A recent reassessment of our income projections compared to actual income shows that payroll receipts are down $15 million and passenger revenues down $8 million. To maintain fiscal stability, we again need to reduce expenses—this time to the tune of $27 million. The cuts we've already made ($50 million since 2001) have reduced our options for future cuts—we've already cut the easy things. Our remaining expenses are largely determined by factors beyond our control, including contract commitments, fuel prices and Portland's rate of economic recovery.
The 21% share paid by fares (called farebox return or Farebox Recovery Ratio [FRR]) is not bad for a city of Portland's size and density. More critically, by the agency's numbers the decline in fares received is 30% of the total shortfall to be covered. That suggests a real danger of cuts continuing to drive down ridership, leading to a downward spiral of cuts and ridership losses that would gradually destroy the agency's relevance.
This risk may have given some impetus to the proposal to cut low-ridership "Coverage" services even where the few riders have no alternative. Four routes are to be eliminated completely, and three of these (27, 154, and 157) are outer-suburban feeders into Gateway, Oregon City, and Clackamas, respectively. (See Tri-Met system map here.) All serve relatively low density areas but not especially affluent ones, a reminder that density determines ridership much more than wealth does. There's not much of an alternative for residents of the areas served, especially Willamette and Happy Valley, but if good transit service were really important to you, you wouldn't live there.
They're also taking the opportunity to eliminate some awkward deviations caused by transit-hostile development design. A dramatic example is the Cornell Oaks employment area on Line 67. It's on the south side of the US 26 freeway on the east side of 158th Avenue. Have a look:
The north-south street on the far left is 158th Avenue. The core street of the development, Greenbrier Parkway, comes off of 158th, does a few S-curves that we're supposed to find sensuous or relaxing, and then ends in a landscaped turnaround loop, a violation of the "Be on the Way" rule. (Actually the cul-de-sac has a connection to a parking lot, which connects to another street, all of which looks like it's designed to permit fire trucks but obstruct buses.)
Currently, some Line 67 trips, which are running past on 158th, actually turn down this street, drive all the way down, and then, having no alternative, turn around and drive all the way back. They do this while carrying through-passengers who just want to ride along 158th. This is called a "backtracking deviation," and psychologically it's the very worst kind because the through-riders can't even pretend they're going in roughly their desired direction. It's especially bad here because we're at a point where the bus is relatively full (by the low standards of suburban local routes.) There's a MAX station just to the south off the map, and a lot more suburbia to the north, so everyone wanting travel between MAX and that suburbia gets hauled through the Cornell Oaks detour.
The Cornell Oaks deviation is a typical example of how transit agencies are forced to wear the costs of poor design, so bravo to TriMet for refusing to do it anymore. While some people who work in these business parks probably want service, their developer did everything possible to prevent bus service from working. One solution you'll hear proposed for places like this is for the businesses to run their own employee shuttle to the nearby MAX station (not far south off of this image). Doing so would reflect the fair costs of their decision to locate in a place where efficient public transit is impossible.
Still, these cuts are a small part of the damage. The main damage is further loss of frequency on the former "Frequent Network," now including midday MAX light rail frequencies as well as buses. This is really where the downward spiral of cuts and ridership could play out. I have one strong suggestion about these cuts: Given that you've already given up on the 15-minute frequency standard, try to hold the line at 20 -- exactly 20. TriMet is currently being vague about what the exact post-cut frequencies would be, saying, for example, that on certain routes the elapsed time between buses "would increase by 2-10 minutes at various times throughout the day." It's impossible to know what this means, but it could mean that we'll see lots of important lines running every 17, 18, or 19 minutes. My view is that 20-minute frequency is actually better than many of these compromises, because it yields a schedule that you can remember because it repeats the same way every hour.
The cuts will also undermine the historic usefulness of transit for intra-downtown travel, which was at one time an important feature of downtown Portland as a place to work, shop, and play. While the old transit mall and fare system made it easy to grab just any bus that came along, the new transit mall has very widely spaced stops, so you can no longer easily walk to the stop of whichever bus you see coming if you want to travel a short distance along the mall. More critically, the downtown free fare zone now applies only to rail, and you're expected to use light-rail for these short trips. Midday frequency of light rail will have an impact on this. More on the peculiar mall shuttle situation in another post.