portland: balance the budget yourself

Portland's Tri-Met faces another horrible funding shortfall this year, but they've come up with a good survey tool to engage the public in their decisions about what services to cut.  It's one of those "balance the budget yourself" tools that's becoming increasingly necessary to bring voters into contact with reality about government budgets.  

If you live in Portland, you should definitely work through the survey and send them your own balanced budget and comments.  If you're not in Portland, is your transit agency communicating about its trade-offs this well?

20 Responses to portland: balance the budget yourself

  1. Jonathan January 16, 2012 at 11:01 pm #

    I’m not convinced these tools are as useful as people tend to think they are. Where’s the ‘shut the system down until the union cries like a little girl’ option, for example (no offence intended to little girls). If these tools don’t provide a full range of solutions (even ones that are difficult or politically disagreeable), they simply help to further confuse the issue.

  2. EngineerScotty January 16, 2012 at 11:03 pm #

    One controversial aspect of the tool is that it is a rather flagrant piece of anti-union propoganda–TriMet goes out of its way to blame its budgetary problems on Amalgamated Transit Union local 757, which represents TriMet’s operators and mechanics. TriMet may well have a point–Oregon law gives ATU757 more leverage than unions in other states enjoy, and TriMet’s unionized workforce is quite well compensated (especially if you exclude union-captive agencies such as Muni).
    The choices the tool offers are generally limited to those things which are within the scope of TriMet’s institutional authority–hike fares, cut service, charge for parking, etc. (A common complaint is that its parking options are ridiculous–the agency has thousands of stalls at its park-and-rides, yet the tool suggests that charging for parking won’t produce more than US$100k in net income per year).
    It would have been interesting to see what results would have been produced were the policy levers extended to include things outside the scope of the agency’s control, such as “raise the payroll tax” or “legislatively handicap the union (Scott Walker style)”. Not because either of these things are likely (although there are signs that the governor of Oregon might intervene more aggressively in the ongoing labor dispute), but to get an (unscientific) flavor of what other policy actions the public might embrace.
    And while I think this would be a shortsighted idea, many critics of TriMet (and of the tool) have also taken note that capital projects are likewise considered out of bounds, as far as the tool goes. There’s probably not much to be gained by stopping any current projects (Milwaukie MAX is already underway); but many have suggested TriMet should lay off some (or all) of its capital planning staff–the agency has many planners working for it, and a planning payroll of several million dollars, albeit much of it coming from non-fungible grant money–and defer future capital projects until the economy improves.

  3. Alexis January 16, 2012 at 11:13 pm #

    I don’t think it is a very good tool. It’s a great idea, poorly implemented. The “balance” is very focused on raising fares with a sidebar on cutting service, while other options such as raising revenue from parking are passed over as “we could maybe introduce a nominal charge” and still others ignored (raise the payroll tax — not that I think it would be popular, but it’s not even there). Some options are very specific (Red Line reductions) while others are vague (redundant bus service). No MAX line other than the Red is offered as a cut target.
    And TriMet goes to great lengths to picture themselves as the good guy, and put the union and the recession down as the villians. To say the least, this is a somewhat controversial stand to take. It’s predictable that they would use the opportunity for PR, but the extent of it did amaze me.

  4. Kevin January 16, 2012 at 11:14 pm #

    An interesting idea, although like EngineerScotty I am curious why the only option for increased park and ride fees is “nominal.” Fair enough, I would have selected the highest option available no matter what it was, but I digress.
    The whole tool also seems a little bit disingenuous since it requires the selection of “yes” to almost every option provided in order to “balance the budget.” Surely there are some other projects/options which would make this seem like more than a futile exercise.

  5. EngineerScotty January 17, 2012 at 10:35 am #

    Locking out TriMet’s workers is, at present, not legal in Oregon–transit operators are considered “essential workers” under Oregon law, similar to police or firefighters. As such, they may not strike or be locked out; instead, impasses in labor disputes are handled by binding arbitration.
    Presently, TriMet and ATU757 are in arbitration; with the union having filed a few unfair-labor-practice complaints against the agency (and prevailing on each one). Both parties are acting as though they expect TriMet to ultimately prevail–the agency is pushing for a swift end to the arbitration, and is accusing the union of stalling; whereas the union is the one filing the UPL complaints, which must be resolved before the underlying arbitration completes.

  6. MJS56 January 17, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

    Also: the comments provided from these things tend to be heavily skewed toward educated, affluent people. Which also means white people in most of the US.

  7. Alon Levy January 17, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

    This is a really devious tool, as it only lets people make choices within bounds the agency finds acceptable. For example, there’s an option for charging a nominal fee for parking at stations, but not for charging market price. Likewise, the options regarding bus line cancellations are too generic – we never get to choose whether to prune service in the urban core or cut it in the suburbs.

  8. Joseph E January 17, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    Re: cutting bus service. Portland’s bus service is already fairly weak. The “frequent” lines are often only every 20 minutes at mid-day, in the center of the city, and the best train service is every 15 minutes (except for a few short-turn blue line trains at rush hour). There are some areas with interlining that are better.
    Since Trimet serves the whole metro area, it would be at risk of losing cities payroll tax dollars if suburban service is cut again. This has already happened in Sandy and one or two other far-out suburbs.
    The parking fee thing is confusing. Perhaps Trimet really thinks that no one would pay more than a buck a day? If so, the parking lots should be sold to private landowners for a higher and better use.
    Concessions from the union really are necessary. Reforming work rules to allow peak-only shifts would be great. But total compensation (including health care, in particular) has been going up and up. Without reducing healthcare inflation, I’m not sure how Trimet will every be able to expand service or even restore service to the frequent bus network.

