TriMet’s budget is an elaborate shell game

My colleague and comrade Jared Franz has an evergreen saying: “TriMet’s budget is just an elaborate shell game.”

What he means is that the company has the money it needs to operate a really great transit service that meets the community’s needs: fare-free, 24-hour service, more bus lines, and more. When you press TriMet’s senior leadership to spend money in ways that they don’t support, the excuse is generally that “we have constrained resources dedicated to specific funds for specific purposes; we can’t spend capital construction funds on operations, and vice versa.” Or, translating boss-ese to English: we can’t legally spend money the way the community wants; why are you mad at us when our hands our tied?

But when it comes to things like a $12 million transit jail, a $35 million investment in new fare cards nobody asked for, a new vanity MAX line to a well-off west side suburb, or whatever other shiny novelty management’s got its eye on, the money always seems to be there. Or, at least, they know where to find it.

We need to let go of the myth that TriMet’s funding is heavily constrained, because it gives the company’s senior leadership an immediate out to say, “well, we can’t spend money on this major community priority, we don’t have the right kind of funding.” That’s nonsense; TriMet’s senior management isn’t a bumbling bureaucracy. It’s acting deliberately, ideologically, against the public interest: TriMet bosses intentionally use “funding constraints” as an excuse to avoid justified criticism of their priorities as a company. We need to reject the idea that these supposed limits are real and material; they do nothing more than obfuscate the fact that TriMet is a property development agency that operates buses as a side hustle.

So, in service of that, here’s just one example of how TriMet (with help from Metro) shuffles money around to meet the bosses’ whims. Just a warning: this is going to get really wonky really quickly. I’ll try and unpack the stupid, inaccessible jargon we use in transit, but let me know if anything doesn’t make sense.

To start: I’m going to be talking pretty heavily about two different kinds of funding: “capital” and “operations.” Operations funding is just about what it sounds like: it’s the money they spend to operate transit service, like wages and benefits for workers, fuel, etc. Capital funding is all about construction and new investment: it’s the money TriMet uses to build new MAX lines, buy new buses, improving transit centers, and that sort of thing.

We’ve got a regional government in the Portland area, called Metro. It’s unique in North America, in that it’s a directly-elected government that’s responsible for things like transportation planning, managing the “urban growth boundary” (the imaginary line around the Portland region that is the physical limit of where we can build and grow), and a smattering of other things like the Oregon Zoo. As part of their transportation planning work, Metro administers something called the MTIP (em-tip), the Metropolitan Transportation Improvement Program. It’s a document which records how federal dollars are spent on local transportation projects over a 4-year period, and it becomes part of the State Transportation Improvement Program. Put simply, it’s the four-year state-and-federal transportation funding plan for Metro, the Oregon Department of Transportation, TriMet, and SMART (Wilsonville’s transit provider).

The MTIP is a really revealing look at how transportation dollars are spent around the Portland region. And just this week, Metro announced its proposed amendments to the 2018–2021 MTIP, which involves shuffling money between TriMet and Metro, as you can see here:

Above is a chart of TriMet fund transfers in the MTIP amendments: “Through this amendment, the committed and programmed federal Surface Transportation Program (STP) funds are being swapped out with Local funds from TriMet. The Transit Oriented Development (TOD) fund exchange occurs annually and allows TriMet to apply the federal funding to their Preventative Maintenance Program while Metro can apply the local funds with greater flexibility to the Regional TOD program. The TOD program The TOD program works directly with developers and local jurisdictions to create vibrant downtowns main streets and station areas by helping to change land use patterns near transit.”

What you see here is Metro effectively trading different kinds of funding with TriMet so that each pot of money can be used for the purposes each agency wants. TriMet’s local funding goes to Metro to support the Transit-Oriented Development program (also called TOD, meaning redevelopment along transit and main street corridors); Metro reallocates federal Surface Transportation Program money so that TriMet can use it to support preventative maintenance (routine service to keep buses and MAX trains in good repair). The swap allows TriMet to still put money toward maintenance but allows Metro to do more with TOD dollars than TriMet could.

This happens every year, and most transportation wonks would probably consider it totally unremarkable. But I think it’s a good case study in how the supposed federal funding constraints that keep TriMet from, e.g., spending capital constructions dollars on transit service, are illusory. In this case, Metro gets greater flexibility in its TOD program and TriMet gains flexibility in spending funds on absolutely necessary preventative maintenance. And it’s a good indicator that the budget wonks at both Metro and TriMet know how to move money around to meet their needs.

In fact, thanks to the advocacy of folks like OPAL Environmental Justice, TriMet includes a line item in its budget every year called “operating resources dedicated to capital,” which literally shifts money from, for example, operating actual bus service, and into the same fund that pays for things like new MAX lines. It’s not a small sum; as you see below, it’s almost $85 million out of the current budget.

Above is a charge highlighting TriMet’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP) resources; line item #4 is $84,376,394 in “operating resources dedicated for capital”

That’s the list of resources available to the Capital Improvement Program, and #4 is the key item: it’s literally taking dollars that could be used to expand bus service and instead putting them toward TriMet’s over-inflated capital spending program. Capital spending isn’t inherently bad — you want to replace old buses at the end of their lives — but TriMet over-invests in certain kinds of spending that result in flashy projects, while neglecting to spend on the actual needs of actual riders.

Okay, so, what does this all mean? It’s a long way of saying that we need to drop the narrative that TriMet is fundamentally limited in how it can spend money, and that’s why the community doesn’t get what we demand. That’s absolute nonsense. We need to call out the reality: TriMet is run like a private business, and its constituents aren’t riders and workers, but rather the bond/credit-rating agencies and investors who benefit from bond sales and capital investments. Their Board and senior leadership choose to spend money on their own priorities, and they make a conscious choice not to invest in what the community and their workforce demands of them (better service, better working conditions).

On a personal note, that’s why I’m so combative when talking about TriMet and transit in Portland. These are not well-intentioned bureaucrats who are simply unable to deliver on what the community demands of them. They are ideological actors making a series of conscious choices, and obfuscating those when they deign to communicate with the rabble. Er, I mean, public. The narrative that TriMet is a bumbling bureaucracy is just as damaging and damning as the idea of the United States as a “bumbling empire,” and does just as much to hide the reality of the situation.