This week, Portland’s Tri Met, the regional transit agency for greater Portland, continues the challenging task of deciding which bus service to cut. Tri Met is faced with a $13.5 million budget short fall, which means it will be forced to reduce service starting in September of 2009, leaving many people in the service area wondering how they will get to work, school and even church.

By the same token, King County Metro Transit is facing a $100 million shortfall in revenues in 2010 along with a $29 million short fall this year. Cities in the region are already girding themselves for the battle to keep as much bus service as possible. 

  • Boarding a bus in PortlandIn King County, part of the reason for the huge shortfall is the over-reliance on volatile sales tax revenues to fund transit. In an interview Kevin Desmond, General Manager of King County Metro outlined the dire straights that local transit is in. Just as ridership has started to increase, says Desmond, revenue from sales tax has taken a huge fall as people tighten their belts because of the recession. That’s a big problem when sales tax revenues account for 70 percent of the funding for bus service.

    Making matters worse, bus service in King County is apportioned to cities based on how much sales tax they generate. Currently, bus service is allocated on the 40-40-20 rule, which that means 40 percent goes to east county suburbs like Bellevue, 40 percent to south county suburbs like Kent and Des Moines, and 20 percent to Seattle. But why should transit service be allocated based on sales tax revenue? Most advocates agree that this scheme doesn’t make much sense.

    Certainly there are more rational ways to make decisions about transit. For example, Tri Met is considering its cuts based on “ridership levels, access to school/jobs, transit equity issues and the availability of alternative service nearby.” Those seem like some of the right factors to consider.

    Portland’s Metro, is also engaged in a prioritization process for future high capacity transit. (Metro is the elected regional government that serves the more than 1.4 million residents in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties, including 25 cities in the Portland region.) As part of the process, they have a really cool interactive website that allows riders to play with different high capacity routes, and even compare possible choices based on capital cost, operating cost, ridership, and environmental benefit.

    As I played with different routes on Metro’s Build-a-System Tool I found myself tracing previous trips I had taken to the outskirts of Portland. So I added a high capacity along Powell Boulevard east of Portland remembering a seemingly endless bus ride I took a to the edges of the city. Then I added another high capacity link out to Saint John remembering the time I had to rent a car to get to a site visit there. (There was no transit option so I was forced to drive.) But no matter which route I chose there were winners and losers in the larger regional scheme. Forest Grove and Oregon City, both within the Urban Growth Boundary, were losers in my imaginary system.

    Yet the zero-sum game of cutting transit service misses out on an important opportunity. In the era of transit cuts perhaps we should ask a more fundamental question: ‘what is the larger purpose of transit?” In The Car and the City, Sightline’s 1996 book, Alan Durning tried to clarify this point in a conversation with Vancouver City Councilmember (and now Sightline board member) Gordon Price.

    ‘Transportation,’ says Gordon . . . ‘is a means, not an end. The end is access.’ People want to have access to things—services, locations, facilities. They want to stop at the health club, pick up some groceries, drop by a friend’s, and still get home from work at a reasonable hour. Most of North America has sought to provide this access through better mobility; the West End (of Vancouver) has provided it through greater proximity.

    Gordon Price’s point was partly about the importance of walkable neighborhoods, but it can apply equally to transit service. So how can a city provide proximity? The answer isn’t about transit service allocation, which is a question of mobility, but about better land use policy, which is a question of access. Transit ends up being a supply and demand problem. Basically, if the demand is too spread too thin geographically, then it gets more expensive to supply bus routes. But concentrate the demand, or spatial accumulation of people, in compact communities and the demand for bus service should be easier and less expensive to meet.

    In a way, the current discussions about transit cuts are asking the wrong question. Rather than asking how to increase the supply of bus service, we should be asking how to concentrate demand so that it can be met more efficiently. As one consequence of focusing too much on the supply side of the equation, the discussion about transit cuts can become ugly and political; pitting towns against cities, suburb against suburb and even generating racial and class conflicts. In King County, for example, Seattle riders feel they provide the most ridership but get allocated fewer buses and the greater share of cuts. In Oregon, Westside suburbs in Washington County feel unfairly targeted over Portland.

    The starting point for transit service ought to be the one Gordon Price mentioned: creating better access through proximity. That means land use policy that hews to the principles of growth management and that fosters compact development. The current economic downturn means that, in the short term anyway, transit agencies will face the same tough decisions many other governments are facing.

    But looking ahead, it’s important to hold the line on growth management. Sightline’s target of 62 percent of residents living in compact communities is achievable if local leaders in the Seattle and Portland areas hold the line on sprawl. There are many benefits to boosting compact communities, including making transit service more cost-effective over the long term.