Tag: Trimet

TriMet Zombie Light Rail Project-cm

TriMet’s Zombie Light Rail Project

By John A. Charles, Jr.

President Trump is not the only one refusing to accept election results. The general manager of TriMet, Doug Kelsey, is claiming that the $3 billion Tigard light rail project is still alive, even though Portland-area voters rejected a proposed funding measure by a wide margin last month.

 At a recent public meeting, Mr. Kelsey stated that Tigard light rail would be built eventually because “demand still exists.”

That is a complete fantasy. Peak-hour ridership on all MAX lines during October was down 72% from a year ago. Unlike driving levels, which have nearly returned to normal, transit ridership has remained depressed over the past 9 months. Transit riders have simply moved on to other options.

Rail transit in particular requires high levels of both residential and worker density, but COVID has induced a mass exodus of workers from downtown Portland. Many of these changes will become permanent. Employers have discovered that remote working is not only feasible, it’s preferred by many employees.

Where is the value proposition for a network of slow trains to the city center if few people need to go there?

The TriMet board should start downsizing the agency immediately, and the easiest first step would be to cancel a rail line that doesn’t yet exist.

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

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$7 Billion for That?

Metro’s Transportation Tax Will Overspend on Underused Projects

By Rachel Dawson and Vlad Yurlov

What could you do with $7 billion? That’s the question on a lot of people’s minds as the Metro regional government pushes a permanent transportation tax this November. The tax will be paid by employers at workplaces with 26 or more workers, including nonprofit organizations. Metro, however, exempted itself and other local governments from paying the tax. Many of these projects will end up causing more problems in the future, creating congestion and redundancy and saddling us with more public debt.

The crown jewel of Metro’s transportation tax program is the Southwest Corridor light rail line extension, which is expected to cost $2.8 billion. This project encapsulates many of the problems in this measure. Southwest Corridor is an 11-mile extension of the MAX Green Line from Portland State University to the Bridgeport Village luxury mall. The draft environmental impact statement for the project concludes it will increase congestion at 46 intersections during the PM peak and 30 intersections during the AM, compared to only 36 and 14 intersections otherwise. Multiple I-5 ramps will see increases in congestion during both peak hours.

While some argue that light rail investments will get people out of their cars, much of light rail ridership comes from commuters who already ride public transit. Furthermore, light rail ridership has decreased by roughly 65% since the beginning of the pandemic, and many riders won’t return because CDC recommends that employees avoid transit. Roughly $2.8 billion will be spent on a rarely used facility that will worsen our region’s congestion.

Congestion Creators

Projects such as bus-only lanes will create bottlenecks and increase congestion on multiple corridors. Taking away a traffic lane before an intersection will force other vehicles to merge into a neighboring lane, increasing traffic and creating safety hazards. For example, Metro wants to implement at least one mile of bus-only lanes at various intersections along the Tualatin Valley Highway corridor. Portland’s proposed bus-only lanes are expected to increase delays for cars and trucks, divert traffic to nearby streets, and remove parking. Metro’s bus-only lanes are sure to produce similar congestion effects throughout the region.

Redundant Projects

While Portland certainly needs more bridges for cars and trucks, Metro’s bond measure will fund an unnecessary pedestrian bridge. The Trolley Trail Bridge is a $14.4 million project within the McLoughlin corridor. The bridge would cross the Clackamas River between Gladstone and Oregon City. The proposed bridge, however, is located right next to the recently renovated 82nd Drive Pedestrian Bridge. It takes less than 3 minutes for a cyclist to get from the proposed bridge’s end to the 82nd Drive Bridge and about 8 minutes for pedestrians. If local residents want to build a bridge next to an existing one, local jurisdictions should be the funding source. While it might be nice to have, this redundancy adds little value to the region.

Lavish Costs

The Foster/172nd Roundabout included in the Clackamas to Columbia corridor is a clear example of lavish spending and inflated costs. The City of Gresham’s 2018 cost estimate for a roundabout or traffic signal at this intersection was $342,000 (or approximately $348,197 in 2019 dollars). Metro’s new cost estimate for this project is more than 18 times higher at $6.5 million in 2019 dollars. This drastic increase in price calls into question the validity of this corridor’s cost estimates. Since the City of Gresham’s Transportation System Plan had this roundabout in its 50-year construction forecast, it is not an urgent development. However, safety improvements could be installed here with a traffic light for under $200,000. This amount can fit within a local jurisdiction’s budget without a regional wage tax.

These four examples were selected from hundreds of problematic investments proposed in Metro’s 2020 transportation measure. Increased congestion, redundancy, and lavish spending are not what we should be funding. Portland’s business community has made it clear that the tax imposed by this measure would cost jobs in our region. During an economic recession we should be leaving money in the voters’ pockets. Although Metro pushes this measure as a regional effort, everyone’s tax burdens will fund projects that few people will use. Metro area residents should vote “NO” on Metro’s Measure 26-218 this November.

Rachel Dawson and Vlad Yurlov are policy analysts at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. They can be reached at rachel@cascadepolicy.org and vlad@cascadepolicy.org.

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Metro’s Mission Creep

By Vlad Yurlov

Metro is expected to spend over $1.4 billion this fiscal year. That nearly triples their revenue from a decade ago. But, has anyone received three times the service?

Instead of improving its basic functions, Metro is micro-managing the entire region. Metro’s original charter provided the regional government with a modest mission of growth planning. But, it also allows Metro to address “matters of metropolitan concern.” These four words have led to decades of mission creep.

A prime example of Metro’s mission creep is their upcoming transportation ballot measure, which has only one regional project. ODOT, TriMet, and every local jurisdiction already have dedicated transportation funding mechanisms, such as the gas and property taxes. Nevertheless, Metro is seeking to funnel another $5.2 billion in payroll taxes to fund its own priorities. By disrupting the tie between local money and local projects, Metro will continue to hurt local transportation.

Instead of 17 politically chosen projects, Metro’s residents should be using their money to decrease traffic congestion. The upcoming transportation measure only offers three percent to ease traffic congestion, while using up a tax base hammered by the pandemic.

Voters should reject Metro’s transportation ballot measure and call out their mission creep. There is no sense in laundering billions of dollars through a bloated bureaucracy when locally elected organizations already manage transportation improvements. Let’s keep taxes and transportation improvements local and worthwhile.

Vlad Yurlov is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Metro Pushes Transportation Bond While Acknowledging Serious Problems

Oregon’s Business Community Is Challenging the $7.8 Billion Measure

By Vlad Yurlov

After years of planning, revising, and negotiating Metro’s transportation funding plan, the region’s business community has had enough. Last month, several tri-county chambers of commerce sent a letter to the Metro Council urging a delay on the measure, because of the COVID-19 epidemic.

Metro spent years finding ways to spend money on transportation projects, while spending about two months figuring out how to pay for it. They only settled on a payroll tax because polling was good.

But, Metro’s polling was from May, when much of the county was hopeful the pandemic would be over by the start of school. Instead, the economy has crashed with businesses closing, workers losing their jobs, and thousands of families struggling to pay their bills. For many households, Metro’s plan to create a permanent payroll tax costing $500 a year for the average worker reflects bad timing, if not poor judgment.

Metro Council President Lynn Peterson claims the spending will create jobs, reduce pollution, prepare the region for growth, and advance racial justice. But such claims require extraordinary evidence.

The plan will not “create” thousands of jobs. Metro President Peterson falls for the fallacy that spending more money creates more jobs. In fact, Metro’s payroll tax will reduce take-home pay and kill jobs. Research shows that workers pay the price of a payroll tax, with low-skilled workers suffering the most. Even the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Green Line extension states that “net employment change in the corridor and region over the long term…would likely be negligible.”

The plan will not “advance” racial justice. Metro admits the Southwest Corridor light rail line will displace hundreds of residents and businesses, many of whom are from minority and low-income communities. While strategies to reduce the impact have been discussed, communities of color will be forced to uproot their lives because of these projects.

Finally, the plan will not “reduce” pollution. Climate Solutions and Oregon Environmental Council expect that the measure’s projects would only reduce emissions by less than one-tenth of one percent per year.

The plan will not “transform” its key corridors. Most of the projects involve minor improvements such as adding lighting and mending sidewalks, as well as improved lights and access improvements.

The plan will not “prepare” the region for growth. Many of the new amenities will likely inhibit new commuters travelling between work, home, and leisure destinations, because most of the projects are designed to make congestion worse.

The Council President’s letters tried to cut deals with the business community. She offered a reduction of the payroll tax, on the condition that the Portland Business Alliance doesn’t campaign against the measure and lobbies Oregon’s legislature to recoup the losses. This was quickly rejected. Instead, Metro carved out local governments from the tax, right before the referral vote. This 11% loss further burdens businesses and residents.

Willamette Week reported that the Metro Council remains “undaunted.” The business community then filed a ballot title challenge arguing that Metro’s wording was unfair in using the phrase “business tax” rather than a “wage-based payroll tax.” While Metro employees use the term “payroll tax,” it was recharacterized as a business tax after realizing how unpopular the phrase sounds during a time when many firms can’t make payroll and so many families aren’t getting paid.

A large part of the push for the measure on the ballot is Lynn Peterson’s chase for federal funding, which she believes will run out if voters don’t approve the measure. Additionally, Lynn Peterson is suspected to be eyeing a run for Oregon governor. This means that this measure’s rush may not be out of preparedness, but of an eager Council looking to grab federal dollars, even if it means that our own tax rates will skyrocket, and personal gain.

