Budget “choices”

There is an anticipated $12-17 million shortfall in TriMet’s operating budget for next year. In response, we’re given a false dilemma of a survey (as OPAL put it, “big fare hikes or really big fare hikes!”) where we’re presented with the illusion of choice on “some of the options” being considered – you’re not given all the options, just a few of them. Then after you’re done deciding how much service you want to cut and how high fares should increase (since you absolutely have to pick those to meet the $17 million mark), you can submit your answers to TriMet.

Funny, for it being our core business and what we are striving to preserve, it seems to be the first place we’re looking to cut.
But okay, YOU said it. Now I’m going to hold you to it
.

Honestly, the structure of this survey makes me uncomfortable because the results could later be presented without context (e.g. claiming that “80% of the respondents favored cutting service on the Red Line” while making no mention that that was the only MAX line put forth as an option, or that “Nearly all respondents approved of fare increases/service cuts at bus” even though you pretty much have to if you play the game to make the bar reach $17 million). The results can say whatever the powers that be want them to say because the choices are so limited.

The survey also mentions “Internal inefficiencies” as a cost-cutting tool, but it doesn’t give specifics or possible amounts saved. Well that’s okay, I’ve got a few suggestions for you on internal inefficiencies that can go:

Out-of-State Travel

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this post questioned travel expenses associated with conferences where Bibiana McHugh and Alan Lehto were speakers. Since posting, information was received from Lehto that the expenses for those conferences did not come from TriMet funds but were instead reimbursed by the conference organizers. My apologies for posting incorrect information, and those statements have been removed.

I am concerned about how much money TriMet is spending on things are not directly related to providing public transportation service.

How much money was spent to send TriMet employees (as best as I can tell, largely from Capital Projects/Planning) to the Railvolution conference in Washington, DC? I don’t know the answer to that question and am awaiting further information if all costs associated with Railvolution were covered by the conference organizers. However, if this money came from the TriMet fund, I know that cross-country flights aren’t cheap, then adding in conference registration, hotel/food costs, etc, we’re looking at probably thousands of dollars per person per conference. Don’t get me wrong, if money were no object, it looks nice for TriMet to have its name out there at conferences where people discuss things like Transit Oriented Development. Except money is an object.

Seminar at Railvolution 2011, headed by Jillian Detweiler of TriMet

Is this really contributing to our core business, which I thought we just said was transportation service?

Yes, I understand that registration and travel arrangements for those conferences were made months ago before the budget announcement, but moving forward I hope that all things that are not “Mission Critical” (and again, here I am working with the assumption that the mission is providing transportation service) are on the table for consideration to cut, and that includes things that do not have an immediate impact on providing transportation service, such as out-of-state travel for conferences.

Marketing

Oh, there seems to be a lot of waste here that can be trimmed…

Sorry for the blur, I thought I had a clearer picture of those signs but if I do I can’t find it

Take this recent example: the Oregonian’s Joseph Rose uncovered that TriMet spent $8000 on signs on buses and trains for the”#1 Transit” campaign (pictured above) based on findings from US News that said Portland was the best city for transit in the country. That sum was cringeworthy enough, despite TriMet’s defense that the campaign was done to “create greater awareness among our riders and the public in general.” And sure, $8000 is pocket change in TriMet’s overall budget, but enough needless spending like that will nickel and dime us to death. Of course, it didn’t help that US News rescinded their rankings – we’re actually #5. Oops.

Well, that’s $8000 we’re not getting back.

And another question that I haven’t seen anyone ask: Why are we outsourcing marketing when we HAVE a Marketing department? It’s pretty sizable, and it looks like a fair amount of money is budgeted towards the salaries/benefits of the employees in that division (info courtesy of the database of TriMet salaries from a few years ago that is primarily used to point fingers at how much operators make, and yes, I’m in there too.) But for the last ten years, the now-defunct external company ID Branding has been doing TriMet’s marketing and design work rather than TriMet’s own internal Marketing department.

