TriMet Works Toward System Improvements

TriMet council members assemble at the State of Oregon Transportation Department for their monthly meeting to discuss further details on TriMet’s Improvement Plan. Photo by Griffin Schumock.

TriMet, and Oregon as a whole, have recently come to the conclusion that an increase in transportation efficiency would benefit the community. They are working with the public to find the best solutions for workers on the night shift getting to their jobs on time, as well as helping the environment through pollution reduction. Eventually, TriMet hopes to replace the current buses with electric models. New plans follow past accomplishments like the Tilikum Crossing Bridge, a vital bridge crossing for MAX, streetcar, pedestrians, and bicyclists. These plans still need funding and detailed planning, but a committee board is meeting monthly to develop those things and to improve Oregon, transportation, and the environment. The Oregon Legislature has recently passed Bill 2017 from the House of Representatives. The bill, also known as Keep Oregon Moving, hopes to increase investment in transportation. This would create good jobs, foster strong communities, and create a cleaner environment with safe, healthy people.

The Division Street Project was first planned by Metro in 2014; several public meetings were held to devise a plan about how transportation in Oregon should be remodeled for the better. A committee board approved the plan, formerly known as the “Locally-Preferred Alternative,” in November 2016. Portland and Gresham transportation committees unanimously approved the plan, alongside the Multnomah County Commission and the TriMet Board of Directors. Project leadership was then passed from Metro to TriMet on December 20, 2016. Design and construction of this project will go through to 2020, encompassing the details on the stations, buses, and routes, and where to implement them. Total costs are speculated to be $175 million, with state, regional, local, and federal funding contributions expected.

On January 19, the HB 2017 Transit Advisory Committee met for a monthly meeting at the State of Oregon Transportation Department regarding the big changes coming to Oregon transportation. These changes fall under their Public Transportation Improvement Plan, which will guide TriMet on how they should spend their State Transportation Improvement Funds (STIF). During the meeting, they underwent observation of their Guiding Statement (produced in an earlier meeting), and proceeded to make any finite changes they sought necessary. The most noticeable concern was emphasizing the expansion and creation of new transit services in communities with a high percentage of low-income households and, in regard to the eco-friendly electric buses, areas or regions with the most pollution.

With equity as a high priority, the committee seeks to reduce fares for public transportation for communities with a high percentage of low-income households. Their current recommendation shows 50 percent off Adult day passes and 70 percent off of Adult monthly passes (equivalent to Honored Citizen and Youth Fare structures). This price reduction is approximated to cost $12.3 million per year and support at least 45,000 riders. Funds for TriMet’s new projects and policies will not be received until early 2019. However, TriMet’s goal is to launch in July 2018. Their early launch date is possibly due to the new statewide transit tax passed in Oregon’s House Bill No. 2017. On July 1, the transit tax will go into action, accounting for one one-thousandth of the wages of those working in Oregon.

On top of this new tax decision, TriMet received a $3.4 million grant to purchase four battery-electric buses as part of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Low and No Emission Vehicle Deployment program. Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley was pleased to help TriMet secure the federal funding to get these cleaner electric and low emission buses into service. TriMet will purchase four New Flyer XE40 Xcelsior 40-foot-long battery-electric buses along with depot and on-route charging infrastructure. The federal grant covers all of the costs to buy the buses as well as to design and install the infrastructure. Buses that are expected to be in service in 2018 are being deployed on test routes to ensure they already match the current buses’ standards, if not exceed them. They will work longer, require less upkeep, run quieter, and create less pollution, saving money, time, and the environment.

Other large changes coming to TriMet services include the FY19 Service Plan, which encompasses bus route, station, and hour improvements. Line 4 on Division will be split into two separate routes, greatly affecting the Franklin community. It is currently one of TriMet’s busiest and longest buslines, and this effort would cut down time between bus arrivals, as well as increase the accuracy of their expected time. The little overlap where the route would be split, through public survey, would impact minimal travelers as both lines run through or end in downtown Portland. Regarding the rest of Portland and Oregon, there will be 24-hour bus services to Portland International Airport with two proposals in mind: one running along 102nd Ave. at a lesser frequency, the other using 82nd Ave. at a greater frequency. Expanded hours later at night and earlier in the morning plan to accommodate for all the late and early shift workers and grow the community stronger by aiding the workforce. To accomplish this goal during the majority of the day, frequent service buses will be aiming to run every 15 minutes or less. Since the initial proposal in September 2017 to January 2018, rounds of debate and progress have ensued, leading up to predicted operational readiness and service in September 2018.

