A cut too deep? TriMet scrambles to work out southwest service kinks

Posted by on September 9th, 2021 at 3:39 pm

It’s standing room only on route 51, if you can get on the bus. (Photo: Lisa Caballero/BikePortland)

Gearing back up as we emerge from the pandemic was obviously going to be bumpy, with much uncertainty about whether pre- and post-pandemic work and transportation patterns would be permanently altered. This week, Lincoln High School students experienced some of those bumps.

As in-person school started up again, the Line 51 bus that serves Lincoln High (downtown, up SW Vista Ave to Council Crest) has been so full that it has had to pass up want-to-be-riders along the route. At the intersection of Vista and Greenway this morning, the bus was already standing room only. By Elizabeth Street, the driver was asking students to pack in tighter so new riders could get off the entrance steps—and the bus still had 16 more stops to go before reaching Lincoln.

On the return trip yesterday the driver had to turn away students at the school.

Advertisement


The riders were masked, and Multnomah County has a 72.5% vaccination rate among 12 to 17-year-olds (far better than the state average of 58%); but still. The kids are crammed in there like sardines, and the pandemic isn’t over.

One concerned parent contacted TriMet and received a reply from Director of Mobility, Planning, & Policy Tom Mills. Here’s his response:

“Normally, we add extra trips to bus lines serving the large number of high school students who use TriMet to get to and from school. This is more of an art than a science. Because we don’t know how many students will ride every year, sometimes we have too much capacity on some lines and too little capacity on others. After a few days of assessing the loads, we adjust our service to meet the student demand.
 
The COVID-19 pandemic has made this effort more challenging than past years. Just like many employers, we are facing a labor shortage, and as a result, we were not able to put out as many extra trips as we have in the past. However, we are committed to meeting the demand for service now that we know the scale. I am meeting with staff tomorrow to discuss ways that we can adjust schedules or add extra trips to the lines experiencing overloads during the school bell times. It will likely take a few days to reassign operators, so I ask for your patience. We hope to have this resolved by early-mid next week.
 
Note, while masks are still required by federal law to ride TriMet, we do not have capacity restrictions for COVID-19 on the buses. The restrictions were lifted once the tri-county area hit a vaccination rate of 70%. As a result, there will still likely be full seated loads with some standees on some trips to school. However, we aim to eliminate the heavy loads and pass ups we’ve experienced on some lines over the past few days. We will look to add even more service should the county impose capacity restrictions again to ensure the appropriate spacing on our buses.”

 

As TriMet attempts to build back their service, this year’s cut to the 51 was steep. Pre-pandemic, the line — like many others in the city — had been reduced over the years to a commuter route (no weekend or evening service, and about a five-hour mid-day service gap). It ran about 15 times a day. Correlating with the cuts, the 51 route morphed into a de facto Lincoln High School bus, with fewer adult riders. Older neighbors wax nostalgic about the days when the bus was full of downtown office workers, but that has not been true for over two decades (there also used to be Saturday and evening service).

This year, the line has been reduced to six trips, three in the morning and three late afternoon, which is apparently too little service for even just the high school students. It’s a bumpy start that will probably all get worked out over the next couple of weeks, but like a lot of other things the pandemic has made worse, the trends have been heading that way for over a decade. And if we want to create more low-car Portlanders and win the fight against climate change, we’ve got to make buses work better for more people — especially in a place like southwest where lots of hills and a lack of dedicated bike routes make cycling very difficult.

Lisa Caballero

— Lisa Caballero, lisacaballero853@gmail.com
— Get our headlines delivered to your inbox.
— Support this independent community media outlet with a one-time contribution or monthly subscription.



NOTE: Thanks for sharing and reading our comments. To ensure this is a welcoming and productive space, all comments are manually approved by staff. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for meanness, discrimination or harassment. Comments with expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia will be deleted and authors will be banned.

