact-checker, agreed with our 2% claim, but ruled it to be only “half-true” because local planners predict that non-motorized traffic will skyrocket to 19% of all trips by 2035.

 

This is, of course, a computer-generated fantasy. It is not an actual “fact.” We stand by our assessment.

 

Mr. Duin thinks banning trucks is a great idea, while also lamenting the continued use of fossil fuels by motorists. Unfortunately, those two concepts are in conflict. Banning trucks from the Sellwood Bridge will result in greater fuel use, not less.

 

Mr. Duin also supports the 12-foot sidewalks and the extra spending of $17 million for those sidewalks. Apparently, this is more important to him than the basic road maintenance that Portland has abandoned in recent years due to budget cuts at the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

 

Increasing walking and cycling is more complicated than simply providing mega-sidewalks and barrier-protected bike lanes. Planning for future bridges and roads should be based on a realistic assessment of non-motorized use and the cost of providing space.

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

Is Driving Less a Good Thing?

Recently, the Metro Council received the results of a four-county household travel survey – the first such survey conducted by its staff since 1994. Among other things, the results showed that 81% of all regional commuters use a car to get to work, compared with 90% in 1994.

 

Metro Councilors were very excited by this apparent drop. They immediately took it as proof that the agency’s anti-car, pro-density policies are “working.” Council President Tom Hughes directed staff to quickly come up with a favorable “storyline” for the survey.

 

However, that may be a difficult task, because the evidence about regional travel patterns is more nuanced than it appears. For example, automobile commuting has dropped, but that has generally not translated into higher transit use. In fact, market share for transit in Portland has flat-lined for the past 12 years, as shown below. Travel is shifting to biking, walking, and telecommuting.

 

Mode Share for Weekday Commuting in Portland

1997-2012

 

Mode

1997

2000

2004

2008

2010

2012

Auto

80%

77%

80%

73%

69%

67%

Transit

10%

12%

11%

11%

12%

12%

Drive/transit

2%

2%

2%

4%

Bike

3%

3%

4%

8%

7%

7%

Walk

5%

5%

4%

4%

6%

7%

Other

7%

6%

                  Source: Portland Auditor’s Annual Community Surveys

 

This has caused a large mismatch between mode-shifting trends and public expenditures. Since 2000, we’ve opened a commuter rail line, created the Portland Streetcar, added four new light rail lines, approved construction of a new transit bridge over the Willamette River, and watched TriMet’s annual budget grow by 142%. Yet, the transit market share for commuting is stuck at 12%.

 

Even worse, transit share is actually declining in TriMet’s most natural market, downtown Portland. According to the Portland Business Alliance, between 2001 and 2010 the transit share of commuting travel for downtown workers dropped from 45% to 38%.

 

Other travel behavior metrics are equally puzzling. For instance, Metro regularly keeps track of daily vehicle miles traveled per-person (VMTPP) in the region. Since 2000 the VMTPP for Portland residents has declined by 4 percent, from 20 miles per day to 19.2. Yet the daily VMTPP for Vancouver travelers dropped by a much bigger margin, from 21.8 miles to 17.23 – a 21 percent change.

 

So if Metro Councilors hope that their staff will create a favorable “storyline” showing how regional land-use policies have led to reduced driving, they will also have to explain why the drop has been much greater north of the Columbia River.

 

But putting these conflicting trends aside, the biggest problem with Metro’s response to the survey is the agency’s worldview that driving is socially undesirable, so if we have less auto commuting, the region is automatically more “livable.” Not only is there nothing intrinsically wrong with driving, one easily could make a case that high levels of personal automobile use are indicators of an economically vibrant and socially dynamic region.

 

Increased driving is strongly correlated with higher incomes. In the Metro travel survey, transit mode share for households with less than $25,000 of family income was 9 percent, but only 2 percent for households with income greater than $75,000. How many people in the region would be unhappy if all households had incomes greater than $75,000 but transit use dropped as a result?

 

ODOT data shows that for every new job created, we should expect to see another 15,500 vehicle miles travelled each year. If total auto use went up because vast numbers of new jobs were created, would that make the region less livable?

 

And numerous studies have shown that access to a private automobile is critical to improving the economic wellbeing of low-income households, especially for those seeking employment. In fact, a growing number of progressive social service agencies (including at least one in Portland) are now running low-income car loan programs to help get poor people into private wheels. Should we discourage such programs because they cause transit use to drop?

 

Every trip has a purpose. If that purpose can be met best through a privately owned motor vehicle, then it does not make us better off to have politicians artificially discourage auto use by using parking meter revenues to pay for the streetcar, disallowing needed highway expansion, raising the TriMet payroll tax rate, subsidizing high-density projects with tax abatements, and cannibalizing scarce roadway capacity for light rail.

 

Instead of scheming to put a political spin on its new travel survey, Metro should use it to start a new conversation about how to define “livability.”

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

Doubling the Sellwood Bridge for the Use of the Two Percent

By Michael Nielsen

For more than six years, Multnomah County has been considering how best to replace the Sellwood Bridge. The adopted plan calls for removing the current bridge and replacing it with a new one that is twice as wide.

However, none of the new space will be available for cars, even though cars carry nearly 98% of all passenger-trips during the peak hours. Only about 40% of the new bridge will be allocated to vehicular travel, with the other 60% dedicated to non-motorized transportation in the form of bikeways and mega-sidewalks.

The new bridge does need more space for cyclists and pedestrians because the current bridge was never designed for them. There are only about four feet for cyclists and pedestrians to maneuver around each other. However, there is no reason to allocate 60% of bridge space to satisfy two percent of all travelers.

County Commissioners were recently shocked to discover that the price tag for the bridge has increased by $70 million since last year. If planners want to save money, they should reduce the width of the bridge. Planning for two 12-foot sidewalks to accommodate a few hundred pedestrians is simply a waste of resources. Thirteen feet in all will be added to please the bikers. It is important to be honest about how people actually use this bridge. During rush hour, every time 1,200 people cross the bridge via motor vehicle, only about 21 cross the bridge on bikes. Furthermore, only three cross the bridge by foot.

In addition, the new Sellwood Bridge will have a weight capacity of only 13 tons, excluding many commercial and private trucks from crossing the bridge. Before 2004, the old bridge was thought to hold a maximum of 32 tons. Since then, however, it has been deemed unsafe for anything over ten tons. According to Multnomah County’s website, “weight limits prevent many companies from using the bridge, forcing out-of-direction travel that adds to congestion on other routes and increases costs to businesses and consumers.” While the weight capacity is being increased slightly, it will be impossible for heavier trucks to use the bridge.

Given the above criticisms, the new Sellwood Bridge could be built more effectively in a number of ways. Reducing the width and increasing the weight capacity would serve the needs of the community better. The savings from the width modification could be more efficiently used to increase the structural integrity of the bridge. This would not force large trucks to go out of their way downtown in order to cross the river.

With the total cost of the bridge at approximately $299 million, planners should look for opportunities to cut expenses. When considering the odd and, at times, useless characteristics of the bridge (along with the half million dollars being spent on decorative columns), it is hard to justify the current plans from a cost efficiency perspective.

Much of the thought process going into this plan has been political in nature. This is an effective strategy only when the purpose of building a bridge is to make Portland appear more bike-friendly. Ultimately, the cost of the new Sellwood Bridge will be paid by taxpayers. It is only just that the real transportation needs of the community be addressed by the bridge’s capacity and design.

Michael Nielsen is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center. Nielsen is a student at California State University, Chico.

 

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