The FY19 Plan was not unanimous in vote, however. “I think my half risen hand had to do with the fact that, I just can’t see what we’re voting on from a total package about: how much money is there?” said Dan Bower, Executive Director of Portland Streetcar. “How much does this cost? And what else are we spending money on? So this seems like a good deployment of service but what does that mean for the larger context of the $50 million per year, how much is this and what else are we doing?” He is but one concerned council member who hesitates to put all their trust in a plan they don’t even fully understand, just for the sake of getting a plan into action. The $50 million dollars each year comes from the total money expected to be spent running all of TriMet. About 7 percent of it goes into operational costs of the buses while the rest goes to things like capital, buying new buses, maintenance, expanding bus hours, etc. “So what you’re hearing from me is, yeah, this looks like good service but how do we put that in context with everything else; we’re a little bit ahead of the game on that right now,” said Bower. Bernie Bottomly, Executive Director of Public Affairs, agrees with that statement and tells the fellow members, “That is the challenge we are asking you guys to take, a little bit of a leap of faith here because you haven’t seen the rest of the plan. When we talk about the rest of the service improvements, it will be in the context of the rest of the plan.” With regard to their previous meeting in the year, the topic of discussion for this meeting was supposed to be about the integration of electric buses and their details, but ended up being more about service upgrades and overall plans. “The reason why we’re ahead of the game is so that we can get that first year of service in our ramp up into service as soon as possible, as in this September; otherwise we’re waiting another year and a few months,” Bottomly expressed. This rash decision making is a very dangerous method, which although could result in a progressive first step, could set major plans even further back if it went wrong. “It’s very important to get the first year right because you’re not gonna pull this away. If we vote on it, we’re kinda stuck with it for a long time. There needs to be a little more certainty around the table with where the money is going and how this fits into the larger context before,” Bower said.

At the monthly council meeting regarding their One Year Service Improvement Plan, data and graphs of poverty rates from 2015 were shown, but Clackamas County Commissioner Paul Savas pointed out that poverty rates have dramatically increased since then. Savas, in his closing comment states, “We have a lot of people actually moving way outside the Metro region because the housing is more affordable, but that also creates transportation challenges, so we have very, very poor communities in the rural areas, so they would really benefit from this.” However, not everything can be fixed immediately. TriMet’s objectives have to be balanced and decisions will have to be made to, for example, promote the span and range of their bus services over the schedule reliability of buses, but they are working hard to accomplish everything.

At the same meeting, public comment opened up at the end for those that came to speak to the respective board members, and many speakers brought up the idea of electric buses and eliminating all the transportation emissions contributing to climate change. Citizens of all ages and backgrounds spoke, from eighth graders at Sunnyside Environmental School, to PPS teachers, to Portland Youth Council members. Oregon citizen Alison Wiley brought up the Multnomah County 100 percent renewable energy goal and how she feels it should be accomplished immediately. TriMet is the No.1 diesel purchaser in Oregon, so Wiley thinks that TriMet should go electric and plan on not producing any more diesel-consuming buses after 2020.

Another factor that the council has been trying to figure out is the limited space for storing new buses as well as charging the electric ones. With low income communities in mind for the transportation upgrades, finding space is very difficult with all the restrictions on land and where they can build. “TriMet, as usual, doesn’t just turn its head at that; TriMet tries harder,” said Ginny Stern, a Portland Youth council member who had her own idea for the limiting factors on building the bus storage depots. “Working in partnerships can open surprising avenues to finding things and I know that North Portland has a lot of sites along the port. [There are] businesses that deal with mitigation looking to give back to the community from pollution or land taken that was wetlands. Perhaps partnerships could be forged and we could try harder by looking at that issue and saying: what partnerships that are unusual and different have we not looked at?” Public comment at these meetings provides more perspectives that influential council members may not have thought of before.

TriMet’s traditional transportation methods are on the move with the rest of the world. Big changes will follow in the next couple of years with TriMet’s policies and buses themselves, opening new opportunities to the public. If all goes according to plan, Multnomah County will attain its 100 percent renewable energy goal, and vastly decrease the pollution in Oregon, alongside greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Funding is on its way for Trimet to expand its services in Oregon.

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