  9. Tim Bonnemann January 17, 2012 at 4:24 pm #

    Interesting, anyone know what kind of software they’re using or whether this was built in-house?
    There are two things I look at when I come across online budget tools like this one:
    1) What’s the maximum impact of all options combined as a percentage of the deficit? In this case, the deficit is $17m, but only $25.7m (151%) in deficit reduction measures are offered. It’s clear right there that there probably isn’t a lot of flexibility for participants in choosing their path to solving the deficit.
    2) Are there any options that are impossible to avoid? In this case, the budget deficit cannot be resolved unless fares are increased. As long as a participants chooses “no fare increase” she won’t be able to solve the puzzle. Failure to make this more transparent to the participant can be a simple oversight or, worse, an effort to push a hidden agenda.
    Obviously, the options shouldn’t be biased (as much as that’s possible). At the very least, TriMet should provide information as to how the various options were selected and share the assumptions behind their financial impact calculations.

  10. Jonathan January 18, 2012 at 1:22 am #

    Engineer Scotty –
    Thanks! I didn’t know that. In any-case reading your prior comment, along with Alexis’s and Kevin’s, I think my broader point stands – such tools don’t well-consider all options (perhaps because written from a managers perspective when the powers available to voters en-masse are much broader). In retrospect, an unrelated irritation (which I was reading HT to unwind from) coloured the tone of my prior post.

  11. al m January 18, 2012 at 8:52 am #

    Jarret, I am surprised you fell so easily for this little handy dandy propaganda tool.
    Trimet management framed its discussion with the choices THEY WANT, in other words its rigged.
    I didn’t expect you to bite this hook so cleanly.
    It turns our your just another fish in the sea after all…

  12. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org January 18, 2012 at 10:15 am #

    Al, I'm not going to wade into the union-management conflict at TriMet.  Yes, this tool was created by management and describes the situation from their point of view.  Why doesn't the union create their own budget balancer, describing the situation from theirs?

  13. AL M January 18, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

    Hmmmm….OK, good question Jarrett, but your smarter then the rest of these people!

  14. AL M January 18, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

    But you also must realize that the union has 3 officers and a couple of secretaries, TRIMET on the other hand has an army of executives, with a brigade of administrative assistants, and a cavalry of researchers.
    And that leaves out the paid mercenaries who don’t even work here but suck off the Trimet tit…

  15. EngineerScotty January 18, 2012 at 2:39 pm #

    TriMet also has a quite capable IT department, capable of developing and deploying these sorts of web apps without breaking much of a sweat–assets which it uses to good effect in supporting its operations. (And its IT folk are pretty much all non-union employees, who have been already been subjected to such things as layoffs, pay and benefit cuts, and the like).
    Writing a bit of Javascript to put up a menu of choices, toting them up, and displaying the total probably isn’t hard for a competent web engineer with time on their hands. The hard part is coming up with solid figures as to how much money would be saved by various actions–especially since the actions aren’t independent. Service cuts on line A plus service cuts on line B probably would produce even less ridership than the sum of the individual losses, for instance, due to (inverse) network effects.

  16. Brent January 18, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

    I was intrigued by the heading “What are other agencies doing?” I thought it would be a list of various ingenious measures that different agencies had implemented to improve their efficiency. Turns out the page is just political cover (“See? Other folks are paying more for worse service, too”).
    How many park-and-ride spaces does TriMet have? How many are considered “high use”? Assuming a 250-workday year, that “nominal” parking fee is only shown as generating $400 per day!!

  17. Alon Levy January 18, 2012 at 4:51 pm #

    Does TriMet consider the effect of reduced ridership on service cuts? I know New York does not – its service cuts all assumed static demand for savings calculations.

  18. Andrew January 18, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

    As usual I would support the unlisted option: “Raise taxes”. In Toronto there is much controversy over cutting TTC bus service on busy routes, making buses more overcrowded, which would save a puny sum of $5 million (peanuts compared to the TTC budget). Meanwhile we have the lowest residential property taxes in the GTA, and a right wing mayor desperate to cut taxes and cut services. Toronto needs to raise taxes to maintain/improve bus service and fund subway expansion.

  19. Erik H. January 18, 2012 at 5:05 pm #

    “Yes, this tool was created by management and describes the situation from their point of view. Why doesn’t the union create their own budget balancer”
    TriMet should be offering as many choices and without bias to the General Manager or the Board to reflect their pro-rail, anti-bus attitudes.
    I have posted in multiple places a 24 point list of proposed budget cuts. TriMet has REFUSED to address the vast majority of them.
    With many of TriMet’s suggestions, it’s a “yes” or “no” choice – there is no middle-ground choice. No question as to what would be an appropriate parking fee. No question as to what services to cancel, how much – it’s either this or that.
    TriMet’s budget tool is just another propaganda tool by TriMet rather than a fair, honest assessment of its current woes. TriMet fails to acknowledge that much of its budget woes are self-inflicted due to its disinvestment in the bus system, which directly inflated operating costs for the bus system, and forces bus riders to pay for MAX services (depreciation expense charged to bus riders results in money that is transferred to MAX, and bus riders are forced to pay for MAX borrowing costs as an “operating expense”.) And TriMet also doesn’t offer the choice of shutting down WES or the option of telling the City of Portland to pay for the streetcars themselves – just those two items alone is $10 million a year.

  20. Danny January 19, 2012 at 11:54 am #

    I looked really hard, but I couldnt seem to find an option that involved union busting. Unfortunate, really, because it would probably allow for the strongest expansion of service that the city has ever seen.