Voters Reject Transit Mecca, Portland, Bond Measure

COST Commentary: This Portland area bond measure discussed in the article below did not deceive the voters in using the old, famous ‘sacrifice popular items to capture the emotional vote’ approach to a transit bus replacement bond measure.

The transit agency has used billions of capital dollars to implement ineffective light rail and trolley car rail transit while degrading its bus system to one of the oldest in the nation with many buses operating beyond recommended service life. Portland transit has been fiscally irresponsible in depleting their allocated budget dollars and allowing a $60 million budget shortfall to develop while diverting funds to light rail which should have been used to replace worn-out buses serving a major portions of lower income transit riders.

Portland’s answer to their self inflicted dilemma was to ask voters to approve added property tax bonds to rescue the transit fund. These instances of transit agencies’ poor prioritizing and management of funds and deceptive budget practices are becoming more prevalent as numerous transit agencies are finding that the first law of transit is indisputable: If a transit system is not cost effective, it is not sustainable.

It is most encouraging that the Portland area voters did not fall for this age-old tactic. Voter rejection will force the Portland Transit agency to get serious about accountability and responsibility. The same action is needed in many cities throughout the nation.

Portland-area residents reject TriMet’s bus-replacement measure
Published: Tuesday, November 02, 2010, 10:45 PM: Updated: Thursday, November 04, 2010, 12:05 PM
Joseph Rose, The Oregonian

The Oregonian Voters appeared to be saying no to TriMet’s bond measure Tuesday, leaving agency officials trying to figure out other ways to pay for new buses and other needs.

Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas county voters Tuesday said no to TriMet’s $125 million property-tax measure aimed at replacing aging buses and improving shoddy stops.

Passage of the levy would have relieved some of the stress on the transit agency’s growing budget woes in the wake of budget shortfalls totaling $60 million.

Partial returns showed the bond measure failing 54 percent to 46 percent in the three-county service area. Although the levy was passing 52-48 percent in Multnomah County, it was lagging badly in Washington and Clackamas counties. Clackamas County voters were rejecting it by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.

Going into the election, TriMet officials didn’t know what to expect at a time when safety problems, service cuts, a fare hike and an increasingly nasty fight with the drivers union over benefits had tainted Oregon’s largest transit agency.
Watching partial returns come in, TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane said he was disappointed.

“It’s not looking good,” McFarlane said. “The fundamental thing this says is that we’re in a tough environment.”

With the economy still struggling to climb out of recession, McFarlane said, it’s clear that people aren’t ready to make an investment in public transit, “even when it’s an important improvement that would have benefited the aging population and riders with disabilities.”

Although the measure failed, McFarlane said TriMet still needs to purchase new buses – but it might take several years and could potentially slice funding that would normally go into operations. “Obviously,” he said, “we have a lot to think about going into the next budget year.”

TriMet also faces going further into debt by borrowing against payroll taxes to match a recent $6 million federal grant to help replace 14 of its aging buses.

The transit agency says it is operating one of the nation’s oldest bus fleets. Measure 26-119 would have allowed it to sell property tax-backed bonds to replace at least 150 buses operating past their recommended service and improve access at 300 bus stops. The money would have also replaced 100 old LIFT buses providing door-to-door service for people unable to ride regular fixed-route buses because of disabilities.

“I can say that those bus stop improvements will not happen now,” McFarlane said. At a little more than 8 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, it would have cost the owner of a median-priced $240,000 home in the Metro $19 and change each year.

Many of TriMet’s buses are approaching 20 years of service. Older high-floor buses often are taken out of service to fix malfunctioning mechanical lifts. Maintenance costs for a bus more than 15 years old, TriMet said, averages about $50,000 a year.

— Joseph Rose
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