Tag Archives: bus

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.

Bus and rail comparisons

In the comments of my last post, both Michael of Portland Afoot and Nick asked similar questions, which I thought would best be addressed in their own post because my responses to their comments were getting pretty long.

I can’t help but wonder what difference it makes to have a sealed-off cabin like on MAX or on bus rapid transit systems, where the driver isn’t responsible for dealing with fares and doesn’t have to deal with people as they drive. Does this lower stress and ensuing health issues?

and

[H]ow do you think operating a MAX compares, in terms of physical and emotional stress, to operating a bus?

Physically speaking, I’d say bus is worse. I do know rail operators who ended up going back to bus for health-related reasons caused by operating the trains, but I probably know more rail operators who’d be happy to go back to bus but they can’t physically handle it. There’s a lot more turning, twisting, bending, etc at bus than at rail typically, unless you get into things like train troubleshooting – manually retracting a bridegplate, cutting out a door, pumping off a brake that’s hanging, etc (which is relatively rare compared to the physical movements done at bus). Most of the rail health problems I’ve seen are back problems – which most transit operators have – and left arm problems (hand, wrist, elbow, shoulder, etc) from using the motoring drum handle, or MDH.

Type 2 MDH – no gas or brake pedals in the trains, everything is done with this

Emotionally? It’s hard to say. Some people are mentally/emotionally more suited to one job than the other. If you’re a people-person and need interpersonal interaction in your job, rail is not the job for you – sure there’s still communicating over the radio and talking with other operators at the ends of the line, but it’s not the same as the constant interaction with bus passengers. On the flip side, if you’re more introverted, you might find that operating a train is less stressful than a bus because for the most part passenger interaction at rail is a choice – some operators will talk to passengers on the platforms through their window, for example, but many have very little interaction with the people on their train or on platforms. I have very little experience with bus rapid transit, so I don’t know how the stress of that compares with bus at TriMet, but bus operators needing to deal with driving the bus, announcing their stops, and handling passenger fares and questions is like “driving a truck while operating a checkout stand at Safeway” – that aspect is easier at rail where (generally speaking) the automated stop announcements work properly and you don’t need to field nearly as many questions as a bus operator does. And if someone boards a train without having valid fare, it’s not really your problem.

The differences in passenger interaction at bus and rail is mentioned in this old TriMet TV video interviewing operator Donna Popi (which gives a nice snapshot of what rail operators do):

Aside from the interpersonal interactions as a mental/emotional stressor, there are other differences in stress at rail and stress at bus. One of the most obvious ones is the risk of accidents. At bus, if someone runs out in front of you, you can hit the brakes, but more importantly, you can swerve. When someone runs out in front of you at rail, you can hit the mushroom (emergency brake) and the high horn and hope/pray that you stop in time or that the person gets out of the way, but there’s no swerving to evade a collision.

There’s also the difference of essentially being the captain of your own ship at bus, and being one of many vehicles sharing a fixed guideway at rail. I know there are a lot of operators who prefer that flexibility at bus – it’s easier to wait if you see someone running for your bus if they’re a little bit late, you’re not required to report in every little thing you do to dispatch, if you make a mistake and turn on the wrong street, you can get yourself back on route without causing any problems, or if your bus breaks down it’s unfortunate for your passengers but your follower can get around you and keep things moving even if there’s a delay in service, etc. So in that aspect, bus is pretty low-stress.

The four-car Type 4, after a broken down Type 4 tied up the alignment for more than 4 hours this past June

At rail, since you’re one part of many in a string of moving parts, if you stop moving unexpectedly it can affect all those parts behind you. If you break down, your followers physically can’t get around you, unless it happens to be in a place like BTC or Gateway or Rose Quarter, for example, where the setup of the switches and other tracks gives you some flexibility to get trains around you. If you need to leave your cab for any reason, you’re supposed to radio it in to Control – again, so that they and the trains behind you know that you’re not moving when you’re supposed to be. And it’s a lot easier to violate rules at rail than bus – from having the wrong route code in the train (essentially the equivalent of making a wrong turn) to getting an ATS trip from speeding or “running a red light”.

I’m not sure one job is more stressful than the other – they’re both high stress and have some overlap and some differences in what the major sources of stress are. I think a lot of it also depends on your own individual personality which one might suit you better.

Don’t take TriMet to your 4th of July event

Yeah, you read that right. Don’t take TriMet to your 4th of July event. Or rather “Take TriMet to your 4th of July event if you can, just don’t expect to be able to take it to the events TriMet listed on their website” But that was too long to use as a title for this post.

TriMet’s promoted 4th of July events: Edit – evening hours of 07-01-10: Hey cool, they listened to me!  The old page listed the following events I have here in my post.  The new page took the lack of bus service into account, and removed two of the promoted events due to no adequate service.

But here’s the list that was originally posted and my comments:

WATERFRONT BLUES FESTIVAL – The Waterfront Blues Festival fireworks show will be the largest July 4 show in Oregon. Fireworks will be launched at 10 p.m. showcasing a spectacular dueling fireworks display over the Willamette River.

