Portland Transit Agency in “Death Spiral”
COST Commentary: Portland has long been considered by many to be the “Mecca” of modern light rail transportation. Portland’s declining transit performance and high costs since rail was introduced almost 30 years ago have led to voter rebellions, soundly rejecting the expansion of light rail into surrounding counties. The article below describes recent events.
Perhaps, the most allarming fact for Portland taxpayers is that their Tri-Met transit agency’s very high employee benefit costs are not sustainable at almost 5.5 times the benefit costs of the average private employee and more than 4.5 times the average state and local government employee, per the Bereau of Labor Statistics. Thus, the term “death spiral” described below. These excessive benefit costs can only lead to further service degradation, higher tax burdens and higher fares as fewer people are served.
The increasing trend of Portland “work-at-home” citizens (below) is ocuring throughout the nation and, in the total U.S. (excluding New York City), the percentage of work-at-home people has exceeded those which use transit for work commuting. Also, those working-at-home have greater impacts on reducing peak congestion because more of them have vehicles and are removed from highways than those using transit for work commuting. It would appear technology and creative ideas for efficiently working at home, full time or part time, can reduce congestion much more cost-effectively than train transit which is highly subsidized by taxpayers.
ELECTION: “STOP PORTLAND CREEP” RESONATES IN SUBURBS
Election results from all three of Portland, Oregon’s largest suburban counties indicate a reaction against what has been called “Portland Creep,” the expansion of the expansive light rail system without voter approval and the imposition of restrictive densification measures by Metro, the regional land-use agency.
Portlanders in the three largest Oregon counties (Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas) have previously voted against financing light rail extensions, however the transit agency has found ways to continue the expansion and now operates five lines, with a six under construction. While urban rail aficionados tout the success of the Portland system, transit use by commuters has fallen significantly in relative terms from before the opening of the first light rail line. At the same time, working at home, which does not need billions in taxpayer subsidies, has caught up to and passed transit (Figure).
The electoral events of the past 60 days could severely limit future expansion.
Clackamas County: Chicanery and its Price
In a September 2012 election, voters in Clackamas County approved a measure by a 60% – 40% majority requiring that any commitment of funding to rail would require a vote of the people. Perhaps fearing a negative result in the election, the pro-rail Clackamas County commission hastily approved $20 million to support the under construction Portland to Milwaukie (Clackamas County) light rail line.
Things were to become substantially more difficult for light rail in the November election. In Clackamas County, the two incumbent commissioners on the ballot, both of whom voted for the $20 million bond issue, lost their seats. Voters rewarded their chicanery by replacing them with anti-rail commissioners, leaving the Clackamas County commission with a 3 to 2 anti-rail majority. The Oregonian characterized the election as “a referendum on light rail.”
John Ludlow, who defeated Clackamas County commission chair Charlotte Lehan by a 52% to 48% margin, told The Oregonian:
“I think the biggest boost my campaign got was when those commissioners agreed to pay that $20 million to TriMet” for Portland-Milwaukie light rail four days before the September election. I think that put Tootie and me over the top.”
“Tootie” is Tootie Smith, a former state legislator who unseated commissioner Jamie Damon in the same election by a similar margin.
Washington County, Oregon: Taxpayers Take Control
Meanwhile, light rail has run into substantial difficulty in suburban Washington County. In September, voters in King City approved a measure to require all light rail funding to be approved by the voters. In the more recent November election, voters in Tigard, the 6th largest city (50,000 population) in the metropolitan area, voted 81%-19% to subject all light rail expenditures to a vote of the people.
Clark County, Washington: Voters Say No
Portland’s transit agency also had its eye on expanding light rail service across the state line and the Columbia River to Vancouver, in Clark County, Washington. The plan was to build a new “Interstate Bridge” (Interstate 5) across the river, which would include light rail. The voters of Clark County were asked in a referendum to approve funding for the light rail system and turned it down soundly according to the Columbian, by a 56% – 44% margin.
But there was more. For some time, citizen activist and business leader David Madore has been working to stop both tolls on the new bridge and light rail service. Madore was elected to the board of commissioners of Clark County at the same time that the light rail referendum was being defeated. Madore, like the two other Clark County commissioners, also hold seats on the transit agency board.
Tri-Met’s Death Spiral?
Further, Tri-Met’s dire financial situation could be another barrier to future expansion. As John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute has shown, Tri-Met’s fringe-benefit bill is astronomically high, at $1.63 for each $1.00 in wages. This is more than five times the average for public employers, according to US Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis data. Charles refers to Tri-Met as being in a “death spiral” and says that:
“The agency is steadily devolving from a transit district to a retirement and health-care center, with unsustainable fringe benefit costs that now far exceed the mere cost of wages.”