28
Leave a Reply

avatar
5 Comment threads
23 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
17 Comment authors
teePhilipsSE 34thExtraboredSolarEclipse Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
beckyjopdx
Guest
beckyjopdx

YES!!! Thank you for covering this!! Multi-modal belongs on here too, and thank you Lisa for digging in.

In NoPo, we’ve experienced in the last 3-4 weeks completely missing busses on lines 35, 75, and 6, plus out of downtown during morning rush hour, missing line 20 to the point where my kid gave up on the bus and walked over Burnside bridge to school. He left that morning to be at the first bus (35) by 6:30 and walked into school at 8:30, having 40+ extra minutes baked into his commute because we were used to canceled busses by that time.

TriMet hold so much of this city together. We can’t afford to have it Wheeler’ed. This entire issue need much more light shown on it.

Joseph E
Guest
Joseph E

Re: Portland city mayor Wheeler: the Mayor is not directly in charge of the city transportation bureau (PBOT) – that’s Commissioner Hardesty. But more importantly, the city is not responsible for Trimet or for PPS (Portland Public Schools). Trimet is supervised by the elected Metro tri-county government and the Trimet board, which is appointed by the Governor of Oregon. PPS has a school board and it is supported by local taxes which are not controlled by the city municipal government.
In theory the City could offer to help pay for additional bus service, but it would be more reasonable if PPS were to do this.

cct
Guest
cct

IIRC, when mayor, Sam Adams started giving students bus passes out of the city budget; that was the case for some time, and when it was threatened due to budgets it either was put back in each time, or the money was given to PPS who then paid Trimet. In any case, AFAIK, the city directly or indirectly is indeed paying for bus service. Not sure about this year, and knowledgeable folk are free to correct finer points.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

There are at least 9 public school districts that serve the city of Portland, none of which are entirely within the city boundaries (David Douglas has 98% of its students living within the city, PPS 97%, Parkrose 90%, Centennial 70%, Reynolds 30%, with much smaller percentages for Beaverton, Milwaukie, Clackamas, and Lake Oswego public school districts; a tiny part of PPS is within Beaverton). Adams got a lot of flack because he was only offering the passes to PPS and not to the other 8, most of whom still have yellow bus programs; PPS still has a yellow bus program but it’s very limited, much more limited than the other districts. The other issue is that TriMet bus service is lousy outside of the PPS area, in the other 8 districts, so even those students who need the passes have trouble connecting to destinations.

tee
Guest
tee

All of the other districts mentioned have yellow bus service for high school except for PPS, or did when these passes were initially given to PPS students. I don’t remember if PPS had yellow bus service for high schoolers when I was high school, but it was common for students to rely on TriMet to get to high school back then too.

Extrabored
Guest
Extrabored

The 51 carried a reaonable number of West Hills working commuters as late as 2007 or so. (I drove that bus back in those days.) Probably got decimated by the 2008 Recession. High schoolers were just a part of the passenger load at that time. That’s the kind of line that will always get pared back by Trimet planners instead of the high volume #12s and #72s.
So the commuter riders from that section of town just start driving their cars in and parking downtown because they have that wherewithal. High-income riders reconsidering a very limited-service line like the 51 for commuting is unlikely. Because it runs only traditional commuting hours, if work exigencies come up, you don’t have an easy/inexpensive way home at night. Once you’ve discouraged that group of riders, getting them to reconsider is very tough.
So now the #51 just an unofficial school bus system…

Watts
Guest
tee
Guest
tee

No, it doesn’t. However, this was a bus full of elementary schoolers. Very few on that bus would likely be old enough to be vaccinated.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

Is it fair to call it “unofficial”? I would consider Trimet to be the official bus system for high school students, given that PPS pays Trimet millions of dollars every year in order to provide passes to all PPS students during the school year:

https://www.oregonlive.com/roadreport/2018/05/portland_cuts_funding_for_trim.html