Metro’s transportation measure would cripple the region’s COVID-19 recovery, because the payroll tax that funds it diverts development away from businesses that create wealth and into projects that merely move it around. This transportation bond measure will not allow the tri-county area to “Get Moving.” Residents and businesses will have to freeze in place to survive an additional payroll tax for another unsustainable gamble.

Vlad Yurlov is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. He has closely followed Metro’s transportation bond and is currently researching its history and impacts.

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Metro’s Untimely, Nonsensical Light-Rail Project

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Last month, the Metro Council voted to send a regional payroll tax to the November ballot. The rationale for the new $250-million-a-year tax is primarily to help fund a 12-mile light rail extension from Portland to Bridgeport Village in Tigard. It will also pay for a smattering of minor transportation projects throughout the region, but those are just ornaments on the tree.

There are at least three problems with this proposal. The first is that we already pay two transit taxes: the TriMet payroll tax assessed on employers, and the statewide transit tax collected from employees’ paychecks that was adopted by the Legislature in 2017. Most people don’t benefit from either one, because they don’t use transit. Adding a third tax to pay for light rail to Tigard ­– called the Southwest Corridor project – makes no sense.

Second, light rail ridership peaked in 2012 and has been dropping ever since. Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, it is down about 70% from last July, according to TriMet ridership numbers. With many worried about the inability to physically distance on public transit and the prospect that some may work from home permanently, more rail is the wrong project at the wrong time.

Third, if the Metro tax is approved, TriMet could bulldoze nearly 300 homes and up to 156 businesses for the right-of-way, according to its environmental impact statement. Roughly as many as 1,990 employees will be forced to leave the area, the analysis states.

This ghastly level of destruction recalls the heavy-handed actions of the government when it rammed I-5 through the Albina neighborhood in the 1960s, an act that reverberates today as the state aims to widen the highway in that same stretch. Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who resigned from the Oregon Department of Transportation’s steering committee for the I-5 project in June, emphasized this in her resignation letter: “In 1962, ODOT dug a trench through Oregon’s largest Black community, demolishing 300+ homes, disrupting and destabilizing the community, and polluting the environment.”

While the Southwest Corridor is not Albina and Commissioner Eudaly cannot undo history, she can help prevent a similar bulldozing of people’s homes. She is currently a member of the steering committee for the SW Corridor Project. If she really cares about protecting homes and businesses, she should resign from the SW Corridor Steering Committee and actively oppose more light rail construction. The other commissioners should join her.

But voters don’t need to wait for the Portland City Council to do the right thing. They will have the opportunity to reject Metro’s new tax in November, and they should.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market public policy research organization. This article originally appeared in The Oregonian on August 5, 2020.

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Portland Politicians Suffer From the Edifice Complex

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

On July 24th, the New York Times ran a 2,300-word piece describing the challenges owners of vacation homes have faced in converting their second homes into their primary residences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Challenges included the inability to get a Starbucks vanilla latte or find a bagel shop.

Readers overwhelming responded: “Read the room, New York Times!”

With millions out of work and struggling to pay the bills, it’s hard to sympathize with a vacation homeowner struggling to find a place in her second home to put a pencil holder and paper tray she bought in Florence, Italy.

Closer to home, our elected leaders can’t read the room either. Sitting safely in their home offices, collecting steady paychecks, and venturing out for a photo op at a protest, they continue to push ever higher taxes on their struggling constituents.

Less than five months after sending two new income taxes to the voters, Metro is now charging full speed ahead on a payroll tax to pay for the unneeded Southwest Corridor light rail project from Portland to Bridgeport Village. The project anticipates tearing up Barbur Boulevard and adding congestion to dozens of intersections and highway ramps. Making way for light rail will require the destruction of at least 78 residential dwellings, and as many as 293. In addition, as many as 156 businesses will be forced out, displacing up to 1,990 employees.

The payroll tax will cost about $500 a year for the average household in the region. That’s $500 that can’t be spent on rent, utilities, groceries and other necessities.

Read the room, Metro. Is a light rail line to an upscale shopping mall more important than the houses that’ll be bulldozed, the business that’ll be shuttered, and paychecks that’ll be raided?

The City of Portland is no better. Because of years of mismanagement, the city’s parks bureau has spent itself into a deep hole. Last year, the city closed the Sellwood and Hillside community centers. This year, Mayor Ted Wheeler cancelled all summer parks programs. Even with the cuts, the city claims the parks program has a deficit of more than $6 million.

Earlier this month, the city council voted to send a $48 million-a-year property tax increase to the ballot to fund its mismanaged parks program. It’s not clear why the city needs $48 million to fill a $6 million gap. But, I’m just a dumb voter who doesn’t understand the ins and outs of government accounting.

Nevertheless, in a time when tenants can’t pay their rents and homeowners can’t make their mortgage payments, Mayor Wheeler and city council are promoting a tax increase that will cost the average Portlander $180 a year. Read the room, Portland.

Of course, Multnomah County has to get into the money grab game, too. In November, voters will decide on a $37 million property tax measure to increase library spending. That’s about $115 a year for the average household. Currently, all the county libraries are closed, except for picking up books put on hold. Maybe the libraries can wait until after this recession is over before reaching into our wallets. Read the room, Multnomah County.

Even though schools are closed and Portland Public Schools is still mumbling and fumbling over its plans for the fall, PPS is looking to send a $1.1 billion property tax measure to the ballot in November. A big chunk of that money is earmarked to pay for nearly $250 million in cost overruns from the last school bond measure.

With the pandemic causing a radical rethinking of how education is delivered to our children, perhaps now is not the right time to embark on a spending blowout to build more massive brick-and-mortar schools. Read the room, PPS.

For years – no, more like decades – Portland-area voters seemed to have demonstrated an endless tolerance for raising their own taxes. They also seem eager to elect politicians who promise more and more spending on massive and costly projects. This has been called the “Edifice Complex” – it’s fun and sexy to be at the ribbon cutting for a new MAX line, library or remodeled school. There are no photo ops for trimming a budget.

In 2020, Portland-area politicians have become so consumed by their Edifice Complex that they have failed to read the room. In the middle of a pandemic and recession, voters may teach the elected that feeding their families is more important than feeding the beast of local government.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market public policy research organization. This article was originally published in the July 2020 Oregon Transformation newsletter.

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TriMet’s decreasing ridership makes the SW Corridor project obsolete

By Rachel Dawson

TriMet’s weekly system boardings were down 68% in May compared to last year due to the Coronavirus, and ridership will likely stay down since the CDC is recommending that people avoid transit altogether. But it’s not just the pandemic; ridership has been dropping for years.

TriMet’s revenues have increased by 171 percent since 2000, while the agency’s ridership (number of originating rides) has increased by only 18 percent. However, ridership peaked in 2012 and has since dropped by 7 percent between 2012 and 2019.

The negative trend for ridership is primarily due to a drop in light rail utilization. Since the peak in 2012, bus ridership has decreased by 2% while light rail has decreased by 12% (a difference of just under one million for bus and 4.2 million for light rail).

Since 2000, TriMet has constructed four new light rail lines: the Red Line (2001), Yellow Line (2004), Green Line (2009), and Orange Line (2015). However, the costly increase in light rail capacity has not corresponded with a similar increase in ridership.

TriMet seems to have learned the wrong lesson from this underperformance. The agency is proposing a $2.6-2.8 billion light rail line from Downtown Portland to the Bridgeport Village mall, nearly $1 billion of which TriMet expects will be paid for by Metro’s Get Moving 2020 transportation measure.

The Southwest Corridor project is the wrong investment for our region. Portland Metro area voters should vote “no” on Metro’s transportation measure this fall.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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The Era of Permanent Prosperity Is Over: It’s Time for a Serious Budget Discussion

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

The 2020 we’re living in is very different from the 2020 we rang in at the beginning of the year.

In January, there were about a dozen Democrats seeking the nomination for President. Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, free college tuition, and universal basic income were seriously debated as potential policies for a Democratic President.

State and local politicians in Oregon were eagerly awaiting the first payments from the billion-dollars-a-year Corporate Activities Tax (CAT), the money earmarked to finally pull Oregon out of its near-last in the nation ratings of K-12 achievement. Cap-and-trade would end climate change. More bike paths, sidewalks, and light rail—always more light rail—would put an end to traffic congestion. A booming stock market meant we’d never have to reform PERS.

Today, schools are shuttered, businesses are crushed by the CAT, and TriMet ridership has evaporated and may never come back. Climate change is the least of our worries, and PERS will likely sink the state.

We began the year with an illusion of permanent prosperity, a game of musical chairs in which the music never ends. There wasn’t a single problem that couldn’t be solved with more spending. Tax increases were sold as equal to the cost of a latte a day. But, there were a lot of lattes.

Little did we know the music would stop so soon. Never mind buying a latte a day, today half the state can’t get a haircut even if they could afford one. Not only is the state’s education system deeply flawed, we learned our unemployment system is completely broken and our health care system is way more fragile than we thought. Rather than ramping up testing, the state simply tells us to “Stay home. Save lives.” The myth of permanent prosperity has given way to a reality of endemic dysfunction.

The latest revenue forecast for the state should be a wakeup call for the governor and the legislature. With anticipated revenues down $2.7 billion from pre-COVID projections, there is no way to avoid big budget cuts. Tax increases must be ruled out—struggling households and businesses need the cash to pay their own bills. We can’t turn the public sector’s budget problems into a private sector bankruptcy crisis. It’s going to take strong political leadership.

