Portland Streetcar and MAX train (photo by drburtoni via Flickr)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
Depending on where you live in the Portland metro area, what tax bracket you occupy and your mode of getting around, the regional transit service is either failing to meet your needs or grossly over-reaching. It's either delivering opportunity to those who need it most or carrying a virus of poverty and violence. Perhaps never before has the transit agency been so caught up in a maelstrom of funding woes, unhappy riders and paranoid reactionary critics.
The agency that has expanded regularly over the past 30 years in adding MAX light rail lines may not be doing so in the future. Recently TriMet announced a $12 million budget hole that required the elimination of downtown's Fareless Square as well as numerous service cuts, all while raising ticket prices. One of the many loud critics at the related public meeting last week called the move "economic warfare," while another shouted to the board, "You are not human! You are despicable."
"This is the third time in four years that budget shortfalls have forced TriMet to cut services and increase fares," reported Joseph Rose in The Oregonian, another local institution frequently cutting its offerings in recent years. "The board heard from retirees, people who have been unemployed for months, students and even a poet who claimed that the changes would be responsible for everything from damaging public health to devastating the fixed incomes of the poor."
This is echoed in a recent Willamette Week cover story, which, like the Mercury's, mined the cultural chasm between those who desperately need TriMet to get anywhere and those who see the agency delivering Auslanders to their doorstep. Writer Aaron Mesh rode local transit for 72 hours, encountering a kind of modern Canterbury Tale of denizens riding the bus.
"My journey shows me how dependent so many people are on such a basic system—and how tenuous the links are," Mesh writes. By this time he's interviewed security guards, bartenders, nursing students and many more. "The transit agency’s services offer tangible opportunity and hope to every person that lives within its reach. If the agency fails, we are essentially quitting on our belief that everyone gets the same shot to change their lives. The American dream is only as near as the next bus."
That connection the bus and train provide is being slashed by changing economics. TriMet has two major funding difficulties.
First, it's committed to providing retirement benefits for its drivers at a time when the Baby Boom generation is retiring en masse, which, as with so many aspects of American life, is proving overwhelming in its cost. The same conversation is being had at the national level about Social Security and Medicare. Quite simply, TriMet, like everyone else, has to pay for so many entitlements at once that the whole funding and budgetary matrix is being turned on its ear.
Second, the primary funding source for TriMet, a payroll tax, is bringing in declining revenues becuase the Portand workforce is gradually shrinking. The reason? Once again, a retiring workforce.
"For 30 years, baby boomers have been the secret fuel in TriMet's payroll-powered budget. Even when wage growth slowed, hundreds of thousands of workers at the peak of their earning power kept total payrolls growing," wrote Michael Anderson on the Portland Transport blog. "But as boomers slip out of the workforce, TriMet's ability to keep up with growth will have to rely more and more on the wages of the workers who remain. In other words, just as Portland's TriMet-riding population is poised to swell, the tax that financed TriMet's amazing 30-year expansion is about to shrivel."
At the same time, there is a growing hostility towards TriMet for a reason that ultimately has very little to do with TriMet: the fact that a generational demographic shift has brought more low-income and poverty-plagued citizens into the outer suburbs. With central cities increasingly given to white middle and upper class residents, people at the lower end of the economic spectrum, particularly people of color, are living in places like Clackamas, Gresham and Hillsboro. To some affluent suburbanites, this is nothing short of an invasion, and they see TriMet as the landing craft for that enemy expedition force.
In a recent Portland Mercury cover story, for example, Dennis Theriault describes a billboard along Interstate 205 near suburban Gladstone in Clackamas County that called for this land of strip malls to be rescued. On one side of the ad, Theriault writes, Mount Hood is "presiding over a postcard-worthy vista," a small-town paradise as seemingly conceived by Ward Clever or Mike Brady. On the other side of the ad is a graying cloud of smog and cars. The sign's message reads, "PROTECT CLACKAMAS COUNTY... FROM PORTLAND CREEP."
"It was a blunt appeal for a slate of Clackamas County commissioner candidates—paid for by the Oregon Transformation Project Political Action Committee, a Lake Oswego PAC with deep ties to the state Republican Party," Theriault notes.