Extrabored
Guest
Extrabored

You’re correct that the student bus passes make Trimet the official public carrier for PPS. I guess I meant unofficial in the sense that the bus lines are not solely operated for student transport – except, it would seem, in the current case of the #51?

beckyjopdx
Guest
beckyjopdx

I can’t speak to or expand on OP’s thoughts, but since you’re replying to my comment: I’m not asking for any additional nor for school concessions. Most of the canceled busses we have experienced were not during school hours. I’m asking for the bus schedules already posted to be followed or updated so we can schedule our lives. As PPS can’t even pay their teachers appropriate wages, AND they have a massive school bus shortage as well, I’m not thinking that’s realistic, but you know, you do you.

cct
Guest
cct

I see in the news that the yellow busses (First Student) are affected by missing busses as well… a nationwide shortage of drivers is the main cause. So, hard to plan for how many will actually hit the road each day. In addition, as Trimet said they never know how many students will be added each new year to the normal commuter crowd. It’s hard to do in normal times I’d imagine, so I’m not too upset there are hiccups. What is upsetting is that many students have no other way to or from school; parents at work, too far or unsafe to walk… and of course the pesky lil bug we have just loves tightly-packed and poorly-ventilated spaces – like a bus. Frankly, Trimet should have erred on the side of more busses or running times for school routes, and pulled drivers off regular commuter runs to do so. Office workers can get their asses in a car service if they’ll be late; seventh-graders not so much. And stuffing kids in a bus Tokyo-train style, vaccinated and masks or not, is going to lead to covid spread to family members, some NOT vaccinated.

Lisa gets at a truth here: if you are going to rely on the public transit system to get kids beyond a certain grade to school (includes college!), you damn well better have the system be capable of doing so. One run in morning leads to overcrowded busses; just one or two runs after the last school bell means kids with afterschool activities are stuck. PPS is telling parents if a yellow bus doesn’t show, the kid is excused from the absence. They could do the same for Trimet riders – but they shouldn’t tempt kids like that!

We can cut Trimet some slack right now due to covid… but as soon as it’s not looming so large, the pressure on them to actually serve neighborhoods that have no other connectivity besides cars needs to ramp right back up.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

Yep. Just got an email from PPS saying they are down to just 86 drivers this year. We’re lucky that we can walk our kids to school, but so many kids are spending extra time on busses because they have to extend routes and hours. I imagine a lot of parents are driving this year that wouldn’t be otherwise.

Mallory
Guest
Mallory

Okay don’t mean to sound rude, but of course rich white people losing service warrents a news article. Do you know how many people are affected by transit schedule changes every day, maybe if transit workers were paid better, and appreciated more, Trimet wouldn’t have to cancel so many runs.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

The lack of fare enforcement and PPB work slowdown is placing a lot of burden on the drivers now. Assaults have increased, and many drivers don’t want want to put themselves in harms way. Pay is only part of the equation.

Steve Scarich
Guest
Steve Scarich

Finally, a little insight into the real basis of the problem.

beckyjopdx
Guest
beckyjopdx

huh. I didn’t see her tax returns in the post…and I don’t know her so can’t really speak to her skin color, but maybe you do?

I feel like her experience is felt all across the trimet maps, and yes, TriMet is and has been run by old school transportation folks. The toxicity in TriMet management is a cliche at this point and yes, the drivers absolutely deserve better. So much better.

In the spirit of being on the same team and trying to have multi-modal options for all, maybe a personal attack on OP isn’t necessary.

Extrabored
Guest
Extrabored

Yes, Trimet is run by long-term public trans folks whose main agenda items (as evidenced by its previous two GM’s) are big capitol projects – ie. federally subsidised, multi-billion dollar, multi-year light rail projects with platoons of project managers, architects and engineers involved. Within Trimet, bus service is considered unsexy stuff. Fiddling with bus service schedules to create super efficiency is tedious lower echelon stuff. To management, buses are operated by (too many) union workers who are expensive and are human beings with messy human needs like time off and a living wage. Cutting service on low volume lines to trim costs is so seductive.

