TriMet Is Failing, So Build More Rail

Portland’s transit agency, TriMet, spent something like $166 million on its commuter-rail line which at one time was supposed to cost $104 million. The line is now carrying fewer than 600 round trips per day. It isn’t really surprising since the line goes from nowhere to nowhere.

The agency offers free health insurance, costing as much as $1,900 per person per month, to all its employees, retirees, and their dependents. This turns out to be the best transit agency benefits package in the nation. Aside from being reminiscent of the benefits programs that sank General Motors, it is so outrageous that the president of TriMet’s board actually resigned because he felt it was so unfair to taxpayers.

Meanwhile, the region’s light-rail and streetcar system is so “successful” that planners are contemplating expanding it on more than a dozen routes (4.5MB pdf). The word “successful” is in quotes because the number of people who commute by transit actually declined between 2000 and 2007.

But there is good news. The few people who actually ride TriMet can download an app for their iPhone to find the nearest bus stop.


32 thoughts on “TriMet Is Failing, So Build More Rail

  1. Frank

    How far would $166m go toward adding another lane to the antiquated I-5 downtown? Two lanes? Come on! This is no longer 1960. Another lane would certainly benefit more than 600 people a day.

    On another note, if the TriMet health insurance stays and one of the Obama plans passes, those who receive more than $7200 in benefits for a family of one will have said benefits taxed as income. Or if it passes, maybe TriMet will unload its insurance burden, and all its employees will be forced into shitty health care for all.

  2. t g

    Regarding the article, the author seems to imply that O’Toole’s arguments are fringe because O’Toole’s knowledge of methodology has not been certified by an institution (that is, he doesn’t have a degree in statistics or some such thing). The author goes on to quote others who apparently do have a Masters or Doctorate in the field.

    I may disagree with O’Toole on some points, but I do believe the Liberal tradition was first and foremost about denying an argument validity when validity is proposed merely on the basis of authority. A logical argument should stand on its own merits, not on the pedigree of its speaker. Lousy article.

  3. Dan

    Regarding the article, the author seems to imply that O’Toole’s arguments are fringe because O’Toole’s knowledge of methodology has not been certified by an institution

    I’m on deadline today and won’t deconstruct the argument in the NYT, but tg, this was only one prong, not the basis; it goes on to discuss methodological issues and the implication is they are…wanting…partly due to lack of formal training.

    Surely this piece was written on deadline and there is a slant and it could have been tighter, but the basis is true: it is a fringe movement and the filler around the thesis builds from that.


  4. t g


    The author writes, “O’Toole has no graduate degrees in a quantitative area — he dropped his pursuit of economics and urban planning degrees after four years at the University of Oregon — but he said “there’s no doubt about the methodology” he has used.”

    I did not argue that O’Toole’s methodology was correct. My point is that the author implies a graduate degree in a quantitative area is requisite to establishing methodological validity. Yet the author himself has a degree in English, hardly quantitative. The author is relying on the authority of others, not on the argument. And that I heartily disagree with.

  5. hkelly1

    Randal, saying LA is the “epitome of Smart Growth” shows how very little you actually know about Smart Growth. In general, the LA area is very, very dense sprawl, plain and simple. It is not based on mixed-use urbanism, any form of a transect, walkable neighborhoods, etc. A claim that it has anything to do with Smart Growth is a blatant lie.

  6. msetty

    I agree that the NYT article is partially based on the “appeal to authority” fallacy. On the other hand, the article is overall a fair profile, I think.

    At one time, I considered using Randal’s book, The Vanishing Automobile, as a source of literally hundreds things to debunk on a blog. However, (1) this would have been a ridiculous amount of work as alluded to by the gum’mit analyst quoted in the article, and (2) potential blog readers would have become bored rather quickly.

  7. Dan

    My point is that the author implies a graduate degree in a quantitative area is requisite to establishing methodological validity…The author is relying on the authority of others, not on the argument.

    No. The descriptors are rife with examples of contradiction, esp to the typical lobbyist, which then builds onto a-l-l the contradictions. Count how many grafs use this framing device. This is the main argument, all others being secondary.


  8. t g


    Is the author, who has only an English degree, capable of analyzing those arguments? I would say yes, the author is, but the author has implied that O’Toole, without a quantitative degree cannot. That is my issue.

