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Follow-up: TriMet to get $4.5 million in ODOT Flex Funds

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on February 16th, 2011 at 9:38 am

Earlier this month, TriMet — in a last-ditch effort to fill the local funding gap in their $1.5 billion Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail project — put in a request for a 10-year, $19 million funding commitment from the State of Oregon.

Artist rendering of Portland-Milwaukie light rail line.

The request raised serious concerns with transportation officials around the state for a variety of reasons. Some were concerned that TriMet was muscling into one of the very rare dedicated funding sources available to non-highway projects anywhere in the state (These non-highway "Flexible Funds" are a relatively small pot of money totaling about $20 million) and that the multi-year commitment would unfairly compromise the availability of funds for other projects.

As we reported earlier this month, one source close to the process told us that "TriMet is just asking for a bailout" and that, "These scenarios set a bad precedent."

A few weeks later, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) sent a letter to the chair of the Oregon Transportation Commission (the Governor-appointed body that decides how this money is spent) that said in part, "We strongly urge that the state look to other sources for funding this vital project."

At a meeting of the Flexible Funds Advisory Committee on February 4th, committee members reached consensus on a plan to fund TriMet's project. According to a staff report from that meeting (PDF), TriMet will receive a total of $4.5 million from the Flexible Funds Program to be funded over two years (split into $2.1 million this cycle and $2.4 million next cycle). Since TriMet made it clear they weren't interested in partial funding, ODOT has found an additional $8.5 million from a mix of other sources.

Among those sources is a reallocation of Flex Funds that were previously slated for sidewalks on McLoughlin Blvd (99E). The initial list of recommended projects included $941,500 for a joint ODOT/City of Portland project that would have constructed sidewalks on both sides of McLoughlin Blvd. The project would have also improved bike lanes and add landscaping and ADA improvements around the Park Avenue light rail station. Under the agreement, TriMet would be responsible to pay for the McLoughlin sidewalk project if the light rail project came in under budget.

With this package of funds, TriMet would receive a total of about $13 million from ODOT ($4.5 million from the Flex Funds pot). TriMet officials estimate that the $1.5 billion project includes $30 million in biking and walking improvements.

The OTC is set to approve the complete list of 27 projects (PDF here) at their meeting in Salem today.

In other news, TriMet got some very good news from the Obama Administration this week when his budget proposal included $200 million in federal funds for the project.

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  • kiel Johnson February 16, 2011 at 10:20 am

    and how much money has been spent on bicycling in portland over the last 15 years? isn't it something like 150 million? And we have seen the exact same increase in ridership over that period as TriMet has. If only Obama had given $200 million to promoting bicycling in Portland we could more than double Portland's current bicycling infrastructure.

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    • cyclist February 16, 2011 at 11:03 am

      The number of TriMet commuters dwarfs the number of bike commuters on any given day.

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      • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) February 16, 2011 at 11:08 am

        cyclist,

        That's a guess. Unfortunately we don't have an accurate count of the number of people who ride their bike every day in Portland. Given the numbers for biking to work and the counts we do have... I'd guess that TriMet boardings do not dwarf bike trips.

        It's also fun to think about what Kiel Johnson mentions... if you look at the trips-per-dollar spent... bicycling dwarfs every other mode by far... including (and especially) TriMet.

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        • cyclist February 16, 2011 at 11:40 am

          I can give you stats from Trimet:

          "During fiscal year 2010:

          Weekday boardings averaged 315,300 trips"

          There's no way cyclists get close to approaching that number.

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          • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) February 16, 2011 at 11:46 am

            Thanks for that research cyclist. I still think the number of daily bike trips would surprise you. We've got about 20,000 trips over the four main downtown bridges alone. Think about how much geographic area TriMet's system touches and then think about how many people are biking around their n'hoods, to work, to the store, to friend's houses, etc... In the past I've told the media that in the central city alone we probably have about 50,000 daily bike trips.

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          • JE February 16, 2011 at 12:07 pm

            Also from Trimet is this definition of boarding: "These graphs show the total weekly boarding rides taken on buses, MAX Light Rail, WES Commuter Rail and LIFT Paratransit Service, including transfers. If a rider takes two buses to get to work, it counts as two boarding rides."

