In a region that values sustainability, why is our bus system in such decay?

Joseph Santos-Lyons

Will we see bus service continue to decline? Will we see another decade of fare increases and a $3.00 fare?

By Rev. Joseph Santos-Lyons of Portland, Oregon. Rev. Lyons is co-director of OPAL Environmental Justice and a Unitarian Universalist Community Minister affiliated with First Unitarian Church of Portland.

Today at 4pm, bus riders organized by OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon are rallying at Portland City Hall saying “enough is enough” to fare increases and service cuts.

In a region with a powerful sustainability vision, and a knack for leading the nation in creative urban land use and transportation planning, it is a shame that TriMet’s bus system is in such decay. With over 70,000 100,000 bus service hours being cut this year, on top of the 10th fare increase in 10 years, the region’s bus rider’s are increasingly bearing the burden of transit cut-backs. Will we see bus service continue to decline? Will we see another decade of fare increases and a $3.00 fare? Is this what is best for our region?

Bus riders are the backbone of TriMet, accounting for 2/3rds of daily boardings (pdf), and coming from all parts of the Portland-Metro region. Reliable, affordable and accessible bus transportation needs to be TriMet’s Board of Director’s and General Manager Neil McFarlane’s top priority. We need to restore bus service and roll back fare increases, to echo BlueOregon's TA Barnhart. Public transportation is critical to our most vulnerable communities, folks who depend on TriMet because they can’t drive due to economics, mental health, physical ability, or age. In my view, it is a human right as it is a public good which is our lifeline to basic necessities such as jobs, education, health care and cultural community.

The problems facing Los Angeles and more than 8 in 10 transit agencies hurts us all when overcrowding and missed transfers caused by service reductions make people late to work, when line reductions eliminate our dependable daily exercise, and when our public health risks increase as people are forced to drive at all costs.

OPAL’s Bus Riders Unite community group is building leadership among those most affected by transportation inequities, and we hope you would join them today to hear their story about how they will be impacted by the recent round of service cuts and fare increases.

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    Pretty easy answer...TriMet has a very expensive rail system to maintain and operate. The bus system gets what is left over. The Feds are good at providing the initial capital investment in rail, but not so much in the ongoing operations and maintenance. Layer on top of that reduced payroll tax collections and you've got a decaying bus system. Not to mention that the payroll tax and fares probably wouldn't even support operations, maintenance and capital replacement of just a bus system.

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    One challenge in accurately weighing the costs and benefits of rail vs. bus is the land use benefits that come from rail.

    Our land use and transportation systems are inextricably linked, and rail tends to encourage more low-impact development patterns than bus routes do.

    That said, the equity issue must be front and center - as one of every four Oregonians cannot drive. Our bus routes serve the whole region, and must be protected from further cuts. More thoughts on how to do this in a full post in a day or two.

    As a side note, taking the $4,000 million we're planning on spending on the CRC MegaBridge could create an annual income stream of $200 million (or more) for transit service.

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      Well said, Evan, but doesn't your organization support the CRC MegaBridge?

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        I left the Oregon League of Conservation Voters in December. (I'm at American Rivers now).

        Concerns about OLCV's position on the MegaBridge should be directed to their current staff and board. Find a list at or give them a call at 503-224-4011.

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      Get real Evan. That $4 bill only materializes if the CRC is built. It's not like some magic money pot that we could draw on for anything we want. This is the same argument we get in when people say "Why are we building rail lines when the schools are cutting days from the year?" You are smarter than that.

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        Sorry - I was imprecise. I try to remind people of how expensive the CRC is when we're struggling with meeting basic needs of those who are less fortunate, and oversimplified.

        As we're already using flex funds for roads, and we fund a lot of local roads through property taxes and other fees, instead of state and federal gas taxes, some of the $4,000 million could be made available for transit funding.

        As I've said many times, the political capital we're burning through to make the $4,000 million "materialize" is political capital that could make other money "materialize". The capital - if not the specific pots of money - is fungible.

        With DeFazio and Blumenauer positioned where they are, along with Patty Murray, we've got more ability to do something creative with the federal money than build a highway project from the 1950s that looks like it belongs in Atlanta or Ohio.

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          OK I agree-- some of that money could be used instead for transit funding; but for construction costs only, not operating expenses. The big issue we seem to be facing is how to come up with the dough to operate these lines. We can get the money to build 'em, but that CRC money won't help us keep em runnin.

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        I with Evan on this. It's all public money. If the political process has put some funding in the wrong categories, we can change that.

        And, we are short changing our schools while building roads and bridges. And it is wrong!

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    Light rail is sexy. Buses are not sexy. PDX's leaders LOVE sexy.

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    The main issue is that buses provide transport for people who for whatever reason can't drive.

    MAX seems to be mor for people who have a car but choose not to drive (hence park & rides), a more affluent group.

    And of course MAX routes mean developer $$ for all the "tranit oriented" construction built along the MAX routes.

    Gotta keep the west hills developer crowds and Neil happy....

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    Dominic what's your point?

    Trimet is a state not a city agency so Sam has little if any control over it.

    And I think the outcome of two recalls suggests the intern story is a dead horse for most of us.

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      And amortized cost of rail yields a better ROI on a dollar per dollar basis. Also, as more rail lines open up, the yellow for example, it can and should reduce some bus frequency on some routes as some are supplanted by the rail line (and yielding lower aggregate numbers when comparing 2004 vs. 2010).

      While that doesn't dismiss the concerns over reduction of route frequency others have mentioned, a little more context should be given to the skewed info some are presenting.

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    Rail cost way too much in infrastructure costs and forces people to go where the 'planners' put the lines. Buses serve the population where they are and where they want to go.

    The real problem is Trimet has raided bus service fir rail for at least the past 10 years. That pales in comparison to the raid on operatiing revenue to pay for the platiunum plated benefits and compensation package Trimet has handed out like Halloween candy.

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