  9. ws

    t g:“Is the author, who has only an English degree, capable of analyzing those arguments? I would say yes, the author is, but the author has implied that O’Toole, without a quantitative degree cannot. That is my issue.”

    ws: There’s no problem with writing papers about statistics and economics or being an advocate/lobbyist like ROT is. I don’t think his work is debunked by any means because he doesn’t have a degree – that’s silly. The issue I have is his title. You cannot call yourself a doctor unless you have the achievements and accolades backing that statement up. Some professions have representative bodies and state title laws that say you cannot call yourself so and so w/o accreditation.

    When does one earn the title of “economist”? I know what supply and demand is, may I call myself an economist too? Don’t you need a professional degree in order to earn that title? I think so. It’s like calling yourself a General in the Army when you’re actually a Colonel.

  10. t g

    Here’s O’toole’s bio from the Cato Institute. He’s not called an economist there (being called an economist by a wiki article is hardly O’Toole’s fault). Though it does say he studied economics. Elsewhere (The Climatewire article above) it says he doesn’t have a degree. This is deceptive if “studying economics” only means taking Econ 101.

    Nevermind, scratch all that. Over at the Reason Foundation he is called an economist.

    Hmmmm, did his thesis get rejected?

  11. Dan

    tg, that is not the issue. Look: O’Toole is in DC to lobby, but he has a string tie. He’s billed as an economist, but has no degree. Folk chose transit last year but he was still against it. He’s pro-autocentricity but bikes many miles. And so on. The section headings clue you in. The argumentation is not appeal to authority. If it comes off that way, blame the section editor.


  12. Mike

    Educational credentials are solid, but before the present instant-information era, it was common for a person’s work experience to hold greater weight in his or her field. O’Toole’s publication history and work experience extend decades back.

    I hold a JD, but O’Toole has published just as many books as I have, and he has been doing it much, much longer. As such, I would probably defer to his opinion on a writing-related matter unless I knew for certain that he was flat-out incorrect. (I have no idea how our publications compare that were written under another entity’s flag. Most of the writing I do is contractual at this point in my career. O’Toole appears to have the luxury of picking and choosing when he wants to do that these days.)

    I wonder about the overmagnification of the educational credential today. Most people who voice that complaint have no degree, so the gripe is dismissed, but I’m saying it and I do have the degree to back it up. I say it because, given the choice, I would rather hire a civil engineer with 4 years of experience and no degree over an inexperienced fresh graduate. Still, I understand that this is no longer the prevailing perspective.

  13. ws

    t g:

    ROT is often introduced as an “economist”. If I felt that there was an error (or I had an issue) with introducing myself for a paper, website, or even in public, I would make sure it was corrected.

    I might add that UO’s graduate program in Economics is not three years (Bio says ’77-1980, and is usually completed in less than two years). I bring this up as it is misleading that it might seem that he has more years experience than is even required to even earn such a degree!

    ROT does not have three years experience in Economics at UO. It might have taken him that long as he may have been busy with other things or the program made him take general pre-reqs, etc. – but for all intensive purposes it’s impossible to have more years experience than is possible for the degree. It is possible that the program changed from three years to two, but I can’t prove that.

    From a distance, this argument might seem nitpicking – and it is. But really, it is an overall commentary on all of ROT’s arguments regarding mass transit, urban planning, etc. That commentary is: how can I distort the truth without lying?

  14. ws

    Mike:“I would rather hire a civil engineer with 4 years of experience and no degree over an inexperienced fresh graduate. Still, I understand that this is no longer the prevailing perspective.”

    ws:This is what I was referring to in my above post. It’s impossible to hire a “Civil Engineer” with no degree in such category. The profession is covered by a practice and title act. You cannot call yourself a civil engineer or practice civil engineering unless you are accredited.

    In your hypothetical, neither the person with a degree or no degree is capable to practice “civil engineering” or call themselves a civil engineer. Even the graduate needs at least 3 years post grad experience and has to pass a litany of tests in order to practice or call themselves a civil engineer.

    I bring this up because one cannot call themselves by something they have not earned.

    This does not discredit any of the work that ROT has done or conducted because of this – it’s just misleading and possible a reflection of his character.

  15. t g

    I agree with you, ws, on the issue of being credible. I don’t believe anyone gets credentialed as an economist, though. This says a good deal about economics. Despite claims to determinism, it is frequently a moral philosophy.

  16. Dan

    A lot of the very experienced transportation and civil engineers across the country with a stamp are the old-school type, still designing faulty and unsafe wide streets (and wasteful and ecologically burdensome as well). Some of the younger set have a much better skillset (some of this coming from better education) and are overturning the ‘experienced’ paradigm. The BH has a new co-worker with old-school experience and he doesn’t know squat.