That means the 5 Dirty Words poems on buses and trains, the Green Means Go campaign surrounding the opening of the Green Line, the recent What Makes This Place Great? promotion (which, conveniently has been used to cover up the aforementioned failed #1 Transit ads on the trains – I suppose the fact that ID Branding is now out of business explains why the WMTPG website remains un-updated with several sections still “coming soon.” Hope we didn’t pay for that!), the Rider’s Voice book aimed at helping people switch from paratransit to fixed route – all of these were outsourced to ID Branding.

This really makes me wonder what our Marketing department is doing if we’re outsourcing marketing work to another company. Are these all things we can’t do in-house? How much money was spent on the ID Branding contract, and were we planning on spending more with any other marketing firms now that they’re gone? Can we maybe pick one or the other, either outsource all marketing or do everything in-house, but not both?

EDIT: Numbers acquired. ID Branding contract was $1,862,437.00 budgeted, $1,497,547.95 billed, contract numbers ra020310ktx and rc070408dgx. Assuming we don’t outsource more marketing at the conclusion of the ID Branding contract, that’d be nearly $2 million saved.

Park and Rides

To be fair, this one was on the survey – to charge a nominal fee at the busiest park & rides, which would net $100,000 per year.  But I’m bringing it up here because I want to know what this definition of “nominal fee” is. See, I crunched the numbers myself, using the list of TriMet’s Park & Rides and ONLY selecting those that fill up in the morning rush hour, which I’m assuming is what the survey meant by “high-traffic”:

Total: 3195 parking spots that are filled every day, not counting the accessible-parking at Sunset. I’m making a conservative estimate.

Now let’s continue to be conservative – let’s assume charging only on weekdays, even though ridership, especially on MAX, is pretty high during weekends as well, using the standard of 252 weekdays per year. And let’s assume a charge of only $1 to park your car all day – a veritable bargain compared to parking downtown and less than half of what it’d cost you (sadly enough) to take one of TriMet’s buses to those transit centers.

You know what that yields per year?

$805,140 in additional revenue

How did TriMet arrive at only $100,000? Even taking out a chunk of that for setting up some sort of payment/collection system, miscellaneous fees, frilly pants tax, etc, it should still be well over $100,000. Someone’s doing math wrong, and I’m pretty sure it’s not me. Actually I’m quite sure it’s not me –  back in October Portland Afoot had crunched the numbers and came up with a similar result.

But imagine if the cost to park your car all day in a park and ride was equivalent to an all-zone ticket (at $2.40, that’s almost $2 million per year). Or even better, an all-day ticket (at $5, that’s $4,025,700 in additional revenue annually). And what if we charged to park on weekends, or a smaller fee at the park and rides that aren’t as busy? Maybe this is socialist of me, but I’d sooner see choice riders get dinged a little more than the transit dependent, who don’t have other options and suffer a lot with even small fare increases.

Not that there’s any differentiation in the survey on choice ridership – even though the demographics bit at the end says we want to preserve transit for those that need it the most, you can define your TriMet usage as “at least once per year” or “Never ride TriMet.” So the person who depends on a late-night bus or weekend bus to get to their job every day is categorized the same as someone who maybe takes MAX to the airport once a year or a Timbers game every now and then. I see.

You know, I’m not even done yet and I think I’ve taken up more space than what’s allowed in the comment box on the survey. Hmm.

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15 responses to “Budget “choices”

  1. I had a lot of the same thoughts when taking the survey re: how the results will be used and presented, and that the options for cutting costs and raising revenues left a lot of good ideas out. I feel better for having not submitted my results knowing that you share my misgivings. I love your analysis of the parking situation, and I frankly can’t believe TriMet hasn’t begun charging for parking yet. I’m sure there are some concerns that it world reduce ridership, but I’d guess that most major transit agencies do charge a parking fee. Growing up in the Philly burbs, I remember we had a house rule to save all our quarters so my mother could feed the meters at the PATCO parking lots, and this was in the early 1990’s!

    Your blog posts are always thoughtful and valuable, and I enjoy reading them!

