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