Three program areas make up nearly 90% of the state budget: education, human services, and public safety. Employee compensation—salaries, PERS, and other benefits—are a huge portion of these costs. There is no way to balance the budget without cuts in these areas.

PERS must be reformed. The first step should be to move all new employees to a 401(k)-type defined contribution program. This small move won’t solve the impending pension catastrophe; it’s simply a crucial first step toward more meaningful reforms. The most meaningful would be an amendment to the state’s constitution specifying public sector employment agreements are not contracts.

Public school spending must be cut. Construction projects should be shelved, and the money used for planning these projects should be shifted to the classroom. Introducing an education savings account program could save the state money by encouraging students to pursue schooling outside of the public sector, thereby reducing public school enrollment and expenditures. The state’s university system must be streamlined. This means closing smaller, struggling public institutions that have demonstrated a low return on investment for their students.

The legislature should reconsider Oregon’s participation in Medicaid expansion. While the feds pick up 90% of the costs for the expansion population, the cost to the state for the other 10% is eye-popping. In the last budget cycle, the state faced a $1.7 billion budget shortfall. At the time, Governor Kate Brown claimed, “Three-fifths of this deficit is the cost of expanding health care to all Oregonians.” That was when the economy was going gangbusters. Today, Medicaid expansion is a luxury the state cannot afford.

The cynic says, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Nevertheless, a crisis is a time to re-evaluate priorities, and the best measure of politicians’ priorities are the budgets they pass. The era of permanent prosperity has ended, and we have entered an age where rational realism must rule.

: Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute and an adjunct professor at Portland State University, where he teaches courses in urban economics and regulation. He can be reached at eric@cascadepolicy.org.

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Cars, not transit, are the COVID-19 transportation heroes

By Rachel Dawson

When it comes to commuting during COVID-19, private vehicles are coming out well ahead of mass transit.

The Center for Disease Control has stated that cars are a better option than transit during the crisis and has even suggested that businesses offer their employees incentives to “use forms of transportation that minimize close contact with others,” such as driving alone or biking.

TriMet is seeing the effects of this recommendation firsthand. Transit use is estimated to have dropped 68% between February and May of this year as Portlanders chose to either stay at home or opt for other means of transportation.

TriMet is planning for significant revenue losses in coming years due to lost funds from payroll taxes and passenger fares. It may be years before the transit agency sees pre-COVID passenger numbers, which had already been falling since 2012 despite the addition of the Orange line in 2015.

Falling ridership and revenues should come as a signal to officials to halt any further investments to the costly light rail system. Instead, Metro and TriMet continue to push for the $3 billion Southwest Corridor light rail project from Downtown Portland to the Bridgeport Village.

Businesses and workers are already struggling with lost revenues and wages due to the virus. Our region doesn’t need another boondoggle, it needs relief. Metro residents should vote “no” on Metro’s proposed transportation measure this fall.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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The hidden truth behind the Renewable Energy Certificate market

By Rachel Dawson

You may have noticed companies and public agencies using the words “renewable energy certificates” or RECs in regard to the alleged source of their electricity, but rarely do they explain what they are. Only that purchasing RECs on your behalf is a good thing.

But what exactly is a REC? And what benefits do we as voters and consumers reap from these entities’ continued investment in them?

As it turns out, they may not do as much “good” as you’re being told.

RECs are a tradable commodity sold by renewable energy facilities (such as wind and solar farms) to the wholesale market, that purport to represent the “environmental amenities” of certain renewable energy projects. By purchasing a REC, an entity has the legal right to claim it is using renewable energy; however, the group has not purchased any energy itself.

For example, the City of Portland has the objective of generating or purchasing “100 percent of all electricity for city operations from renewable resources.” However, the vast majority of the claimed “renewable energy sources” are actually RECs purchased on the market from wind farms. In fact, 14% of the renewable energy they claim to have comes from wind farms in Alaska. Since Portland is in no way connected to the Alaskan grid, the City of Portland is using taxpayers’ dollars to lay claim to wind energy that is actually being consumed by Alaskans.

Further, TriMet claims their electric buses run on 100% wind energy, however, TriMet’s buses are hooked up to the same utility grid as your home. This means that only 9% of the electricity they consume is actually wind, while 14% comes from coal. The only difference is TriMet spends $228.75 per month to claim their electricity is completely green.

Many private companies also purchase RECs, purely for public relations purposes. Buyers include Starbucks and General Mills. These costs are then passed on to consumers even though renewable energy was not actually used.

Fortunately one major company is pulling the curtain back on this practice, and ironically it’s the company Portland politicians love to hate: WalMart.

According to WalMart: (emphasis added)

“We want to do more than just shift around ownership (and marketing rights) of existing renewable energy…we prefer not to simply offset our non-renewable power by purchasing standalone renewable energy credits (RECs)…While REC purchasing may allow us to more quickly say we are supplied by 100% renewable energy…we do not have confidence that offsetting instruments alone are sufficient to drive new renewable projects, as opposed to simply shifting around ownership of existing renewable electrons.” (emphasis added)

WalMart’s analysis is backed up by leading academics. According to Daniel Press, a Professor of Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz, “RECs do little to reduce emissions in the real world because they have become too cheap to shift energy markets or incentivize businesses to build new turbines.”

Further, Michael Gillenwater, a Princeton researcher who helped to develop the EPA’s carbon emissions tracking system, admits that most renewable energy projects would have been developed without the help of consumer purchased RECs. It’s hard to verify claims made by utilities regarding the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that were avoided due to RECs and “you don’t have an overseeing regulator ensuring that the claims made are backed up.”

Private companies are free to spend their money as they please. However, Oregon should prohibit the purchase of RECs with tax dollars by government agencies. If the goal is more renewable energy, then like WalMart we should focus on generating actual electricity.

Certainly, it would be embarrassing for Oregon politicians to admit that they are wrong and WalMart is right. But the long path to moral redemption begins with the first steps.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Cascade Policy Institute Asks the Federal Transit Administration to Enforce Light Rail Contracts with TriMet

March 9, 2020

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contact:
John A. Charles, Jr.
(503) 242-0900
john@cascadepolicy.org

Portland, OR – Cascade Policy Institute has submitted a letter to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) requesting that the agency enforce contracts with TriMet for three light rail projects: the Yellow Line, the Green Line, and the Orange Line. Each project received substantial federal funding, which came with contractual obligations to provide minimum levels of service. TriMet has not met those obligations.

For both the Yellow and Green Lines, TriMet is supposed to be providing 8 trains per hour during peak periods. Current service on those lines is 4 trains per hour.

For the Orange Line, TriMet is supposed to be providing 6 trains per peak-hour. Current service provides only 4.6 trains per hour.

All three lines are also traveling at slower speeds than promised, and ridership projections have been missed by large margins.

Under FTA policy, the agency is empowered to demand repayment of federal funding if grant recipients fail to meet the terms of funding contracts. In its letter, Cascade Policy Institute is asking that FTA require TriMet to begin operating light rail lines in accordance with grant agreements within six months or begin paying back the federal funding.

Cascade is also requesting that FTA embargo any future funding for the Southwest Corridor Project, until such time as previous light rail projects are in compliance with contracts.

According to John A. Charles, Jr., President of Cascade Policy Institute, “TriMet’s under-performance is not an aberration, it’s a pattern. Since FTA has funded more than half the cost of the total MAX system, FTA should hold TriMet accountable by requiring the district to provide the service that was promised.”

The letter can be read here.

About Cascade Policy Institute:

Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research and educational organization that focuses on state and local issues in Oregon. Cascade’s mission is to develop and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity. For more information, visit cascadepolicy.org.

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TriMet Drops Ridership Estimate by 13% for Tigard Light Rail

By John A. Charles, Jr.

After eight years of bragging that the proposed light rail line to Tigard would result in average daily ridership of 43,000, TriMet has quietly dropped the estimate to 37,500.

This “bait-and-switch” was totally predictable. At the start of every rail planning process, TriMet creates a high ridership estimate to get local politicians excited. Once the politicians agree to help fund the project, ridership forecasts are revised downwards. Eventually construction begins, and just before opening day, ridership estimates are lowered again.

At that point, it’s too late for politicians to back out.

TriMet promised Milwaukie officials that there would be 19,450 average daily rides on the Orange line in 2020. The actual ridership today is 12,160—63% of the forecast.

For the Blue line, ridership today is only 50% of the 2020 forecast.

The worst performer is the Yellow line, where ridership is a paltry 38% of the 2020 forecast.

While ridership is always low, construction costs are always high. For the Tigard line, cost estimates have gone up by 58% just since 2016. The current estimate is $2.85 billion.

Tigard light rail will be the most wasteful project in state history, if it ever gets built. The time to pull the plug is now.

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

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Deal With It—Commuters Need Cars

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

How did you get to work today? If you’re like 80% of Portland-area commuters, you rode in a car. And, on your way to and from work, you probably grumbled about how much worse your commute has gotten.

Over the past five years, the region has added nearly 180,000 more commuters. Most of them drive to work and they’re congesting our roads.

In normal times, transportation authorities would add capacity to the road network and improve streets for safe and speedy commutes.

