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2012 TriMet budget cuts

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TriMet budget game
TriMet's balance-our-budget game, available at in winter 2012

The 2012 TriMet budget cuts, most of which took effect in September 2012, a few months into TriMet fiscal year 2013, were mostly offset by fare hikes, including the end of the Free Rail Zone in central Portland and a rise in basic fares to the historic level of $2.50.

TriMet Budget Task Force chair Cynthia Chilton said the cuts were not a permanent fix for the TriMet budget, which is constrained by scheduled payroll tax rates, rising labor costs and a long-term slowdown in growth of the labor force.

"Things are going to be even worse next year no matter what we do," Chilton said. "Even if the economic recovery takes hold."


[edit] Cost savings proposed by TriMet

[edit] Higher fares

TriMet Budget Task Force member Cynthia Chilton said in January that though the group was initially reluctant to choose between fare hikes and service cuts, it had come to prefer fare hikes.

"As we've met now three times, it's very clear that the focus is on retaining service given the cuts that have been incurred in the past several cycles," Chilton said.

[edit] Ending the Free Rail Zone

TriMet estimated that ending the Free Rail Zone would bring $2.7 million in additional fare revenue annually. Because Portland Streetcar is also asking the City of Portland to remove it from the Free Rail Zone, the change ended all free transit inside the TriMet service area. The Free Rail Zone ended on Aug. 31, 2012.

[edit] Hiking fares across the board

TriMet estimated that eliminating fare zones and raising its fares to a flat $2.50 (a 40 cent hike for a two-zone ticket, 10 cents for an all-zone) would bring in $6 million in new fare revenue annually.

TriMet's internal projections didn't expect higher prices to significantly dampen ridership without a hike larger than 30 cents per ride.

"Our zone system was set up in 1982," said Prosser, who lives in Lake Oswego and represents Clackamas County. "Look how much this region has changed in the last 30 years. Those zones make no sense."

McFarlane added that rising housing prices in the central city have driven many frequent transit users to move into TriMet Zone 3.

"I don't think the zone system any more is just," McFarlane said. "To travel from Sunset Transit Center to the zoo is an all-zone fare, even through it's ... one stop."

[edit] Other new revenue

[edit] Selling ads on and transit tracker

TriMet estimated that it could net $300,000 a year by selling ads on its popular website and in the audio stream of its Transit Tracker call-in service.

In January, McFarlane said this proposal had been "very popular" with survey takers "and we'll be looking at doing that."

As of April 2013, the agency had not yet published any such ads.

[edit] Service cuts

[edit] Cutting bus service

TriMet estimated that it could save $1.1 million a year by reducing service on 9 bus lines (almost all of them regular service) and reconfiguring 15 overlapping or "redundant" bus routes to save costs, simplify routes, make travel more direct.

[edit] Reducing annual contributions to Portland Streetcar

TriMet said it would save about $300,000 annually by cutting its promised financial contribution toward operation of Portland Streetcar, which is owned by the City of Portland.

Even after such a cut, TriMet would be paying the streetcar about $900,000 more than it is today. When the city applied for federal funds to build its eastside Streetcar loop, TriMet promised to contribute $1.2 million in new funding.

In past budget cycles, spokeswoman Mary Fetsch wrote in an email, TriMet has reduced Streetcar payments in proportion to its own service cuts.

[edit] Reducing LIFT service to match fixed-route service

TriMet estimated that it could save about $400,000 a year by adjusting the service boundary and hours for LIFT paratransit service, the agency's shared-ride service for people who cannot use regular buses and trains due to a disability.

For example, McFarlane explained, "In areas where there's no Sunday bus service, there would be no Sunday LIFT service."

[edit] Proposals TriMet considered but rejected

[edit] Fare changes

[edit] Forbidding free return trips on a single transfer

TriMet estimated that eliminating free return trips on a single ticket and selling a single all-day pass on every bus would bring $3 million in additional fares, mostly from people currently able to complete round trips before their transfers expire.

TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch said TriMet would attempt to enforce this by printing electronic receipts showing where a ticket was purchased or validated. If a passenger were moving toward his or her location of purchase, a fare would not be considered valid.

Fetsch this would be enforced by fare enforcement officers, but that she wasn't sure whether bus operators would be easily able to check fares at boarding.

Because the new plan would set the daypass price at twice the one-way fare and allow daypasses to be purchased for cash on buses, TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane characterized this as a possible response to OPAL's Campaign for a Fair Transfer, a call to lengthen transfer times without raising fares.

[edit] Eliminating free transfers completely

In its public balance-our-budget game, TriMet raised the option of eliminating free transfers completely, but later decided not to do so.

Oddly, the agency estimated that it would generate $3 million in new income whether it eliminated only return-trip transfers or eliminated transfers completely.

[edit] Service cuts

[edit] Eliminating off-peak Red Line service

The agency estimated that it could save about $900,000 annually by terminating westbound Red Line trains at the Galleria/SW 10th Ave MAX station, on the west side of downtown Portland, during off-peak hours, rather than running them all the way west to Beaverton Transit Center.

Red Line trains would run as they currently do during rush hours.

[edit] Cutting off-peak MAX frequency

TriMet estimated that it could save $1.5 million a year by cutting MAX frequencies to once every 20 minutes except during rush hours.

For example, all of TriMet's MAX lines currently run every 15 minutes at noon on weekdays. This might increase to every 18 to 20 minutes.