A bellwether issue for these suburban Republicans seems to be the Portland to Milwaukie light rail line. When the economy was booming in the 1990s and at times in the 2000s, extending light rail to the outer suburbs was less of a political hot potato. What's more, people seemed to interently understand that MAX was reducing congestion and acting as a development tool. Throughout Beaverton, Gresham and now Clackamas, transit stops have become pockets of pedestrian-oriented, high-density development that are providing an altertative to the drive-everywhere lifestyle and the eyesore of seas of parking lots fronting buildings.
But when the economy collapsed after the George W. Bush-led real estate deregulation of the 2000s, the right side of the political aisle began embracing austerity measures like never before, eager to slash budgets. Nevermind that the continuing economic crisis in Europe has provided a vivid cautionary tale against austerity without stimulus measures. Austerity for local opponents of mass transit was too irresistable to resist, becuase stopping TriMet could also mean, for those fearful of reverse-gentrification, the chance to stop people without SUVs or pleated khakis from taking over their idyllic collections of Applebees and Home Depots.
But regardless of whether TriMet is robust in funds or a pauper, and no matter whether MAX expands further into the suburbs or not, the demographics will not change back. The flight of the middle and upper classes out of central cities and into the suburbs has long since reversed course.
Ultimately, the manipulative myth of the Portland creep is a distraction from the real issue: how we fund TriMet.
The transit agency needs more funds, but increasing the payroll tax probably won't solve the problem. That would place too great a burden on employers and the self-employed. Increasing fares and enacting service cuts makes a sorry excuse for a long term answer to the problem. Instead, we need a new funding mechanism for TriMet: not something to replace the payroll tax, but something to augment it. This could come from any number of sources. A gas tax or an increase to vehicle registration fees could derive funding from those using the roads. Some type of hotel tax could make those from out of town normally not contributing to the cost of riding our buses and trains pay a share. Oregon, unlike nearly every other state in the union, doesn't have a sales tax, which could go a long way to fund not only transit but schools, police and firefighters.
In the end, any new tax or surcharge will be unpopular with someone. But if the burden is distributed widely enough, it will be less painful. And make no mistake: investing in TriMet is investing in the economy. If we want the unemployment rate to decrease, we need people to be able to get to work: not just those who can afford single-passenger vehicular trips everywhere in their cars, but everyone.
At the same time, the MAX line under construction now that is causing Republicans and others paranoid of the Portland creep may be a turning point. After this line is completed, there will be a MAX line to the suburbs in all major directions: east to Gresham, west to Beaverton and Hillsboro, south to Clackamas, and north to the Expo Center and possibly someday Vancouver.
Though the possibility of a Vancouver extension is still very relevant, particularly with the Columbia Crossing possibly being built in upcoming years, perhaps it's time for Portland and its metro area to start focusing less on MAX and more on the Portland Streetcar. It isn't simply an either-or choice, of course, becuase the Streetcar is built and operated by the Portland Department of Transportation rather than TriMet. But now may be a good time to bring both rail lines under the same funding and administrative umbrella. Transit is TriMet's job, and the Streetcar should be part of that. But that's an idealized scenario. The transporation department runs and created the streetcar because it can, whereas the city has little ability to shape what TriMet does.
In a time of increasing entitlement commitments and dwindling revenue, sacrifices inevitably will have to be made, and it's always easier to cut where the most people are asking for it. Whether it represents a majority or not, opposition to mass transit in the suburbs is real. Some of it is the affluent fearing their party crashed. But sadly, it's also many low-income voters who have been bamboozled into voting against their own self interest. Let's give them what many are asking for: a temporary end to MAX expansion into the suburbs.
Instead, let's re-commit over the next decade instead to extending the streetcar's reach to the East Side: not just along the MLK Boulevard thoroughfare, but east and north on streets like Killingsworth, Burnside, and Hawthorne. Let's also recommit to restoring bus lines that have been weakened or removed by TriMet budget woes. If there are people in the suburbs criticizing TriMet for doing too much, there are just as many in Portland proper saying TriMet doesn't do enough. To restore lost lines and build new ones, be they fixed as rail or rolling on wheels, we'll need to change the game with TriMet's funding. But if Portland is really going to fulfill its emerging role as the future of American cities, we can't settle for service cuts and bigoted pigeonholing of our transit system. It's time for Portland to make TriMet what we want it to be.
The only problem is that TriMet is largely out of Portland's hands - it is accountable to the governor rather than any city leaders. And that may be the other massive sea change necessary in the coming years: a greater ability for Portland's metro area to determine its own fate on transit.