But, we don’t live in normal times. Last week, Portland commissioner Chloe Eudaly declared to a packed council meeting that the city was not going to build more roads. This is nothing new; it was the same no-new-roads promise Mayor Ted Wheeler made early in his term.

Their solution is to pack more people on public transit and get more people to bike or walk to work. But their solution is doomed to fail. Despite a surging growth in commuters, TriMet ridership is down while so-called “active transportation” has stagnated. The most recent data show only a little over 5% of commuters bike or walk.

After decades of trying to get people to abandon their cars, our leaders need to understand the automobile is an amazing technology of freedom and improve our roads to support that freedom.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Like Other MAX Projects, TriMet’s Green Line Underdelivers at 10th Anniversary

By Rachel Dawson

TriMet has proven time and again that it is unable to live up to past promises. The MAX Green Line, which first opened 10 years ago, is no exception.

The Green Line is fifteen miles long and runs along I-205 from Portland State University to the Clackamas Town Center (CTC). It began as a portion of the North-South light rail alignment, which was canceled in 1988 after failing to secure voter funding. TriMet attempted to scale the alignment down to run from North Portland to the CTC, but the project was again rejected by voters in 1996 and 1998.

The plan for light rail to the CTC was later resurrected in 2001, and planning for the Green Line commenced in concert with the more recently implemented Orange Line to Milwaukie.

The alignment eventually earned federal approval in 2006. Of the total $575.7 million price tag, $478.2 million came from the federal government, $23 million came from the state, and $74.5 million came from local jurisdictions.

Of the local match, $69 million came from the City of Portland, $39.3 million from Clackamas County (the majority of which came from the county’s urban renewal funds), $23 million from the Oregon Department of Transportation, $20.5 million from TriMet, and $6.2 million from land donation and other funds.

The Green Line has failed to live up to these promised expectations:

Ridership is lower than projected. When the Federal Transit Administration completed its 2015 “Before and After Study” on the line, there was an average 24,000 daily weekday boarding rides. This is well below the 30,400 riders that TriMet predicted at entry into preliminary engineering for the line’s opening year. That number has continued to decrease to just over 16,000 average daily riders in August 2019, making up only 34% of the FEIS’s predicted ridership levels for 2025. With five years to go until 2025, it seems unlikely that the Green Line will garner the 30,500 riders needed to hit TriMet’s promised level of 46,500 boarding rides.

The line has lower frequency than promised. Trains arrive at stations every 15 minutes during peak periods and every 35 minutes at other times of the day. TriMet promised trains would arrive every 10 minutes during peak hours and every 15 during other times. TriMet attempted to blame this low level of service on a decline in tax revenues during the recession, but train frequency has not increased since the economy has recovered. Furthermore, TriMet’s total operating and non-operating revenues increased from 2009 to 2018 by 54%, and revenue from payroll and other taxes increased by 71%. The payroll tax rate will continue to go up every year until 2024, although it appears the Green Line’s level of service won’t increase with it.

Instead of the promised passengers, light rail brought increased crime to the CTC area. Clackamas County experienced heightened crime in the corridor from 2009-2012 after the Green Line opened and an increase in graffiti around MAX stops, according to a survey by the Oregon High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program sent to the Clackamas County Sheriff.

Unsurprisingly, the line’s cost was higher than TriMet originally anticipated. The final price tag of $576 million was 14% greater than the anticipated cost in preliminary engineering, a difference of about $70 million.

TriMet is now planning for a 12-mile line from downtown Portland to Tigard. Elected officials from Tualatin, Tigard, Durham, and Washington County should take a sobering look at TriMet’s track record on the Green Line, the Yellow Line, and WES. It shows a consistent pattern of over-promising and under-performing. Given this history, TriMet’s projections for the SW Corridor project should not be trusted.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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TriMet Broke Key Promises About MAX

Published in Portland Tribune

By Rachel Dawson

TriMet’s payroll tax has been increasing since 2005 and will continue to go up every year until 2024. There is no issue with revenue; rather, the issue lies with light rail.

TriMet’s MAX Yellow Line first opened 15 years ago in May 2004. The Yellow Line’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) made a myriad of predictions for the year 2020, which makes now the perfect time to reflect on what officials promised and what taxpayers and transit riders since have received.

The Yellow Line originated in 1988 as a 21-mile project connecting Vancouver, Washington, with downtown Portland and Clackamas Town Center. This plan was scrapped after Clark County voters defeated a proposal to raise $236.5 million in 1995 and Oregon voters turned down a $475 million regional ballot measure in 1998.

Read the full article here

Content credit to Portland Tribune

 

 

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The MAX Yellow Line: A Look Back After 15 Years

By Rachel Dawson

TriMet’s MAX Yellow Line first opened 15 years ago in May 2004. The Yellow Line’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) made a myriad of predictions for the year 2020, which makes now the perfect time to reflect on what officials promised and what taxpayers and transit riders have since received.

Yellow Line History

The Yellow Line originated in 1988 as a 21-mile project connecting Vancouver, Washington with Downtown Portland and Clackamas Town Center. This plan was scrapped after Clark County voters defeated a proposal to raise $236.5 million in 1995 and Oregon voters turned down a $475 million regional ballot measure in 1998.

Not to be deterred by a lack of voter support, officials developed a shorter alternative in 1999 that would run from the Expo Center to Downtown Portland along Interstate Avenue. This alternative cost $350 million, 74% of which came from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

The construction of the new alternative was not put to a public vote. Portland officials instead expanded an urban renewal district to include the Interstate Avenue Corridor. Doing so allowed them to appropriate $30 million in tax increment funds to finance the rail that otherwise would have gone to other tax-collecting jurisdictions, including Multnomah County. The county commissioners opposed expansion of the urban renewal district, but the Portland City Council approved it anyway.

Looking back after fifteen years, we find that key promises made in the FEIS were never kept:

1.  Frequency of Service

What We Were Promised: TriMet promised FTA in their Full-Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) that peak-hour trains would arrive every ten minutes and off-peak trains every 15 minutes. The promised service according to the FEIS was supposed to reach eight trains during peak hours in 2020.

What We Received: Instead of having 10-15-minute headways between trains, the Yellow Line runs every 15 minutes during peak-periods and every 30 minutes during other parts of the day.

2.  Travel Times

What We Were Promised: TriMet predicted travel times to be 24 minutes from Downtown Portland to the Expo Center and 19 minutes from Downtown Portland to N Lombard.[1] Light rail speeds were projected to reach 15.3 miles per hour (mph), and bus speeds were projected to be 13.2 mph in 2005.[2]

What We Received: Actual travel times are slower than predicted. It takes 35 minutes to take light rail from Downtown Portland to the Expo Center and 28 minutes from Downtown Portland to N Lombard, even though light rail has its own exclusive right of way. Actual travel times are 45.8% greater to the Expo Center and 47.4% greater to N Lombard. Actual light rail speeds in the corridor only hit 14.1 mph in 2005 while bus speeds averaged 16.1 mph—significantly faster than predicted.

3.  High ridership

What We Were Promised: The FEIS forecasted ridership in the corridor to dramatically increase with the building of the Yellow Line. By 2020 the line’s ridership was expected to have 18,100 average weekday riders.

What We Received: At no point since the Yellow Line opened has ridership met projected levels. In April 2019 ridership only reached 13,270, 26.7% less than projected. This number will not meet 2020 projected levels based upon the negative trend observed over the past three years. From March 2016 to March 2019 ridership levels decreased by 3.6%.

Lower than promised ridership isn’t unique to the Yellow Line; every TriMet rail forecast has been wrong, and always wrong on the high side.

Light Rail Is Not Superior to Bus Transit

The Yellow Line was expected to provide superior service compared to the no-build bus alternative. This forecast hasn’t panned out. The Yellow Line replaced Line #5, which if it were still operating, would have seven-minute headways between Vancouver and Downtown Portland. C-Tran express service was forecasted to have three-minute headways.[3]

Light rail does not reach any more people or businesses than Line #5 did. In fact, Line #5 had more stops along Interstate Avenue, meaning some riders now have a longer walking commute to the MAX stations.

TriMet bus service from Vancouver to Downtown Portland continues to be an option even after the Yellow Line’s construction. Line #6 was changed to pick up the link between Jantzen Beach and the Yellow Line’s Delta Park stop that Line #5 had previously serviced. It then continues down MLK Boulevard to the Portland City Center.

In Spring 2019, Line #6 saw 665 average weekday on/offs at Jantzen Beach and only 190 total on/offs at Delta Park. This means that the vast majority of Vancouver commuters on Line #6 opt to stay on the bus to Portland instead of transferring to the Yellow Line.

Given the Yellow Line’s history, we can expect the prospective SW Corridor light rail project to increase traffic, have fewer trains than promised, and have lower ridership than predicted. If ridership levels are 26.7% below forecast 15 years into service, why should the SW Corridor ridership estimate of 43,000 daily boardings be taken seriously? The FTA should not offer TriMet additional light rail funding in the future if TriMet is unable to honor its past promises.

TriMet may argue that service levels are below EIS forecasted levels due to a lack of funds. However, TriMet’s revenue increase in recent years tells otherwise. Between 1998 and 2018, passenger fares increased by 116% and tax revenue increased by 64%. TriMet’s payroll tax has been increasing since 2005 and will continue to go up every year until 2024. There is no issue with revenue; rather, the issue lies with light rail.

Moving forward, Metro and TriMet should focus on creating a more reliable bus network that runs on an already built road system. Doing so will benefit riders and taxpayers alike.

