When an economy is suffering, that's when people need mass transit the most: buses and rail to take to work when they might not be able to afford a car anymore. That's why it is all the more disappointing to see transit agency TriMet doing the opposite amidst this Great Recession: cutting service and raising fares.
I'm not the only one who is frustrated, either. A protest of TriMet cuts is happening downtown today, from 4-6PM in front of City Hall.
This month TriMet will initiate a series of cuts approved by its board in May: reducing its bus system's overall vehicle hours by 5 percent while hiking fares 5 cents, or 2 percent for an all-zone ticket. Bus routes 27 and 157 will be eliminated and almost all other lines will come less frequently at some times or see shorter service hours.
TriMet says the cuts and fare hike were needed to help close a $27 million shortfall in its fiscal year 2011. The agency made the cuts based on which routes and times were least used, whether alternative rail service (MAX or WES) was available nearby and whether cuts would fall heavily on low-income and minority communities.
There's no arguing against the agency trying to balance its books. But when a budget shortfall happens, there are two ways to address it: cutting services and raising fees. TriMet is doing both, to an extent. It's cutting services and raising ticket prices.
TriMet receives about 55% of its operating funds from a payroll tax paid by businesses located within the TriMet district boundary. Another 21% comes from fares, which is typical for transit agencies. The rest is made up by federal or state grants and what the agency simply calls "other sources."
Payroll and self-employment taxes, which provide operating revenue for TriMet, are collected and administered by the Oregon Department of Revenue. Effective January 1, 2010, the rate increased to 0.6818 percent ($6.818 per $1,000) of the wages paid by an employer and the net earnings from self-employment for services performed within the TriMet District boundary. For an employee making, say, $30,000, the tax would be $204.54. If you're an employer with a sizable staff, paying $200-$400 per employee (or more) could add up fast.
What I'm wondering is, how could TriMet raise sufficient operating funds without cutting service? Would it be better to initiate a larger ticket price increase, or to increase the business tax? Or better yet, might there be some other kind of funding mechanism that could better fund the agency's operating budget? What about a gas tax in the counties where TriMet operates? Even a penny per gallon spent by each driver in the Metro area would surely add up fast, and this could also have the added plus of inspiring more drivers to get out of their cars. But gas taxes are political hot potatoes, even in progressive Oregon. What would charging $2.15 or $2.25 do for TriMet's ability to offer sufficient service?
In case you're wondering, TriMet's operating budget is not to be confused with its capital budget. Capital funds come from a different pool of money, largely in the form of grants from the federal government, and are often allocated many years in advance. The agency also receives a small amount of state and federal money for other capital improvements. So if one argues, "Why don't we just eliminate the new MAX line to Milwaukee?", unfortunately that wouldn't help bring back any service cuts. That said, however, having a line to Milwaukee in the future might mean TriMet's operating budget becomes even more strained. Building MAX lines from the capital budget doesn't have any direct impact on the operating budget at first, but it inevitably does (if you'll pardon the pun) down the line.
The bottom line is that the transit agency is doing what it can given the resources that exist. TriMet has to balance its books, and given that it's much easier to raise ticket prices and cut service than it is to get more money from tax revenue, it's no surprise that's what they are doing.
Yet it just feels wrong to see Portland's transit agency cutting whole bus lines and having existing lines run less often precisely when people need these buses the most. I'd rather see additional steps taken, whatever they are, to make TriMet service at its most robust when economic conditions necessitate customers' and the community's greatest need. No doubt every new or existing expenditure has to be paid for sooner or later, but providing proper transit infrastructure for people to get to work is precisely how the state of the economy will be improved.