McFarlane said he was particularly skeptical of such a cut.

"That's one that worries me, because it's a little bit like thinning the soup," he told the TriMet board in January. "But nevertheless there seems to be some public acceptance of that."

[edit] Charging for park-and-ride access

TriMet estimated that charging for access to its most crowded park-and-rides would net about $100,0000 annually, after additional staff costs and infrastructure changes. For more information about this estimate, see our page on park and rides.

In a rough calculation in October 2011, Portland Afoot estimated that the agency had 9,000 parking spots at its busiest park-and-rides. If the agency could charge $1 a day for access to those spots without losing volume, it could gross about $780,000 annually.

The MAXFAQs blogger endorsed this option, writing: "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."

However, the popularity of free auto parking among most auto drivers might make the issue complicated.

"There's lots of issues of overflow parking and impacts on neighborhoods," McFarlane noted. "Truth is, it's not a very high-revenue-generating number to begin with." He added, though, that it might become a long-term investment for the agency, which could bring in more parking revenue eventually.

TriMet said in February that it's still considering the proposal, but needs to research the benefits and local impacts.

[edit] Other people's proposals

[edit] Detailed plan from OPAL

In a detailed proposal published April 25, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon (which had also marshalled attendance at TriMet's best-attended budget hearing, one in North Portland that drew 61 people) set out a fully formed alternative to TriMet's plan, which the group said would also save $12.5 million.

OPAL proposed:

  • Increasing TriMet's contingency fund by $5 million instead of $10 million, leaving a 50% increase to the contingency fund over the previous fiscal year. OPAL said this was fiscally responsible due to TriMet's conservative estimates for revenue growth. ($5 million in lower costs)
  • Not increasing TriMet's payments to Streetcar ($3 million in lower costs)
  • Ending free rides in the current Free Rail Zone but making any fare valid all day, rather than for just 3 hours ($2 million in new revenue)
  • Reconfiguring bus routes only to reduce overlapping service and improve efficiency ($500,000 in lower costs)
  • Charging a base flat fare of $2.25 while freezing youth fares at $1.50 and offering a discount to bulk ticket purchases (11 tickets for the price of 10) and extending transfer times to 3 hours. Using an elasticity assumption they said had been negotiated with TriMet, OPAL projected that this would result in higher ridership, especially among long-haul commuters who would see their fares go down slightly. ($400,000 in new revenue)
  • Charging a "reasonable" park and ride fee ($100,000 in new revenue)

OPAL also retained TriMet's proposals to sell ads on its website and Transit Tracker phone service, and to trim internal programs and staff by $1.2 million.

In a 12-page response to OPAL's proposal several weeks later, TriMet said it would be irresponsible to reduce its contingency savings, illegal to reduce its streetcar payments and impractical to charge for park and rides. The agency also questioned OPAL's assumptions of how riders would respond to fare changes.

OPAL's proposal was discussed in detail in and below an April 2012 Portland Transport post by Zef Wagner.

[edit] Higher fares at peak hours

On Portland Transport, Zef Wagner proposed a 25-cent premium for peak-hour trips. "It charges more during the time when more service is needed, helping to pay for all those expensive peak-only buses and extra runs. It also encourages people who have some choice about when to travel to choose non-peak times, reducing overcrowding during the peak."

[edit] Eliminate external marketing contracts

The creator of MAXFAQs criticism of the survey proposed eliminating TriMet's contract with ID Branding, its main external marketing firm.

[edit] Suggestions from Jason McHuff

In a video, creator Jason McHuff identified various larger-scale measures to cut TriMet's costs, including replacing TriMet employees' employer-purchased insurance plan with a pooled health savings account. Among other ideas McHuff also suggested a time-based fare system, payroll tax credits for employers who offer employee shuttles, and rearranging out-of-service bus destinations to reduce deadheading.

[edit] Cuts already completed by TriMet

TriMet managers say they've already made all the following cuts in previous fiscal years:

  • Cut costs
  • Cut staff
  • Delayed investments
  • Used stimulus money
  • Depleted reserves
  • Cut admin benefits
  • Implemented furloughs
  • Frozen salaries (this moratorium on merit-based salary hikes ended with the 2013 fiscal year; administrative salary raises took effect July 1, 2012).
  • Delayed replacing buses
  • Delayed upgrading fare system and facilities
  • Reduced growth in LIFT costs
  • Improved fuel efficiency
  • Reduced employee overtime

"If there was low-hanging fruit, it would have been plucked," McFarlane said in January 2011.

[edit] How to comment directly on the budget

TriMet announced a variety of ways to sound off on the budget, including a series of four open houses in mid-February, a live Twitter chat with General Manager Neil McFarlane, calls to 503-238-RIDE (select option #5) or emails to

[edit] Balance-the-budget game

For the first time, the transit agency kicked off its budget process by creating an online game that let anyone in the public choose from a set of options for balancing the budget. The agency is closely tracking the popularity of each option and plans to use public input when it presents a set of budget cuts to its board in early April 2012.

In its first week alone, according to TriMet Marketing Director Drew Blevins, the game drew about 1,800 completed surveys, more people than TriMet typically reaches during an entire budget outreach process. Blevins said that once the information was gathered -- something that would have been done during any budget process -- the game itself took less than a week for a single web designer/developer to assemble.

The game also drew criticism. One, the anonymous creator of MAXFAQs and a TriMet rail operator, worried that "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."

[edit] External links

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