__________________________

[1] Federal Transportation Authority, Interstate MAX Before and After Study, 2005, 2-5.

[2] Id, 2-10.

[3] North Corridor Instate MAX Light Rail Project, Final Environmental Impact Statement Executive Summary, October 1999, S-17.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Better Buses May Be the Transit Solution the SW Corridor Needs

By Rachel Dawson

TriMet may have found a better alternative to the proposed SW Corridor light rail project without realizing it.

TriMet is planning a 15-mile-long transit project on Division Street that will run 60-foot buses from downtown Portland to Gresham. The project is estimated to cost $150 million and will include expanded bus stations that offer protection from the weather and signal priority for buses to cut down on travel times by 20%. Each bus is equipped with three doors and can hold 60% more passengers than the typical TriMet bus.

TriMet discarded the idea of continuing buses along the proposed SW Corridor route in favor of light rail despite decreasing transit ridership and increasing light rail costs. Instead of spending nearly $3 billion on a new light rail line, TriMet could mimic the Division Transit Project and run high capacity buses along the route with upgraded stations for just 5% of light rail’s cost. Running buses on an already built system will save hundreds of residents and employees from being displaced. TriMet can also decrease bus emissions by trading diesel for renewable or compressed natural gas for a cleaner ride.

It’s time for TriMet to stop making excuses for light rail and do what is best for both taxpayers and commuters in Portland.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Think TriMet’s New Electric Buses Run on Wind Power? Think Again.

By Rachel Dawson

TriMet unveiled five new battery-electric buses (BEBs) in April 2019, the sides of which all donned images of windmills and sweeping gusts of wind. The BEBs each cost around $1 million, nearly twice as much as a traditional diesel bus. And these buses are just the beginning: The TriMet board voted last year to replace the entire fleet with battery-electric buses for $1.18 billion by 2040, a $500 million premium over a diesel fleet.

TriMet has been hailed an environmental hero for “riding the winds of change.” TriMet Spokesperson Roberta Altstadt claimed that TriMet was the first in the United States to “operate an electric bus on 100% renewable energy.” Without further research, it would be easy to think that TriMet’s new buses ran on clean wind energy. And that is exactly what TriMet is hoping you would think. But you would be wrong.

If the buses don’t run on 100% wind power, how is TriMet able to get away with saying they do?

TriMet spends $228.75 per month on what are known as renewable energy certificates (RECs) from PGE. RECs are a tradable commodity sold by renewable energy facilities (such as wind farms) to the wholesale market, that purport to represent the “environmental amenities” of certain renewable energy projects. By purchasing the RECs, TriMet has bought the legal right to claim it is using renewable energy; however, the agency has not purchased any energy itself.

This would be like my paying someone else to exercise at the gym for me, and then telling my family and friends I go to the gym. The person I pay reaps both financial and physical benefits while I merely get to pretend I have them.

Supporters of RECs claim the certificates offset fossil fuels and pay for the generation of new renewable energy. However, these claims are not entirely accurate. According to Daniel Press, a Professor of Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz, “RECs do little to reduce emissions in the real world because they have become too cheap to shift energy markets or incentivize businesses to build new turbines.” The income generated from RECs does not come close to the millions needed to construct more wind turbines, which means that RECs themselves don’t offset fossil fuels.

Despite its claims, it would be impossible for TriMet to run on 100% wind power unless it disconnected from the regional mixed grid and hooked up to its own personal wind farm. Even then, TriMet would be forced to rely on other backup power sources due to the volatility of wind generation.

While a wind turbine may be available to produce energy around 90% of the time, the average wind farm in the United States in 2018 had a capacity factor of only 37.4%. The capacity factor refers to the amount of energy produced in a year as a fraction of the farm’s maximum capacity. Wind farms produce electricity when winds reach about nine miles per hour and stop at roughly 55 mph to prevent equipment damage. If the wind isn’t blowing (or isn’t blowing strongly enough), little to no power can be generated.

This poses problems, as the electrical grid requires constant equilibrium or blackouts will result—power supply must meet energy demand. Every megawatt of wind power has to be backed up by an equal amount of traditional, “non-green” sources like coal and natural gas to account for times when wind energy isn’t generated. This would be like keeping a car constantly running at home in case the one you’re driving on the road fails.

Instead of a wind farm, TriMet receives its electricity from Portland General Electric, the same mixed grid your home is likely powered by. In 2020, this mixed grid will be made up of 37% natural gas, 28% coal, 18% hydro, 15% renewables, and 2% purchased power (power purchased on the wholesale market). Since wind only makes up a portion of renewables used by PGE, less than 15% of the electricity used by the “wind” buses is powered by wind. A greater percentage of the electricity used by TriMet’s BEBs comes from coal plants than wind farms.

If TriMet were honest with its riders, it would replace the windmills on the sides of the new buses with coal, natural gas, and hydroelectric power plants. In the name of accuracy, TriMet could place a windmill in the corner, demonstrating the small percentage of power generated by wind farms.

So instead of riding the “winds of change,” keep in mind that you’re just riding a really expensive bus.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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WES at 10: Time to Admit Failure

By John A. Charles, Jr.

TriMet recently marked the ten-year anniversary of the Westside Express Service (WES), the 14.7-mile commuter rail line that runs from Wilsonville to Beaverton. Sadly, there was little to celebrate. WES ridership has been falling steadily since 2014, and there is no prospect that the line will ever meet the opening year forecast of 2,500 average daily boardings.

At the groundbreaking for WES in March 2007, then-Sen. Rod Monroe (D-Portland) gushed, “Wilsonville is jobs rich…the train will be full both ways…morning and afternoon. That is absolutely unique.”

It might have been unique if it had happened, but it had no connection to reality. Average daily ridership peaked in 2014 at 1,964 daily boardings, then dropped in each successive year. During Fiscal Year 2019, WES daily ridership has averaged only 1,505.

A central problem is that WES never had a clear mission; it was always a project in search of a purpose. At various times the train was promoted as: (1) a congestion relief tool for HWY 217; or (2) a catalyst for so-called “Transit-Oriented Development.” Neither of these arguments made sense.

During legislative hearings in Salem, representatives from Washington County claimed that WES would take 5,000 motor vehicles per day off nearby highways. But WES is not even capable of doing that because it only runs eight times (each direction) in the morning, and eight more times in the afternoon. And unlike traditional commuter trains pulling eight or nine passenger cars, WES travels only in one-car or two-car configurations. The train stations themselves are so short that even if TriMet started running eight-car trains, most passengers would have no way to get on or off.

Moreover, WES crosses more than 18 east-west suburban arterials four times each hour. On busy commuter routes, such as HWY 10, each train crossing delays dozens of vehicles for 40 seconds or more. Since the train itself typically only carries 50-60 passengers per run, this means that WES has made Washington County congestion worse than it was before the train opened.

WES has not been a catalyst for “transit-oriented development” and never will be. Train stations are noisy, and zoning restrictions would limit residential parking—even though new residents would need automobiles because it would be almost impossible to travel entirely by commuter rail.

WES was originally projected to cost $65 million and open in 2000. It actually cost $161.2 million and opened in 2009. The WES operating cost per ride in May 2019 was $18.21, roughly 4.5 times the cost of average TriMet bus service.

In June 2016, TriMet staff persuaded the Board to approve the purchase of two used rail cars to expand the WES fleet. The estimated cost for the purchase was $1.5 million, plus $500,000 more for retrofitting. At the time, TriMet claimed that this purchase was necessary to satisfy the “expected demands for growing WES service.” That demand was a fantasy.

When passenger rail forecasts fail to materialize, government planners tend to complain that “we just need more time.” After ten years, the clock has run out on WES. There are no more plausible excuses; it is simply a planning failure.

Taxpayers would be better served if we canceled WES, sold off the train cars, and moved the few commuter rail customers back to buses.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on July 18, 2019.

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SW Corridor Project: A Net Negative for the Environment

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Portland politicians claim to be concerned about carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. That’s why so many of them support TriMet’s proposed 12-mile light rail line from Portland to Bridgeport Village near Tigard. They think it will reduce fossil fuel use.

Their assumptions are wrong.

According to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project, energy used during construction of the rail project will equal 5.9 trillion Btu. Much of this will be in the form of fossil fuels needed to power the heavy equipment. Additional energy will be used to manufacture the rail cars, tracks, and overhead wires.

The EIS claims that the negative environmental consequences of construction will be made up by energy saved from operations of the train. However, the operational savings are so small it would take 61 years to mitigate the carbon dioxide emissions of construction.

2035 Daily Vehicle Miles Traveled and Energy Consumption 

Vehicle Type Daily VMT – No build option Million Btu/Day – No build option Daily VMT

With Light Rail

Million Btu/Day

With Light Rail

Passenger vehicle 51,474,286 249,084 51,415,071 248,798
Heavy-duty trucks 3,389,982 73,132 3,389,288 73,117
Transit bus 100,122 3,546 97,501 3,453
Light rail 19,189 1,247 21,200 1,377
TOTAL 54,983,579 327,009 54,923,060 326,745

                                          Source: Draft EIS, SW Corridor Project

Unfortunately, all of the light rail cars will need to be replaced before then. Building new cars will require more energy, resulting in additional CO2 emissions and a longer payback period.

Light rail is not a solution to a perceived climate change problem; it IS a climate change problem. Any further planning for the SW Corridor project should be terminated.

