Tag: Trimet

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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.

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[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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