            They are not counting commuters, they are counting boardings. If you take a Trimet ride to a place and then home you are counted twice. So right there you can cut 315,300 weekday boardings in half to represent 157,650 weekday commuters. And if any of them are transferring on their commute that number keeps dropping.

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        • Colin M February 16, 2011 at 1:33 pm

          Jonathan,

          To make a better comparison, in Summer 2010 there were more than 4x as many transit trips as bike trips across the Willamette River bridges (78,000 avg weekday trips on bus and MAX and 18,000 bike trips). This is Summer only and doesn't take into account seasonal effects. These bus and LRT routes serve destinations as far as Gresham (and even Estacada), but that's part of the point of transit - to cover distances where walking and biking would take too long.

          Colin Maher
          TriMet

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  • DK February 16, 2011 at 11:05 am

    I'm opposed to the way Tri-Met was trying to get hold of this funding. This end-result seems like a reasonable compromise to me.

    The Milwaukie light rail will be a great addition to the city's infrastructure and employ a lot of people in it's construction.

    Tri-Met has an opportunity to really impress me by coming in under budget and building those sidewalks on McLaughlin. ...We'll see.

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  • Lenny Anderson February 16, 2011 at 11:38 am

    MLR has a ton of bike/ped facilities included, not the least of which is the new Willamette River bridge. We should relax and recognize that this project is a game changer for transportation options of all kinds in SE Portland and N. Clackamas.

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  • cyclist February 16, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
    Thanks for that research cyclist. I still think the number of daily bike trips would surprise you. We've got about 20,000 trips over the four main downtown bridges alone. Think about how much geographic area TriMet's system touches and then think about how many people are biking around their n'hoods, to work, to the store, to friend's houses, etc... In the past I've told the media that in the central city alone we probably have about 50,000 daily bike trips.

    I'd argue that you find most bicyclists within the Portland city limits, and mostly then inside of 82nd Ave in the east (I can't speak for SW, other than to note that when I lived there I didn't see a whole lot of people on bikes). I'm using the 2009 Census "Commuting Characteristics" data as the basis for my my conclusion, if you look at the number of bike commuters in Portland's city limits it's 6.2%, when you look at Beaverton the number drops to 1.5%, Gresham is 0.4%, and Hillsboro is 1.4%. Even if I believe that there are 50,000 daily bike trips in the city (and I'm not sure I do), I doubt there are more than another 10,000 to go.

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    • BicycleDave February 16, 2011 at 12:28 pm

      The census only counts trips to and from work.

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    • Michael, Portland Afoot February 16, 2011 at 12:34 pm

      I think the most reliable apples-to-apples numbers we have are Census journey-to-work estimates for the City of Portland: 12% TriMet/streetcar, 6% bike.

      Bike has been growing fast over the last 10 years. Public transit has been basically flat.

      I'm pretty sure that transit trips outnumber bike trips, especially if you count the burbs. I don't personally think it's fair to say TriMet "dwarfs" bike trips.

      Anyway, it's not the most useful distinction -- obviously we all know people who use both ... because often bike+bus or bike+MAX makes an awesome combination. Because the modes are complementary, overinvesting in one or the other is silly. Which is why debates like this one are healthy, I think.

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  • Paul Souders February 16, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    The relevant question here is how cheap any "trip" actually is. Some back of the envelop calculations suggest it's not even close:

    TriMet's public budget from 1995-2010 was 13x greater than the bike budget: about $2.1b vs. $153m.(I'm using these numbers from memory, so caveat emptor.) If we use the largest available ridership numbers in this conversation (TriMet's 315,000 "trips" vs. Jonathan's 50,000 "commutes") then there are only about 6x more transit than bike riders.

    If we diverted the entire flex budget, and even if we could add "only" 10,000 more bike trips, that investment is still 2x better than transit, dollar-for-dollar. And that's using the most optimistic transit ridership numbers (i.e. "trips" not "commutes").