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

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Wind Energy is Just Hot Air

By Miranda Bonifield

TriMet recently announced its first “zero-emission” bus is ready to roll, claiming that wind-powered buses are cleaner and easier to maintain. But the reality is that electric buses are dirtier and more expensive than traditional buses.

Wind and solar energy are both known as “intermittent resources” because both kinds of energy farming have long time periods when they don’t generate any power. Unfortunately, energy can’t just be stored like other commodities—as soon as it enters the power grid, it has to travel directly to the end user. There must be a constant supply to meet demand, or customers will not receive power reliably.

During unproductive periods (for instance, when wind turbines aren’t turning) renewable energy farms are forced to rely upon ordinary fuel. But because these periods are unpredictable, the backup has to be running even when power is being generated. Research has indicated as much as a 1% increase in traditional fuel use for every .88% increase in the long-run share of renewable energy. In other words, this supposedly clean energy uses more fuel than it replaces.

It would be far more reasonable for TriMet to focus its energy on improving existing services rather than purchasing buses which are more than twice as expensive and may break down six times as frequently. The claim that wind-powered buses are more efficient for Oregonians is just a bunch of hot air.

Miranda Bonifield is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Testimony Before the Joint Subcommittee on Capital Construction HB 5005

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Members of the subcommittee, my name is John Charles and I am President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, a nonpartisan policy research organization.

Most witnesses ask you to spend money. I am here asking you to save money – by deleting the Governor’s request for $27.5 million in lottery-backed bonds for TriMet’s planned light rail line to Bridgeport Village mall near Tualatin.

It’s important to note that HB 5005 is actually the first part of a two-part request for this project. As Ms. Gabriel stated in her April 5 briefing, the Governor will be asking for an additional $125 million of bond revenue in the next biennium, so you should really think of this as an appropriation of $152.5 million.

I encourage you to reject the request because TriMet has a consistent record of over-promising and under-performing on all its capital construction projects, as detailed below. You should stop rewarding that kind of behavior.

Analysis of the SW Corridor Project

TriMet makes two primary claims regarding this light rail line. First, it will attract 43,000 average weekday riders by 2035. Second, it will provide a “reliable, fast travel option” between Bridgeport Village and Portland.

Neither of these claims is plausible.

TriMet Ridership projections are always inflated

TriMet has a 40-year track record of making ridership forecasts. They have been consistently wrong, and always on the high side. As Figure 1 shows, actual ridership has never even reached 60% of projected ridership on a specific rail line. In 2017 total average weekday ridership was less than half the predicted ridership for MAX in 2020. 

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SW Corridor Light Rail Project Joint Ways and Means Committee Testimony John Charles April 2019

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Metro’s Priorities Don’t Match Yours

By John A. Charles, Jr.

The Portland regional government known as Metro recently published the results of a poll regarding the most important issues to the region. Unsurprisingly, traffic congestion emerged as the number one concern: 96% of all respondents stated that congestion was a serious problem.

These results are consistent with virtually every poll taken over the past 25 years, yet congestion continues to get worse. The reason is that the Metro Council refuses to improve driving conditions and authorize new bridges and highways where they are needed, such as the west side of Portland.

Instead, Metro is determined to spend enormous sums of public money on additional light rail service that most people will never use.

Metro has appointed a 30-person Task Force to draft a ballot measure for 2020 seeking billions of dollars to build a light rail line to Bridgeport Village. This would be a complete waste of money. Transit ridership peaked in 2012. Since then, thousands of customers have left for Uber and Lyft, and they’re not coming back. TriMet is becoming irrelevant.

Sadly, no one at Metro or TriMet cares what taxpayers want—they only care about expanding their bureaucratic empires. Voters should remember this when the bond measure is unveiled later this year.

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

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How Ride Hailing Services Can Complement Bus and Rail—and Save TriMet Money

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

After teaching an evening class at Portland State University, I walked up to the kiosk showing TriMet arrival times. My bus was coming in five minutes. Good news. One of my students was standing there, too. She shook her head, looked at her phone, and said, “My next bus is in 30 minutes. I’m just going to Uber home.” Her situation wasn’t unique. Across the country, more and more commuters see ride hailing as a reliable and affordable substitute for mass transit.

Transit agencies should see services such as Lyft and Uber as an opportunity rather than a threat. Toward that end, Cascade Policy Institute recommends TriMet pursue a pilot project that replaces one or more of its high-cost bus lines with ride hailing services supported by a subsidy funded with the cost savings from eliminating the high-cost line. The experiment likely will find that replacing high-cost bus service with ride hailing will improve ridership and save money.

TriMet faces a challenge of declining ridership in conjunction with rising costs. Ridership has declined for many public transit providers in the U.S.—TriMet reports bus boardings have dropped 13 percent from their 2009 peak. As the Portland Tribune reported, the agency thinks many factors have contributed to the decline in ridership, including gentrification in Portland, the growth of urban centers inside and outside the city, and the development of self-sufficient walkable neighborhoods that has reduced the need for bus trips.

Longer travel times likely are another factor that explains the decline in bus ridership. From 2007 through 2017, the average vehicle speed for TriMet buses has dropped by almost nine percent. Portland city commissioner Amanda Fritz recently tweeted that Portland’s new speed limit law has made her bus commute five minutes longer. Over a year, that’s about 30 extra hours sitting on a bus. With longer travel times, the costs to commuters of using public transit increase, leading to a decline in ridership.

As with any mass transit enterprise, TriMet operates a number of high-cost, low-ridership bus lines. For example, the agency reports the 97 (Tualatin-Sherwood Rd) bus line has about ten riders per hour at a cost of more than $18 per ride. The fare for a ride hailing service covering the same distance as the average bus trip would be less than $8. Service on this route could be completely replaced by ride hailing services and save TriMet thousands of dollars a week.

While ride hailing can replace mass transit, it can also complement bus and rail service. Recent research finds that ride hailing services have the largest positive effect on rail service in cities with large public transit systems already in place, such as Portland. In 2015, Lyft conducted a nationwide survey of riders and found that 25 percent of riders use Lyft to connect to public transit. Uber reports that nearly 25 percent of Uber trips in suburban Portland began or ended within one quarter-mile of a MAX or WES station.

More than a dozen cities in the United States currently have programs running similar to the pilot project we propose. Detroit’s program, “Woodward 2 Work,” runs late at night and is aimed at those who work late shifts when mass transit does not run. San Clemente replaced two high-cost bus lines with ride hailing. Marin County’s service is designed to boost ridership on commuter rail by making it more convenient for riders to get to and from rail stations. Several of the programs that began as pilots have been extended because of their success in serving commuters and saving money.

Many of these cities have developed procedures to accommodate users who do not have a smartphone and users with ADA-related needs. In approving ride hailing services in Portland, the city mandated a performance standard that called for wheelchair accessible vehicles to reach riders in thirty minutes or less. In Detroit’s program, riders without bank accounts can use prepaid gift cards.

The pilot project we recommend would be a low-cost, low-risk test of potential synergies between public transit and private ride hailing. If successful, the lessons learned can and should be applied to additional high-cost transit lines.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is an Oregon-based economist, adjunct professor at Portland State University, and Academic Advisor at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on January 24, 2019.

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Ride-Hailing Could Give an Uber-Needed Lyft to TriMet Service

By Miranda Bonifield

TriMet’s ridership has been steadily declining in recent years, to the great concern of transit advocates and fiscally conscious citizens alike. Proposed solutions involve sending expensive new bus and rail lines to underserved locations. But what if TriMet could reach new customers at a fraction of that cost?

Cascade Policy Institute recently released a study by economist Dr. Eric Fruits which found one or more high-cost and low-ridership bus lines could be replaced by facilitating the use of ride-hailing services in partnership with transit. Riders within particular areas could call an Uber or Lyft, ride to the bus, and then take public transit the rest of the way—a much more efficient and comfortable method than walking or biking through the rain. It could cost 55% less than expensive proposed bus lines—saving TriMet money—and slightly less than current bus and Max fares—saving customers money.

This isn’t a new idea; transit companies across the country have taken advantage of ride-hailing services’ ability to complement public transit. Studies have found a small but significant increase in transit ridership in cities with large transit systems which chose to partner with ride-hailing services. TriMet should pursue this low-risk, high-benefit option with a one-year pilot project beneficial to taxpayers, riders, and TriMet alike.

Miranda Bonifield is Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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TriMet’s New Electric Buses Will Be Less Reliable, More Costly

By John A. Charles, Jr.

The TriMet board recently voted to replace the agency’s entire bus fleet with battery-electric buses by 2040. Since each electric bus is more than twice as expensive as a standard diesel bus, this decision will cost taxpayers more than $550 million in excess costs.

The electric premium might be worth it if there were significant benefits to switching fuels, but there aren’t. In fact, battery-powered buses are far less reliable than diesel or natural gas buses. According to a recent study by the Federal Transit Administration, battery electric buses in Seattle only traveled 2,771 miles on average between breakdowns; for diesel buses, it was 17,332.

Since moving passengers is TriMet’s primary job, this alone should have disqualified battery buses from consideration.

The primary motivation for TriMet seems to be reducing so-called “greenhouse gases,” but battery-powered buses offer no real air quality benefit. The buses must be charged from the utility grid, which is powered mostly by coal and natural gas. Even large wind farms are backed up every minute of the day by other sources such as gas and hydro dams. Using battery-electric buses simply changes where greenhouse gases are emitted, which is meaningless.

