TriMet’s Messy Mixed Bag

Portland has a great reputation for its public transportation options, but a resident’s perception of this public transportation can be skewed from both sides. Is TriMet a dysfunctional, money-gobbling headache? Or is it the brand name of our shiny, car-free utopia? As it turns out, neither one is true.

A 2014 report by Walk Score ranked Portland 10th of the top 10 cities for public transportation in the U.S. Considering the number of reliable train and subway systems on the East Coast, a number 10 ranking doesn’t seem so bad. Of course, it might seem a little weird that Los Angeles is ranked number nine.

Yes, that Los Angeles. That mecca of traffic pollution, where they can’t legally build a school within 90 miles of a freeway because all the children might get chronic bronchitis. How can it possibly rank better in public transportation than Portland? It’s simply because the voters in that city have reached a breaking point, and a surge of new light rail projects are being funded by taxpayer money. According to the Sierra Club, Los Angeles is working to build a sprawling infrastructure of trains, which will go into construction this year.

Portland is obviously further along in the evolution of that infrastructure than most U.S. cities. But the city’s status as a leader in public transportation might be at the root of some of TriMet’s most glaring issues. A 2012 article by Governing magazine chronicles the rise of TriMet and Portland’s position as an ideal model for public transportation to the rest of the country, despite having a modest population of around 600,000.

Perhaps because of the hype, TriMet continually bites off more than it can chew financially. Plans to expand MAX trains and streetcar routes manifest despite safety concerns and concerns over TriMet’s unsustainable health care and retirement benefits for its workers. According to TriMet’s website, the organization is facing nearly $1 billion in unfunded benefits, mostly due to current and future retiree health costs. Funds also get tied up in repair and renovation projects, which do not generate profit.

TriMet also doesn’t enjoy the same public support that public transportation in other cities have secured. Elite hipsters are always the first to cry gentrification, implying that the addition of rail lines to Portland neighborhoods brings bigger business and higher rent prices. But even plans to renovate buses have been voted down. Most of the resistance comes from outside the city, in areas like Lake Oswego and Vancouver, Wash. The Columbia River Crossing project, which would extend the MAX trains to Vancouver, has been met with red tape and insane hoop-jumping for years.
Compare that to public transportation in Seattle, Sound Transit, where an impressive train system links the city with suburban areas like Everett and even neighboring cities like Tacoma and Bellevue. Sound Transit can boast that over 90 percent of trains arrive on time, while TriMet had to issue a public apology last year for letting its reliability drop to just 40 percent. Why the difference? I imagine it has to do with the way business is run, but it may also have to do with the city’s attitude.

Having spent most of my life in cities where the only public transportation option was a dirty and probably unsafe bus, I had a hard time imagining why anyone complained about TriMet. Sure, some people think the focus on railways over buses disenfranchises the poorest of public transportation riders, but that’s why fare prices are all the same now. The streetcar is only a dollar. And to be honest, even though the stigma of riding the bus is different here than in most places, trains and streetcars are cleaner, less confusing and much more convenient. Plus, the government will invest in them.

The environmental values that Portland is so known for seem to clash with the elitist, anti-expansion vibe that is also prevalent around here. But perhaps they always did.
Back in the 1970s, when an urban growth boundary was first adopted, Portland prided itself on tearing down freeways to build parks instead of expanding to accommodate population growth like most of the U.S. But the population growth came. More people have been coming to this city than it can possibly hold, creating a commuter culture and a need for methods to alleviate traffic problems that are beyond what a city this size should have.

The rail system in Portland is admirable and ahead of its time, and it should definitely be expanded. But there are indisputable problems with TriMet as a company, as well as with the reliability and safety of its trains. All across the country, public transportation use is rising, and while Portland may not always be the hyped-up model for efficiency and innovation it once was, there’s no room to go backward. Nothing is perfect, especially not progress.