Vote Yes on Metro’s Transportation Payroll Tax!

A tax increase is always a hard sell, even in the best of financial times.

With Portland reeling from months of protests, and an economy in shambles from the fallout from the Coronavirus shutdown, asking the remaining folks who still have jobs to pay more is a difficult request.

The answer for Portland-area voters should be a yes, although the popular move by local news outlets, and area politicians, has been to reject the tax increase. It’s easy to reject a transit-related tax when so many people are hurting right now, but doing so will not set our region up for the increased need for transit we will face in the coming decades.

Metro’s ask for a payroll tax to fund transportation projects around the region is like an ugly buffet. You don’t necessarily love anything there; sure there is a thing or two that has caught your eye, and plenty of other greasy things you won’t go near, but you get why your family chose to eat there. Everyone gets at least something they like, even if there is a lot there not to like.

For me, the most attractive parts of the measure are improvements to 82nd Avenue, McLoughlin Boulevard, and to Tualatin Valley Highway. The measure is calling for improved sidewalks, intersections, bus stops, and greatest of all, bus rapid transit along those heavily used streets.

Those three thoroughfares run through a wide swath of diverse, working class neighborhoods, with plenty of folks who rely on transit to live their lives. The 72, the bus line that runs along 82nd, is the most used in TriMet’s system, and while I love it dearly, it could use some investment to make it even better.

Bus Rapid Transit could be transformational on 82nd. The biggest drawback for using the bus is it can be slow, gets caught in the same traffic as cars, and you have to wait for transfers, increasing travel time. Bus Rapid Transit, and the proposed improvements in this measure, tackle those drawbacks.

Bus Rapid Transit provides transit priority signals and bus only lanes so buses aren’t caught in traffic with all the other commuters. It provides off bus fare collection in the form of ticket machines on or off the bus so drivers don’t have to be in the business of selling tickets or enforcing fare collection, speeding up the dwell time at stops. It also typically comes with larger articulated buses, so everyone can find a place to sit.

It also comes with more frequency, and if you haven’t experienced frequent bus service, it probably doesn’t sound like that big of a deal. Bus frequency, i.e. how often the buses come, equals freedom as Jarrett Walker puts it in his book Human Transit. If a bus comes only once an hour, or every 20 or 30 minutes, you are forced to plan your life around the bus schedule, when you can take it, how long you will have to wait. If a bus comes frequently, you don’t have to plan your life around the bus, suddenly you are free to not think about it. If a bus comes every 15 minutes or less, suddenly a bus ride where you need to go is never that far away.

Imagine if buses were even more frequent than that? In February I went to Mexico City and saw first hand how awesome frequent service can be. During rush hour, trains and buses came every minute or faster. The longest we ever waited our entire trip for the Metro was five minutes, and that was because the train pulled away right as we walked down the stairs to the platform. Sure, Mexico City’s transit has its own problems, but the freedom of never having to schedule your life around a bus or a train or worry about how long a transfer would take meant going someplace new only required walking up to the bus stop or platform and waiting a minute or two for the next bus. That freedom meant we could go where we want, when we wanted, and the schedule or factoring in a transfer was the least of our worries.

Now think about that in Portland. Even on TriMet’s frequent service bus lines, you can end up waiting 15 minutes or more if you need to transfer buses. Throw in a little traffic, a mechanical problem, or a bus that’s too crowded, and that trip that could have been a 20 minute trip by car can balloon into an hour or more by bus. Frequency means those transfers aren’t a worry, and during rush hour since another bus is coming in a minute, no need to hold trains or squeeze into an already crowded bus.

Another win on this payroll tax is free transit for youth. You’d be surprised how much traffic is created by schools, folks picking up their kids or dropping them off. Imagine if that could disappear? Imagine if every kid in the region had a bus pass to take them wherever they needed to be? It could eliminate loads of traffic as well as providing youths with a level of independence to explore their world and take personal responsibility for navigating their lives.

Free youth transit would also create a whole new market of transit users who know how to use the system and will see it as a viable alternative to having a car. It will get them hooked on buses and trains young, if you will. People (including myself once upon a time) who have never used transit have a lot of false notions about it, like it’s dangerous or slow or not useful. Once you start riding it, however, you start seeing how it’s not unsafe, and how much more enjoyable reading a book or meeting a new friend on the bus is than pounding your steering wheel and cursing at the idiot in front of you while stuck in traffic.

Most importantly, this payroll tax attempts to address some of the biggest hurdles holding folks back from using transit, by speeding up buses making them more attractive, and also by improving the streets and sidewalks folks use to access transit. If buses were faster, more reliable, and more frequent, more people would use them. When they aren’t, they become the mode of transportation of last resort, as those with means look to their polar bear killing cars.