A better alternative would be renewable natural gas, derived from processing food waste or methane emissions from landfills. For this reason the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority concluded in 2016 that it would switch its entire fleet to renewable natural gas buses because it would provide “approximately 39% greater reductions in GHG emissions at half the cost” when compared to electric buses.

Finally, TriMet has no way to pay for the electric bus conversion. The staff recommended buying the first 80 electric buses with combinations of federal grants and money from the new statewide employee tax, followed by a hoped-for legislative bailout sometime after 2022. That’s not a plan, it’s a fantasy.

TriMet has already been awarded ten battery electric buses through grants from the federal government. A more prudent option going forward would be to buy ten buses using other fuels—such as compressed natural gas and renewable natural gas—and then test them all head-to-head to measure reliability, emissions, noise, and passenger comfort.

This was a rash decision. The TriMet Board should admit that it made a mistake, and spend the next two years analyzing alternative fuels. If taxpayers are going to be forced to pay an extra half-billion dollars for new buses, there should at least be a good reason.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on November 13, 2018.

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Electric Buses: Another Costly Fad

By John A. Charles, Jr.

The TriMet Board recently approved a plan to replace its entire fleet with battery-electric buses (BEBs) by 2040. If implemented, this will cost taxpayers $553 million more than buying diesel buses.

It might be worth the premium if battery powered buses were cleaner or more reliable, but they aren’t. King County, Washington has been testing BEBs since April 2016. On average, they only travel 2,771 miles between service failures. Diesel buses are good for 17,332 miles—more than six times as long.

In addition, battery buses are not the best environmental option, because they draw electricity from power plants using fossil fuels. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority went through an extensive analysis in 2016, and found that “renewable” natural gas derived from landfill methane had a much better environmental profile than electric vehicles.

For that reason, the MTA decided to convert its bus fleet to renewable natural gas, not electric. The agency concluded that renewable natural gas “achieves 39% greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, at half the cost” of electric buses.

What does TriMet know that the Los Angeles MTA doesn’t? That question should be answered before we spend $553 million.

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

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High Costs and Low Ridership Are Nothing New for Southwest Corridor Project

By Rachel Dawson

Decreasing ridership paired with increasing costs makes for a bad business decision for TriMet’s proposed Southwest Corridor plan. The TriMet proposal would add an additional light rail line stretching from downtown Portland to Bridgeport Village in Tigard. The project’s draft environmental impact statement predicts what TriMet thinks will happen, without taking into consideration what has occurred with past projects.

The plan estimates that rides on every current light rail line will more than double, and the total weekday rides will nearly triple by the year 2035. However, in recent years light rail rides have been decreasing or plateauing across the board.

But overpredicting ridership isn’t anything new: Every single past TriMet light rail plan overestimated the number of rides it would have.

Additionally, the capital costs of light rail projects historically have been underestimated, meaning projects have proven to be more expensive than what TriMet had predicted. This has already become evident with the Southwest Corridor plan: In 2016 the capital costs were predicted to be $1.8 billion dollars, which increased to $2.8 billion in 2018.

Increasing prices plus decreasing ridership sounds more like a recipe for economic disaster than a successful project. You have the opportunity to voice your opinion at the southwest corridor public hearing on Thursday, July 19 at the Tigard City Hall.

Rachel Dawson is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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TriMet Shows Pension Reform Is Possible

By Scott Shepard and John A. Charles, Jr.

The Oregon legislature recently adjourned its 2018 session and once again took no action to reduce the long-term financial obligations of the Oregon Public Employee Retirement System. Conventional wisdom in Salem is that significant pension reform is impossible, so we should just quietly accept our fate that the PERS crisis will lead to layoffs at public schools and other service providers.

The conventional wisdom is wrong.

The Portland regional transit district, TriMet, is not part of PERS and has been slowly reforming its pension program since 2002. As a result, 100 percent of all new employees are now in 401(k)-style pensions that have no long-term liabilities for employers. These are referred to as “defined-contribution” pensions in which monthly payments are made by management into personal accounts owned by employees. Once those payments are made, the employer has no further financial obligations.

This stands in contrast to “defined-benefit” programs like PERS in which employees are promised various levels of retirement payments calculated through arcane formulas that leave management clueless about the major level of funding obligation they’ve agreed to.

The advantages for taxpayers of moving public employees into defined-contribution pensions is now evident in the actuarial projections done for TriMet. According to the most recent valuation, estimated annual benefit payments for TriMet defined-benefit pensions will peak in 2034 at $74.6 million, then drop to $24 million in 2060 and $6 million by 2072. They will hit zero by the turn of the century.

This was not something that TriMet did casually. Management was forced into it because of decisions made in the 1990s that caused long-term retiree obligations to explode. The TriMet Board realized that changes were necessary and voted to move all new, non-union hires into defined-contribution pensions after 2002.

Resistance from the bargaining unit kept TriMet from moving its new unionized workers to defined-contribution plans for another decade, by which time a citizens’ committee had issued a report declaring TriMet “on the brink” of disaster. During a protracted negotiation with the union in 2012, TriMet CFO Beth deHamel testified at a binding arbitration hearing that unless changes were made, “TriMet could be forced to default on its pension obligations or its other financial obligations in the future.”

Union leadership eventually agreed to move all new members to defined-contribution pensions by 2013. As a result, the number of active employees still accruing defined-benefit pension benefits fell from 1,580 to 1,460 during 2016. Last year, the unionized workers’ defined-benefit account reached nearly 80 percent funding; and the long-term, unfunded pension liability dropped by nearly $50 million.

The defined-contribution plan to which TriMet moved new workers has been recognized as one of the best in the country. It features low costs, high returns, and a guaranteed employer contribution that is paid irrespective of employee matching contributions.

TriMet’s pension reform offers a valuable guide to the Oregon legislature on how to contain and reverse the spiraling PERS disaster. The unfunded liabilities for PERS have grown from $16 billion to more than $25 billion in less than ten years.

Some reduction in PERS benefits will have to happen, and all parties will benefit from an orderly transition while there is still time. The state should emulate TriMet by moving its employees from defined-benefit to defined-contribution plans as soon as possible.  However, the legislature will be obliged to make bigger changes than would have been required years ago. It will have to move all current workers, whenever they were hired, to defined-contribution plans for all work performed after the date of the effective legislation.

The sooner this is done, the less painful later steps will be. As former TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane noted recently, solving a pension crisis “doesn’t get any easier with passing time.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. Scott Shepard is a lawyer who recently authored a new case study of TriMet’s pension reform for Cascade Policy Institute. The study, “Following in TriMet’s Tracks: Defined-Contribution Pensions a Necessary First Step to Oregon’s Fiscal Health,” is available here. A version of this article originally appeared in The Portland Tribune.

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TriMet Shows Public Pension Reform Is Possible

By John A. Charles, Jr.

The Oregon legislature recently adjourned and once again took no action to reduce the unfunded liabilities of the Oregon Public Employee Retirement System (PERS). The reason is that most legislators think PERS reform is impossible. 

That belief is wrong. 

TriMet is not part of PERS and has been slowly reforming its pension program since 2002. As a result, 100% of all new employees are now in 401(k)-style pensions that have no long-term liabilities for employers. These are referred to as “defined-contribution” (DC) pensions in which monthly payments are made by management into retirement accounts owned by employees. Once those payments are made, the employer has no further financial obligations. 

This stands in contrast to “defined benefit” (DB) programs like PERS in which employees are promised high levels of retirement payments regardless of how investment funds are performing. 

The success of the TriMet reforms can be seen in its latest pension fund valuation, which shows that annual benefit payments for pensions will peak in 2034 at $75 million, then drop to zero by about 2085.           

TriMet’s pension reform offers a guide to the legislature on how to reverse the spiraling PERS disaster, where unfunded liabilities have grown to $25 billion. The state should move all employees to defined-contribution plans as soon as possible. 

This essay summarizes a new Cascade study of TriMet’s successful pension reform program. “Following in TriMet’s Tracks: Defined-Contribution Plans a Necessary First Step to Oregon’s Fiscal Health” can be found here.

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

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TriMet Shows That Public Pension Reform Is Possible

By Scott Shepard and John A. Charles, Jr.

The Oregon Legislature is currently meeting, and the conventional wisdom is that reform of Oregon’s overly generous Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) is impossible. According to Governor Kate Brown, we signed contracts with public employee unions, a deal is a deal, and we should just quietly accept our fate that the massive cost of PERS will lead to layoffs and service cuts at schools and other service providers.

There is another way.

The Portland regional transit district, TriMet, is not part of PERS and has been slowly reforming its pension program since 2002. As a result, 100% of all new employees are now in 401(k)-style pensions that have no long-term liabilities for employers. These are referred to as “defined-contribution” (DC) pensions in which monthly payments are made by management into personal accounts owned by employees. Once those payments are made, the employer has no further financial obligations. The eventual pension payouts will be a function of the market performance of whatever investments are chosen by individual employees.

This stands in contrast to “defined benefit” (DB) programs like PERS in which employees are promised various levels of retirement payments calculated through arcane formulas that leave management mostly clueless about the level of funding obligation they’ve agreed to. In many cases, those liabilities turn out to be much larger than expected.

The advantages for taxpayers of moving public employees into DC pensions is now evident in the actuarial valuations done for TriMet. According to the most recent valuation, projected annual benefit payments for TriMet DB pensions will peak in 2034 at $74.6 million, and then steadily decline to $6 million in 2072. They will hit zero by the turn of the century.