    This is what makes bike infrastructure such a "cheap date."

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  • cyclist February 16, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    Michael and BicycleDave: The reason why I used the Census numbers is not because they show absolute numbers, but they show relative popularity of the modes between the city and the suburbs. While the bike mode split mode split might be 6% in the city itself, Tri-Met serves a pretty large area outside of the city, and hardly anyone in that area claims to commute by bike (no more than 1.5% in the suburbs the Census lists). I'm sure this jibes pretty well with what most of us see with our own two eyes, so this should hardly count as a surprise.

    I'd argue that based on the city/suburb splits, you're likely looking at 5x more trips by Trimet than by bike, probably about 250,000 more trips per day. That may not be dwarfs, but it is SIGNIFICANTLY more trips.

    As others have mentioned, this project also benefits bikes (as does most Trimet spending... as evidenced by the frequency with which you see bikes on bus racks on train hooks),there are plenty of good reasons why Trimet gets the funding it gets, I just thought it was worth noting that public transit is a much more popular option in the region than biking.

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    • Michael, Portland Afoot February 16, 2011 at 2:30 pm

      Further complicating things, PMLR is basically a Portland project. The last few stops sit in a minor inner-SE suburb (Milwaukie), but especially with TriMet's reduced parking, the Orange Line is basically a project for Portlanders.

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      • cyclist February 16, 2011 at 2:40 pm

        1) The end goal for the Orange line is to send it further south (possibly to Oregon City), the cost of the bridge basically necessitates that they stop in Milwaukie for now.

        2) If you want to get complicated, then you need to take into account that the bridge is a combined transit/ped/bike facility. It will provide an excellent link to those who are heading from the eastside to the southern portion of downtown or John's Landing. A portion of the budget can be considered bike spending.

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      • matt picio February 16, 2011 at 3:26 pm

        Milwaukie "proper" may only have 20,000 people, but those last 4 stops (Park Ave is in unincorporated Clackamas County, BTW, not Milwaukie) are going to be handling the bulk of the commuting traffic on the line, and will be handling a significant chunk of that line's traffic - so it's really not so much a "Portland project" as one might think.

        The part here that really sucks is ODOT pulled money that would pay for improvements to biking & walking at 99E and Park Avenue, an area which REALLY NEEDS THEM. Trimet will have to build them if the project comes in under budget, but does anyone here believe that will happen? I certainly don't. With all due respect to the people at ODOT, Metro and Trimet - this feels a lot like what the agencies tried to do 15-20 years ago when they wanted to make Oak Grove a Regional Center and the residents refused. They insist they're not trying to expand, insist that improvements will be made for the neighborhood, then strip those improvements away and saddle the community with something functionally complete but which doesn't fulfill the initial promises.

        I think they can do better than what they're doing here.

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  • On the fence February 16, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    It is worth noting that many bike and ped improvements as part of this project have been cut as part of the funding gap that TriMet got themselves into. They were told by the feds to expect a 50/50 match a long time ago, but TriMet moved forward with the expectation of a 60/40 match like they have received on previous projects. The last few months they seem to be grasping to fill the funding gap, via money grabs from other places like these Flex Funds and by making cuts to the project budget which could diminish quality of the end project.

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  • On the fence February 16, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    Oh yeah, and do we really need another bridge over the Willamette when we are having a hard time fixing the one that needs to be replaced? TriMet could cut the cost of this project significantly if they just ran the tracks over an existing bridge like the Hawthorne, or better yet, run the tracks north/south on the new streetcar tracks along Grand and MLK and connect to the Interstate line at the Rose Quarter.

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    • cyclist February 16, 2011 at 4:55 pm

      The Hawthorne Bridge can handle streetcar tracks but not the heavier-duty tracks required to run the MAX over it.

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  • AL M February 16, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    Ya know what amazes me, the sheer power of Trimet in the region.
    I know lots of money is at stake here, and lots of pockets get lined with this pot o' gold, but really, I'm just awed by the influence Trimet has.

    Everybody would be cheering right now if the bus side of the agency wasn't in such shambles.

    Oh well, its another day in weird city.

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