    Often one gets to a certain level and – for example one looks at the CV of, say, Cervero and our host here and the more meaningful work is done by the better-educated. That is a metric, not an appeal to authority. There is a place for policy papers, just as there is a place for scholarly work, but both are still judged by cred. That is the human condition.


  17. Mike

    That’s fine, call it what you want. If the nomenclature “civil engineer” implies licensure, then the experienced person with no degree would technically be nothing more than a “technician” or some other generic designation, right? My point is that, credentialing aside, I think the experienced non-degree person is more likely to be able to perform the work I need done than the inexperienced fresh grad.

    I don’t maintain an attorney license (it’s costly and it’s worthless to me as long as I’m not practicing law) so I do understand what you’re saying. Because I am unlicensed, I cannot use the title Esq. or use my name in any way that suggests I am offering legal services. Not usually an issue for me because I’m a writer. But this is known to be a problem throughout the legal industry because many unlicensed attorneys DON’T branch off into a related line of work, and instead end up as paralegals etc, and they skate close to the edge on whether the work they do is the unauthorized practice of law (UPL), whether because of or in spite of the oversight of a supervising attorney. And once caught performing UPL, it becomes difficult for a JD to ever get that license because the state bars take a dim view of that kind of thing. I assume engineer licensure has a similar posture.

    Anyway I didn’t even reach the issue of grade inflation, etc, in modern education — most of the new grads you see coming out of college today are people I’d barely trust to put their pants on properly — but I think your reply puts an additional spotlight on part of what the overmagnification of academic credentials has caused: an overload of government-required licensure. Federal, state, and local governments license virtually every profession that isn’t generic retail sales or lower. Here in AZ, licensing or certification is required even for super-niche professions like athletic trainer or physical therapist assistant. I would question the cost-benefit balance of those licensing schema.

  18. ws

    I agree in general, Mike, that credentials does not mean experience. My point was honesty and integrity of issuing self-appointed titles to oneself, ones that may not be traditionally earned.

    There has to be at least some criteria for earning a title.

  19. Mike

    In response to the original post, I just wanted to note that “free” is a word that’s thrown around a bit too often these days: the “free” health insurance costs up to $1.9k per employee per month, and this is calculated as part of the total cost of employment for the employer (simply tacked on to other compensation in the grand equation) so why is it being called “free” in any context? If I were publishing an article about the plan, I think the farthest I’d go would be to say that it is part of the job’s benefits package and is not given a line-item deduction.

    It’s like when people say that Britain has “free” health care. There may be no charge to the user at the point of service, but that health care is a far cry from being “free.” Before the user has even made it from the doorway to the examination table, costs have been incurred. The payors of last resort for those and every other cost involved in the NHS are the British taxpayers. Note that I am not arguing for or against a given health care system here — that’s a subject for another venue and reasonable people may differ on the topic — I am simply noting that calling something “free” can be anywhere from an oversimplication to deliberately misleading, both as seen in the TriMet benefits package and elsewhere in government.

  20. Francis King

    Mike wrote:

    “It’s like when people say that Britain has “free” health care.”

    The NHS is not free. As you say, everyone has to contribute from their taxes. Additionally, the medicine also has to be paid for, if you are earning more than a certain amount of money. It is called ‘prescription charges’, and is fixed, irrespective of what you’re buying. It protects people from having to find £1000’s per year for the latest medicine.

  21. Contrarian

    The comparisons between describing oneself as an “economist” and a “civil engineer” are irrelevant. In most states the latter is covered by a titling statute; the former is not. Whether a professional or occupational title is covered by a statute greatly affects the inferences an audience will draw when the terms are used. If a title is covered by a statute, then the audience will assume the person described with it has met the statutory qualifications; if it is not covered, they will only assume that he is actively engaged in that occupation and/or has some experience practicing it. E.g., no one assumes that a person described as a “writer” or “poet” has a degree in English. They assume only that he writes, or writes poetry. A “businessman” is not assumed to have an MBA; he is only assumed to be engaged in business. Even a “teacher” is only assumed to be employed in teaching something to someone. A person who conducts weekly seminars on Zen Buddhism at Ensalen clearly qualifies, and no degrees are assumed.

    An “economist” is someone engaged, on a more-or-less regular basis, in economic analysis of some kind. There is probably some further assumption that he has published some of his work in a medium or forum followed by other economists. O’Toole clearly qualifies on those grounds.

Leave a Reply