This was not something that TriMet did casually. Management was forced into it because of decisions made a decade earlier that caused long-term retiree obligations to explode. TriMet Board members are appointed by the governor. In the early 1990s, Governor Barbara Roberts and TriMet General Manager Tom Walsh wanted public approval of a massive expansion of TriMet’s light rail empire and the tax funding to pay for it. They feared that controversy about a union contract could endanger public support.

In their efforts to avoid strife, in 1994 they granted expensive concessions to the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 (“the ATU”) on behalf of its represented employees. Loren L. Wyss, the long-serving president of TriMet, objected and his battle with Walsh became public. In back-channel communications with Gov. Roberts, Walsh made it clear that either he or Wyss needed to go. In August 1994, Wyss met with Gov. Roberts, where he submitted his resignation.

As later explained in The Oregonian,

“…the contract just approved by Tri-Met union employees will protect all its members from additional contributions to their pensions for 10 years. It will also guarantee 3 percent minimum wage increases in the future…every single dollar of health, welfare, dental and vision plans will be paid for by the public employer; [and] the retirement age will decline to 58 within 10 years….”

The die was set for cost escalation. In the decade from 1994 to 2004, salaries and wages increased 72 percent; annual pension costs went up 160 percent; and the cost of health care benefits rose 116 percent. These increases plus stagnant revenues in the latter half of the period resulted in a tripling of unfunded pension liabilities, from $38 million in 1993 to $112.4 million in 2002.

Fred Hansen followed Tom Walsh as General Manger; and he moved new, non-union hires into DC pensions after 2002. This was a first step towards fiscal sanity. Resistance from the ATU kept TriMet from moving its new unionized workers to DC plans for another decade, by which time a citizens’ committee of Portlanders had issued a report declaring TriMet “on the brink” of disaster.

During a protracted negotiation with the union in 2012, TriMet CFO Beth deHamel testified at a binding arbitration hearing,

“TriMet’s union defined benefit plan would be placed on critical status and under federal oversight if it were a private pension plan subject to ERISA.” She also stated that unless something was done to shore up the plan, “TriMet could be forced to default on its pension obligations or its other financial obligations in the future.”

Union leadership eventually agreed to move all new members to DC pensions by 2013, while protecting existing members from reform. As a result of this delay, the union workers’ DB fund remained only 59 percent funded in 2013.

Nevertheless, the trends were now moving in the right direction. The number of active employees still accruing DB pension benefits fell from 1,580 to 1,460 from 2016 to 2017 alone. In 2017 the unionized workers’ DB account reached nearly 80 percent funding, with unfunded liability falling by nearly $50 million in a single year.

Neil McFarlane was TriMet General Manager during that era. He commented recently, “The shift [to DC pensions] has been a success. TriMet is paying more than the required annual contribution every year right now” because the system is closed. “We will be fully funded within the next few years: five to ten for the union plan, fewer for the non-union.”

The DC plan to which TriMet moved new workers has been recognized as one of the best in the country. It features low costs, high returns, and a guaranteed employer contribution that is paid irrespective of employee matching contributions. As a DC plan it does not create open-ended, unpredictable public liabilities to be paid by generations as yet unborn.

TriMet has not fully banished the ghosts of unsustainable employee-benefit promises past. It still faces a massive and escalating unfunded liability driven by health care costs, known in accounting jargon as “other post-employment benefits,” or OPEB. The health care benefits that TriMet granted away in the 1994 contract debacle have been described as “universal health care into the afterlife.”

The description is only a minor exaggeration, as the plan offered TriMet’s unionized employees health care without premiums and with mere $5 co-pays, and benefits that ran not only throughout retirement, but to the employees’ spouses and dependents for fully 16 years after the employees’ deaths. Total unfunded liability for OPEBs reached an astonishing $769 million dollars in 2016.

Compare: State Paralysis on PERS 

TriMet’s pension reform efforts offer a valuable guide to the Oregon legislature on how to contain and reverse the spiraling PERS disaster. The unfunded liabilities for PERS have grown from $16 billion to more than $25 billion in less than ten years, even with the far-too-optimistic 7.2 percent assumed-savings rate (i.e., discount rate) in place. Were the rate adjusted down to its actuarially appropriate level, PERS’ unfunded liability would explode to $50 billion or more at a stroke.

Even at the current recognized rate, funding status has fallen below 70 percent, even while mandatory payments to PERS by government employers have passed 26 percent of payroll.

Municipalities are laying off workers, depleting public services, and raising fees in order to fund the present level of recognized PERS unfunded liabilities. Some reduction in pension benefits will have to happen, one way or another. All parties will benefit from an orderly effort to reform benefits while there is still time. 

The Way Forward

The state should follow the tracks laid by TriMet by moving its employees from DB to DC plans as soon as possible. As TriMet has demonstrated, this move will begin to stanch the fiscal wounds that have been inflicted by a generation of recklessly overgenerous pension benefit promises.

Unfortunately for everyone, PERS reform has been hamstrung for more than 20 years by a wayward state Supreme Court, which has thwarted previous attempts at thoughtful change with erroneous interpretations of the federal Contract Clause. The legislature will be obliged to make bigger changes than would have been required years ago. It will have to move all current workers, whenever they were hired, to DC plans for all work performed after the date of the effective legislation.

While this reform will be significant, it also will be deeply equitable. Right now, older workers are receiving higher benefits for each hour worked than ever will be available to younger workers. This isn’t fair, and it may violate civil rights laws: Younger workers are more diverse than their older peers, which means that benefit reductions that affect only new workers have a disparate impact on women and minorities.

The reform will also pass constitutional muster. As the Oregon Supreme Court finally recognized in its Moro decision, correcting its long-held error, the legislature may change any benefits for work not yet performed, even for current employees.

The Oregon Legislature can and must follow TriMet’s example. The sooner this is done, the less drastic any later steps will be. According to TriMet General Manager McFarlane, solving a pension crisis “doesn’t get any easier with passing time.”

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market research center. Scott Shepard is a lawyer and was a visiting law professor at Willamette University during 2016. This essay is a summary of a case study of TriMet’s pension reform written by Mr. Shepard for Cascade Policy Institute. The full report is available here. This essay was originally published in the February 2018 edition of the newsletter “Oregon Transformation: Ideas for Growth and Change,” a project of Third Century Solutions.

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TriMet Needs a Broader Definition of Diversity

By John A. Charles, Jr.

TriMet has been recruiting a new General Manager for the past six months. At its January meeting, the Board announced the name of the leading contender and offered the public a chance to ask questions.

Before the questioning began, however, an executive search firm hired by TriMet summarized the recruiting process. Celia Kupersmith of KL2 Connects said that more than three dozen applications had been vetted, and a significant number of them were women or racial minorities. A black woman was one of three finalists.

However, the top applicant was Doug Kelsey, a white male currently employed by TriMet.

Many activists in the audience criticized the process. They complained that TriMet had proceeded too quickly and with not enough transparency. In particular, they were upset that virtually all applicants requested privacy in order to protect the jobs they already had. Soon thereafter, the TriMet Board announced that it would delay a final hiring decision while it reassessed its process.

Many of TriMet’s critics have a naïve view of the business world, and it shows in the self-contradictory nature of their demands. They want a deep pool of talent, rich with ethnic and gender diversity, but they also want a very public process. The two goals are mutually exclusive. Complete transparency means most qualified candidates will not apply.

They also have a narrow concept of “diversity.” Race and gender are just two attributes the Board should consider. What about intellectual diversity?

TriMet has been working off the same philosophical playbook for over 35 years. The focus has always been two-fold: (1) building a network of low-speed, low-capacity light rail lines; and (2) maintaining “labor peace” by agreeing to wage agreements that include expensive retiree benefits. That vision is looking very stale these days.

TriMet’s ridership is in a steady decline. It peaked in fiscal year 2012 and ridership has dropped in each of the last three years. Only 2.4% of total travel in the Portland region takes place on transit, making it irrelevant or even a nuisance to most taxpayers.

Light rail has lower ridership today than before the Orange line to Milwaukie was built. During FY 2017, boarding rides per-hour on MAX reached the lowest level since light rail opened in 1986.

TriMet’s financial position would be unsustainable were it not for massive and growing subsidies. During the past two decades, TriMet has promised so much to employees in the form of pensions and post-employment health care benefits that the agency now has unfunded liabilities of nearly $1 billion.

At the TriMet hearing in January, I asked Mr. Kelsey whether he saw any possibility that TriMet’s next light rail project—a multi-billion line to Bridgeport Village—might be canceled under his leadership, given the problems stated above. He responded that light rail was still a very important part of TriMet’s planning and he was not about to abandon it.

That answer concerned me because TriMet seems wedded to an outdated business model. Both in Portland and elsewhere, ridesharing companies such as Uber and Lyft are steadily eroding the market share of both regulated taxis and transit operators. This trend will only accelerate as autonomous vehicles become a reality.

Over the next 20 years, shared driverless cars likely will revolutionize the transit industry. Capital-intensive light rail and streetcar systems will face rising costs with declining ridership, creating a fiscal death spiral.

TriMet and its executive search consultants have done a commendable job of recruiting a diverse field of CEO candidates when measured by race and gender. What is lacking is a broader concept of “diversity” to include new ways of thinking about transit.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article originally appeared in The Portland Tribune.

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