Can’t Afford to Pay Bus Drivers, But . . .

Neil McFarlane, the general manager of Portland’s TriMet transit agency, stunned Portland-area residents recently when he warned that the agency would have to cut service by 70 percent unless unions agreed to reduced benefits in upcoming contract negotiations. When he did so, he piously noted that TriMet’s non-union managers have had a pay freeze for four years.

Turns out that pay freeze was more imaginary than real. In the last year alone, TriMet gave its managers pay increases totaling nearly $1 million. McFarlane alone received a 3 percent raise, which–considering his previous pay was $215,000 a year–means a $6,450 boost to his income.

TriMet’s financial woes are hardly new. Last year, TriMet made the largest service cuts in its history and also decided to start charging fares in what was formerly the downtown Fareless Square. Most of the streetcar line had been in Fareless Square, and as a result actual streetcar fare collections averaged less than 4 cents per reported ride.

We don’t have reliable streetcar ridership numbers, but we do know that the fares collected since September, when Fareless Square ended, are only half as much as predicted. That means the city of Portland, which has promised to make up for streetcar operating deficits, is on the hook for more than expected–not that it expected much as the predicted fares were expected to only cover 11 percent of the streetcar’s $9 million annual operating cost.

Are revenues lower because they aren’t enforcing the new fares? Or because new fares have led people to try faster modes of travel, such as walking? Or possibly is it because the streetcar has fewer riders than claimed? We know the city’s second streetcar line, which also opened last year, has earned the name ghost train because of how few people ride it.

Whatever the results about the streetcar, Portland continues to demonstrate the old adage that you can tell when transit agency executives are lying by whether their lips are moving.


13 thoughts on “Can’t Afford to Pay Bus Drivers, But . . .

  1. English Major

    Part of the problem with Portland is that the city planners pay all sorts of attention to the
    areas will rich people live and ignore the poor parts of Portland. Two school children have died on one
    major street (SE 136th) hit by cars because there are no sidewalks. Their parents are subsidizing the ghost train, meanwhile school children don’t have sidewalks and must dodge little lakes that form in sinkholes.

    Thanks, New Urbanists! New Dystopia.

  2. sprawl

    Sidewalks in Portland are the responsibility of the property owners and the neighborhoods not the city. Properties without sidewalks in Portland decided they did not want them, probably because of the cost or they felt they did not need them because they didn’t have a lot of traffic on them. When they do build the sidewalks in a area without them, the bill goes to the property owners not the city.

    Unless your in a urban renewal area, where all the rules for the common citizen, are thrown out the window.

  3. bennett

    The Antiplanner points out a problem that is endemic to America today in both the public sector and private sector. America needs austerity? Not until congress gives themselves a pay raise. Corporate executives that loos their companies millions and millions of dollars, lie to their investors, and bring global markets to the brink of collapse??? Have a nice multiple-million dollar bonus package. Big banks that launder money for terrorist organizations, the Russian mafia and Mexican drug cartels??? No justice needed, bonuses for y’all too!

    And yes, transit managers that cut service to transit dependent populations and cut pay to their drivers (FYI, the transit agencies that pay their drivers the best are by and large the most productive and efficient) all so they can build a shiny new choo-choo that goes by the new mixed-use development and looks good on post cards??? Y’all get a bonus too!

    If this trend of rewarding incompetence continues Mr. O’Toole will have to give big bonuses to commenters like metrosucks and highwayman 😉

  4. English Major

    Sprawl, you are right about most sidewalks. I have forked over good money to cut back large roots and
    put down a new surface.

    But SE 136th is a high traffic area and there was money in the budget to install the sidewalks.

    I know nice quiet residential streets near me with no sidewalks. The homeowners can make their own decisions on sidewalks. These same folks seem to make great decisions re: trimming trees, maintaining their houses, cutting back shrubs that block the view of driveways, raking leaves from drains, installing porch lights. We can trust them on sidewalks. SE 136th- that is different. It’s poor and there are two schools nearby.

  5. English Major

    Hey Bennett- we posted at the same time.

    Your point is sound. I would just add that my city (Portland) gives away millions of dollars every year to private business in the name of the public good. Can someone explain why we need these high overhead rebate programs, and why we give support to Avis Rent A Car? Austerity? Let them eat cake.

  6. sprawl

    English Major
    My point is and still is, it is not the responsibility of the city to build a sidewalks next to private property on the right-away. That is a real problem, as our transportation dollars are diverted to non transportation projects . The area can form a Local improvement district and assess all the properties for the project or put them in them selves. I would guess many of the properties many be rentals.

    Sam Adams was wrong to fund sidewalks, when it is not in the job description for the city.

    It is also not the responsibility of the city to pave unpaved streets, until the property owners bring the street up to city standards and build the street and then turn it over to the city.

    It is only fair to everyone else that had to played by the rules of the city, in the past.

  7. Sandy Teal

    The Antiplanner’s argument that adding light rail ends up reducing bus service and overall transit options is one of his strongest arguments. I wonder what reaction he gets from the pro-transit people when they see that data? What is their response?

  8. bennett


    I’m vehemently pro-transit and this in one aspect of transit I am in lock step with Mr. O’Toole. IMHO, transits first priority is to serve cohorts whose characteristics make them less likely to be able to drive. This includes people with disabilities, teens under the age of 16, older adults, households without cars, and households below the poverty level.

    This mission is why I consider public transit a public good. Cutting service to these cohorts in order to build transit projects in the name of “economic development” is appalling and goes against what transits mission is (or should be), to provide more trips to more people who need it (and safety, efficiency, effectiveness, yaddy, yaddy, yadda).

    If cities and transit agencies want to build expensive rail projects to spur development of TOD’s and mixed-use nodes, then fine. But don’t sell us a load of crap about ridership and mobility. Just be honest and tell us that it’s about development and let the voters decide. And don’t cut bus service that is sorely needed by people dependent on public transit to make it happen. That is unacceptable.

  9. Fred_Z

    I searched the archives here and only found one post dealing with privately owned transit. Could we have more please?

    It is still a mystery to me why, decades after the proven folly of communism became common knowledge, we continue to let municipalities create transit monopolies and “regulate” taxi cabs.

    Well, apart from the obvious juicy corruption for politicos, bureaucrats and unions.

    A bit off topic, but related in my mind, but why do we still need publicly funded libraries? Why can’t all the librarians get together and set up a server farm and digitize all that paper?

    Oh wait, I forgot, juicy corruption for politicos, bureaucrats and unions.

  10. English Major

    Sandy, part of their response is to say that light rail isn’t REALLY about transportation, it’s about tourism and carbon footprint. When your project fails to meet the original goals, re-write history and re-frame the

    For instance, the Street Car drains excessive money from city coffers, before city coffers explode.

  11. Fred_Z

    Plutocratic capitalism is indistinguishable from final stage communism, and, is not actually communism.

    And I’ll keep on bashing 1985 stupidities until municipal politicians give them up. ie, forever. But I hope for some minor victories.

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