    • Thanks… I haven’t completed the survey either (and I’m not done with everything I take issue with about it, but there’s only so much I can write about at once) but I’m almost considering not touching most/any of the options they list and then writing all of this in the comment box. If it fits. Or I can just paste the URLs back to here, I guess.

      I think it’s great that so many people in the area choose to ride TriMet even if they can drive & have access to a car, and if we can make changes that don’t turn the choice riders away, that’s great. But I worry more about those people who don’t have a choice to get to work/school/doctors/church/etc if fares continue to climb or service continues to decrease. If someone is driving to a park and ride, that pretty much says they’re a choice rider and while I’d rather not pass the burden to the riders at all, I’d pick implementing fees at park and rides over a blanket fare increase any day.

  2. First, TriMet wants ideas and that’s the reason the questions included asking for other ideas at http://www.trimet.org/mailforms/budgetchoices.

    Second, I want to provide some facts regarding the travel by Bibiana and me. Our travel expenses mentioned above are not coming out of TriMet funds, but are being reimbursed by the conference organizer in both cases.
    We are being careful with expenses, especially in tight financial times like now.

    • Hi Alan, thank you for the clarification and I apologize for posting incorrect information. I will retract it.

      I notice that you didn’t mention Railvolution-related travel. Was that also reimbursed by the conference organizer or did that come out of TriMet funds? Travel is an area of TriMet’s budget that is not especially transparent.

  3. I couldn’t fin a suggestion box so pardon me putting this here. I was sitting near the front of the MAX today and partly heard some of the radio chatter while stopped at Washington Park. It got me to thinking, what is the method of connection for the communication since it obviously does and needs to work underground in the tunnel? Maybe this is worthy of it’s own post and/or you could talk more broadly as well about the radio communications.

  4. Great job here.
    I do have a clear picture of one of those ‘#1 transit’ signs. First time I ever saw one. The writing was my reaction immediently after seeing it. Very happy I was able to get one. :) http://trimetrider.blogspot.com/2011/03/hahaha-trimet-you-liars-i-read-that.html

  5. I’m sure glad the execs get to travel around and have a good time, even on somebody else’s dime. It’s insulting because what that means is you and the other person is hardly “mission critical” to providing transit services in this service area.
    You draw a paycheck from the tax payers of this area, at the same time the tax payers are going to suffer cutbacks and fare increases.
    Typical of the government technocrats that are running the show these days.
    They always have some sort of rationalization for the behavior.

  6. My TriMet budget thoughts and ideas:

  7. Hey, thanks for the shout, Camelopardalis. For the record, I was assuming 25 weekdays a month x 12 months — I didn’t know the 252-weekday standard. Using my slightly more conservative estimate of the available park and rides and the $1 figure we both used, that’d still be $779,000 or so in gross revenue. But Neil’s right that it would probably lead to people trying to park in the neighborhoods, which would be a pain for all.

    Also, let’s not forget that federal tax laws would let either the park-and-rider or their employer deduct the parking cost from their tax liability, reducing the out-of-pocket cost substantially. TriMet doesn’t have to subsidize parking! The feds are already willing to!

    • But Neil’s right that it would probably lead to people trying to park in the neighborhoods, which would be a pain for all.

      Maybe… but not all of the park & rides are in very neighborhood-y kind of areas… Sunset TC & Elmonica, for example. Actually a lot of the west side park & rides don’t have neighborhoods or street parking for anything else nearby.

      I still think this should be one of the primary avenues examined. Running more numbers (using my original estimates), if they charged about 13 cents per day for cars to park all day in those park & rides that fill, that comes to about $105k which more closely matches their estimated gain of $100k/year, which is still cheaper than the cost of parking a bike at one of the bike & rides for a day.

  8. PDX Weather Nut

    Why does Tri-Met not include potential income by stepped up enforcement of fares and the smoking ban as an option?

    • I’m assuming because they’re focusing on that now anyway… several new supervisors were recently added, and some of the supervisor shifts are entirely code enforcement, and even in other shifts that are not strictly code enforcement they’re still expected to put in time each day doing that.

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