Ok, the elephant I am avoiding talking about is the proposed Purple Line, that will extend from Southwest Portland toward Bridgeport Village in Tualatin. While the projects I am most excited about (improvement on 82nd, McLoughlin, and TV Highway) are smaller chunks of the proposed expenditures, the lions share will be taken up by this light rail project.

I think there are some legitimate arguments to make against the Purple Line. Any investment in a rail project is a huge expense. Rail is expensive, and once it’s built, it’s stuck there pretty much forever. Rail does have the advantage of often being quicker than buses, it can carry more people, and for some reason folks tend to get excited about rail in a way that they rarely do for buses.

When I look at the price tag of the Purple Line, I wonder if instead of investing in a rail project, if a portion of that money could not be more effectively spent improving the existing bus service. The Purple Line parallels many extant bus lines, lines that frankly don’t always see the most service. I’m guessing part of the reason they aren’t more widely used is because the 12, 94, and 96 frequently get stuck in traffic. If the bus was made better, perhaps it would be enough to convince people to get out of their cars if they saw buses zipping around bottlenecks.

There is also the question of speed. One of rail’s selling points is speed, trains don’t get caught behind cars. But looking at the existing bus service, the 96 can already get you from downtown Portland to Bridgeport Village in 20 minutes, a full 10 minutes faster than the proposed Purple Line. If the train won’t be any faster, and existing buses can already do the job, why not spend more money on bus improvements rather than gamble on a light rail line that may see little use?

However, I am in favor of the Purple Line. The area southwest of Portland along 99W will only increase in population. It may take a decade or two, but eventually denser development along 99W and the Purple Line will occur, and the investment made now will look prescient. The Purple Line will not so much be built for what exists now, but is likely to happen along that corridor.

Yes, there is a lot to dislike about the payroll tax. First is how it was sneakily passed with exemptions for public agencies. If it’s going to be a payroll tax, all employers should have to pay. I think the business community is rightfully upset that its having to solely shoulder a burden that should have been spread more equally.

Second, when I look through the proposal Metro approved when it decided to ask for this tax, I see a lot of expenditures for “planning.” That has me a little worried. When bureaucrats get money for “planning” they usually pay a consultant a ton of money to come up with a big glossy booklet full of numbers and ideas, and drawings of the bright shiny future we all can look forward to. Then an elected official sees the price tag, grips their chest after a mini-stroke, and that planning report gets put in a drawer somewhere and collects dust for 20 years while the problem gets worse. I want to see my tax dollars get spent on actual useful projects delivered at a reasonable cost, not on plans.

Third, I think many front line workers at TriMet have a hard time supporting a tax championed by a management that has taken us for granted and treated us like crap throughout the pandemic, and who is now driving our contract negotiations to arbitration. Many worry the extra tax revenue will be spent lining the already bloated pockets of the executives locked in TriMet’s blue and orange ivory tower, while front line workers will most likely be asked to give up benefits, pay, or more when the contract arbitration is done. Combine that with the region’s history of spending tons of money on urban planning wet dreams rather than on common sense projects that make transit more reliable, frequent, and quicker, we worry the tax revenue will be spent on the sort of projects that put feathers in bureaucrat’s hats and not on common sense projects.

Fourth, and this might be the biggest “if” of the whole measure, is the projects and the money are based on a world that doesn’t currently exist and may not exist again. Does it make sense spending millions on a light rail line to funnel folks downtown if workers won’t ever return downtown? Will we need better transit if riders never return? Do we need traffic improvements if many workers never physically return to work?

I can’t see the future, but I think traffic and ridership will pick up again, although it will take a long time for it to reach levels seen before the pandemic. It will also look different. I imagine fewer office drones going downtown during rush hour peaks, while working class folks out in the numbers will continue to need buses for work and shopping. The region will also continue to grow, and even if the people who currently live here don’t physically return to work, some of the people who move here will, and they will need those transit improvements in the coming decades.

The region will get bigger, more people will live here, and we are exhausting space to build new roads. Public transit, and good transit, will allow the region to move more quickly around and will be part of the solution to the traffic woes we were already suffering.

I am worried that its defeat will mean that projects and transit improvements will not be seen for many decades to come, while our region gets bigger and traffic gets worse. The pandemic created a world none us of want, and it leaves us looking at our bank accounts and wondering whether we can afford to pay more in taxes. We need to make the right, hard choices now, so that we can have a better Portland tomorrow.

This is a personal blog, the views expressed in this blog are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of TriMet

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Don Iler

Don Iler

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I’m a public transit enthusiast in Portland, Oregon. I love public transportation, history and writing.