Philips
Guest
Philips

As an insider, I can attest to this.

If the public had any inkling of how grossly and incompetently the operations side of TM is managed they would s* a brick. Never before have I seen an org so enamored with grandstanding and tokenism at the expense of the supposed “mission”.

Alan Love
Guest
Alan Love

Lisa is the BP Southwest correspondent and lives in SW. Unsurprisingly, the article deals with SW PDX. If you live in a different quadrant (sextant?) and would like to write articles regarding that part of town, I’m sure Jonathan would love to hear from you.

cct
Guest
cct

A fair number of Lincoln students are from other areas of town, many from areas of disequity. I hope they are less affected by all this – they likely can at least reach the bus mall and walk the last few blocks, but I’ve no idea how each student’s connections, ride times, etc. shake out. And yes, the 51 riders mostly have the means to drive and park downtown – but that is exactly the behavior Trimet should NOT be encouraging, n’est-ce pas? People who live within a mile of their destination SHOULD have a carless alternative, thus easing congestion, parking and pollution for those living farther afield. I mean, they’re one more person in FRONT of you in the traffic jam, right?

And several of the areas of highest economic disequity in SW Hills have NO bus service at all – and some can’t afford cars – so not all have chauffers at the ready (say extrabored, you aren’t the driver I was told about are you… on last day of regular 51 service he told the old ladies who now had no way to get downtown to shop “have the chauffer get the limos out, or rent a bus!” 🙂 ).

For all that, I agree with the thrust of your argument: transit woes disproportionally affect those least able to afford them, and drivers are often underappreciated.

SolarEclipse
Guest
SolarEclipse

When Trimet puts all their eggs into propping up the fixed-track and underutilized Max trains and not customers and where they need service, it’s no wonder Trimet is failing in so many respects.
Just think how many busses and drivers could have been added to the fleet for a fraction of what the Max trains cost, and could have served a heck of a lot more territory. But no, we have to prop up the construction industry in this town over the needs of the communities.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

There really is a serious nationwide shortage of qualified city bus drivers.

Amy Taylor
Guest
Amy Taylor

Why is Trimet experiencing a labor shortage?? I’ll tell you why. Trimet is a total ******* to their employees and balks at settling fair contracts and doesn’t have employees backs concerning sick time, customer complaints, even assaults and the list is endless. Get it together Trimet!

Philips
Guest
Philips

Maybe if starting pay was not less than Costco.

They also have pretty hard to meet expectations and draconian attendance and performance policies which lead to huge turnover. Total waste of resources: spend tens of thousands to train a person off the street to get e CDL and then can them at the first opportunity. They will pretty much hire anyone who will pass a drug test. But few make it past a year. Sort of becoming a gig-economy job where everyone is a novice and they don’t care if you come back next week as long as there is someone there to replace you.

SE 34th
Guest
SE 34th

As the relative of a bus driver, I can report that starting pay for drivers is around $17/hour while Costco starts people at $16/hour. After 35 months bus drivers make $33/hour with good benefits. I do believe the pandemic has been hard on drivers tho, as they are frontline workers.

Philips
Guest
Philips

So you think that a cashier at a retail store making what a bus driver makes, (actually less than a cashier because TriMet starts all drivers as part-time only) sounds about fair? I guess we have different priorities. One bad move and literally dozens of people can be hurt or worse at the hands of a bad bus driver. Not to mention the rolling homeless shelters with their attendant problems, assaults and hundreds of unbelievably rude customers day after day. It is a truly horrible job and the least we can do is compensate them for their hard work.

Granted, 3 years in, you are making $33/hr but you have to survive that first a year making $22,000. I actually know many who can not “afford” to start a career at TM because the starting pay and conditions are so horrendous. Not to mention, how many people can honestly pass a random piss test without fail in Portland where THC is basically in the water at this point.