This one you could probably take TriMet to if you live on a MAX line, or if you can drive to a park & ride. Trains are going to be running on a Saturday schedule plus extra service trains, so you probably wouldn’t have any trouble getting there or back. Buses, however, are on Sunday schedules, meaning if you’d need to take any of the following to get there, you’re out of luck:

1, 10, 16, 18, 23, 24, 25, 27, 28, 29, 30, 32, 34, 36, 37, 38 39, 43, 46, 47, 48, 50, 51, 53, 55, 59, 61, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 81, 82, 84, 85, 87, 92, 94, 96, 99, 152, 154, 156, 157 – all have no service on a Sunday schedule

19, 22, 31, 44, 45, 58, 70, 73, 76, 79, 80, 89, 155 – all stop running before 10pm on a Sunday schedule

52, 62, 71, 77, 78, 88 – these stop running soon after 10pm, so even if one of these could get you there, it couldn’t get you back.

FORT VANCOUVER – Billed as the biggest fireworks display west of the Mississippi River, the Fort Vancouver Fireworks Celebration returns this year and is expected to draw between 60,000 and 80,000 people to watch the 30-minute show. Fireworks begin around 10 p.m. and can be seen for miles on either side of the Columbia River.

Well, you’ll need C-Tran for this if you actually want to go to Vancouver. But the  same timing restrictions apply if you need any of the above TriMet buses to get there since these fireworks also start at 10.

OAKS PARK – Gates open at 10 a.m. at Oaks Park Amusement Park for a day-long Independence Day celebration featuring rides, live entertainment, refreshments and more. Fireworks start at 9:55 p.m.

Okay, take TriMet to this one if you go during the day…  but you’re out of luck if you want to do the fireworks show as the 70 (which is about half a mile away) stops running at around 7pm. I suppose you could walk across the Sellwood Bridge and catch the 35, but that’s kind of far, too.

TIGARD 4TH OF JULY CELEBRATION – The Old Fashioned 4th of July Celebration will be held at the Tigard High School soccer field. The festivities include clowns, live music, kids’ games and police and fire vehicles. Gates open at 6 p.m. with fireworks at dusk.

The only bus that runs near here is the 76, and the last one that runs through there towards Beaverton Transit Center on a Sunday schedule goes by at about 6:55pm. So you’ll have to leave soon after you get there and forget about the fireworks entirely.

It didn’t feel right making a post without photos, but I don’t have any pictures of fireworks from a train cab. So, here’s Washington Street in Hillsboro at night from a train cab with a long exposure.  Not fireworks, but it’s dark and colorful at least.

This isn’t the first time TriMet has promoted community events by saying you should ride public transit to them before ensuring that those events actually would be serviced by TriMet – the same thing happened on Earth Day this year where they suggested taking the 24, 51, 47, and 59 buses to events during that weekend – and none of those buses run on weekends.

Now in theory, I love the idea of getting people out and about and discovering cool things going on in their neighborhood by using public transit. In fact, I think it would be great to see TriMet do more promotions about where you can get to via transit – the Transit to Trails was a great offering, and I think more things along that line (building on the old “See Where It Takes You” and “FIND” campaigns, maybe even promoting ridership on some of the buses that are close to the chopping block so that they are no longer on the chopping block!) should be a focus for TriMet.

But this sort of thing just draws a glaring spotlight on the ongoing disconnect between TriMet-as-a-corporate-entity and the people who actually use (and operate) public transit. Shouldn’t whoever is behind these event promotions (marketing I guess?) be aware of the fact that with so many cuts to bus service, these events are not actually serviced by TriMet? I bet you the people whose lives were affected when they lost bus service by their homes or workplaces on weekends or outside of peak rush hour are precisely aware of what they no longer have access to. And I bet the operators who get uncomfortably full loads on their buses now that their route runs more infrequently notice too.

On a related note, I know that Joseph Rose got upset about my door buttons redux post, feeling that I was personally attacking him. I was not (I had even acknowledged that he could have been given bad information from TriMet spokesperson Mary Fetsch) – I was attacking the same issue that I am attacking here. Too many times with TriMet, information comes from above that is inaccurate and shows a lack of understanding by TriMet administration of what actually goes on on the front line – in that case, a spokesperson telling a reporter incorrect information about train functionality. In this case, TriMet telling people to take transit that doesn’t exist to events. And that gets extremely frustrating for the people who are affected by the spread of bad information, whether it’s someone stranded because their bus doesn’t run as late as they thought it would, or an operator getting a customer complaint – not because of anything they did wrong, but because something didn’t work the way the customer was told it would.

I don’t hate TriMet. I mean, I spend a fair amount of my free time writing about TriMet light rail! I am not endorsed or supported by TriMet to write here, I do it because I like it and I like sharing what I know with people who are interested. I’d prefer to just be blogging about train stuff, but I just find it so disappointing that this agency has been dismantling bus service as much as they have. Which is made even worse by TriMet trying to promote events that you can’t reach by buses anymore since those bus runs have been discontinued!

I wish you could take TriMet to those events. Or your job. Or your place of worship, or your grocery store, or wherever you want/need to go.  I really wish you could.