Blog Posts

TriMet’s New Electric Buses Will Be Less Reliable, More Costly

By John A. Charles, Jr.

The TriMet board recently voted to replace the agency’s entire bus fleet with battery-electric buses by 2040. Since each electric bus is more than twice as expensive as a standard diesel bus, this decision will cost taxpayers more than $550 million in excess costs.

The electric premium might be worth it if there were significant benefits to switching fuels, but there aren’t. In fact, battery-powered buses are far less reliable than diesel or natural gas buses. According to a recent study by the Federal Transit Administration, battery electric buses in Seattle only traveled 2,771 miles on average between breakdowns; for diesel buses, it was 17,332.

Since moving passengers is TriMet’s primary job, this alone should have disqualified battery buses from consideration.

The primary motivation for TriMet seems to be reducing so-called “greenhouse gases,” but battery-powered buses offer no real air quality benefit. The buses must be charged from the utility grid, which is powered mostly by coal and natural gas. Even large wind farms are backed up every minute of the day by other sources such as gas and hydro dams. Using battery-electric buses simply changes where greenhouse gases are emitted, which is meaningless.

A better alternative would be renewable natural gas, derived from processing food waste or methane emissions from landfills. For this reason the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority concluded in 2016 that it would switch its entire fleet to renewable natural gas buses because it would provide “approximately 39% greater reductions in GHG emissions at half the cost” when compared to electric buses.

Finally, TriMet has no way to pay for the electric bus conversion. The staff recommended buying the first 80 electric buses with combinations of federal grants and money from the new statewide employee tax, followed by a hoped-for legislative bailout sometime after 2022. That’s not a plan, it’s a fantasy.

TriMet has already been awarded ten battery electric buses through grants from the federal government. A more prudent option going forward would be to buy ten buses using other fuels—such as compressed natural gas and renewable natural gas—and then test them all head-to-head to measure reliability, emissions, noise, and passenger comfort.

This was a rash decision. The TriMet Board should admit that it made a mistake, and spend the next two years analyzing alternative fuels. If taxpayers are going to be forced to pay an extra half-billion dollars for new buses, there should at least be a good reason.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on November 13, 2018.

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Survey Shows Florida Scholarship Parents Are Overwhelmingly Satisfied with Their Children’s Schools

By Kathryn Hickok

Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program currently helps more than a hundred thousand of the state’s most disadvantaged students to get a better education through privately funded scholarships, making it the largest private school choice program in America. The program has been funded by voluntary corporate donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations. In return for these donations, companies receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits against their state income tax.

Last week, EdChoice released the largest-ever survey of the parents of Florida’s tax credit scholarship students, revealing these families’ educational priorities and experiences.

Analyzing the responses of more than fourteen thousand parents, EdChoice concluded:

  • “The vast majority of Florida scholarship parents expressed satisfaction with the tax-credit scholarship program.”
  • “Florida parents chose their children’s private schools because those schools offer what their public schools can’t/don’t.”
  • “Among respondents whose children were previously enrolled in a public district or charter school before using a scholarship to enroll in a private school, most parents reported engaging in a variety of education-related activities more often than before switching schools….”

Children have different talents, interests, and needs; and they learn in different ways. The landscape of educational options to meet students’ learning needs is more diverse today than ever. For more information about school choice in Oregon, visit schoolchoicefororegon.com.

Kathryn Hickok is Executive Vice President at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. She is also director of Cascade’s Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon program, which provides partial tuition scholarships to Oregon elementary students from lower-income families.

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Metro Should Let Transit Customers Drive Transportation Innovation

By Justus Armstrong

ABC’s Shark Tank may be coming to the Portland region—not in the form of a reality TV special, but as a taxpayer-funded project that positions the Metro regional government to act as a venture capital firm. Rather than investing in the success of growing businesses, however, the Sharks at Metro plan to fund temporary pilot projects that test new transportation technology.

Metro proposes that its Partnerships and Innovative Learning Opportunities in Transportation (PILOT) program—a component of the Emerging Technology Strategy—would help meet its “guided innovation” goals, but the shortsighted approach of this program ignores a vital question: Are risky technological investments the best use of taxpayer funding?

In a presentation at a Metro work session in July, Senior Technology Strategist Eliot Rose suggested the PILOT program would “guide innovation in transportation technology toward creating a more equitable and livable region.” Embedded in the presentation were numerous contradictions, beginning with the oxymoron of “guided innovation.” In Metro’s case, guided innovation more than likely means “hindered innovation,” with PILOT funding being a carrot-and-stick method of ensuring that emerging technologies take the direction technocrats deem appropriate, not the direction consumers are demanding.

By allocating government funding to the transportation projects of its choice, Metro risks preventing better ideas from emerging and hampering the innovation necessary for real progress to take place. As Metro strategist Rose noted, ridesharing, bikesharing, and other technologies PILOT wishes to foster have already been expanding in Portland. This technological progress has taken place with private investment, yet Rose still concludes that public money is needed for it to continue.

During the July work session, Metro staff claimed that the government “needs to intervene to bring technology to people and communities that the market doesn’t serve.” This assumption presents another contradiction: If an investment isn’t cost-effective for a private actor, what makes it a cost-effective investment to Metro? And how can successful projects be expected to continue without public funding, if the projects’ functions wouldn’t otherwise be demanded by the market?

Furthermore, Metro’s plan risks sinking taxpayer money into potentially unsuccessful projects. The $165,000 Forth-Hacienda project was presented by Metro as an example of a successful pilot project—not because the project itself was successful, but because its failure offered a great learning experience. The desire to better understand new technologies is not without merit, but the experimental nature of such pilot projects hardly makes them a good fit for taxpayer funding.

For all the project’s flaws, discussion about Metro’s Emerging Technology Strategy has included some promising aspects. For instance, during the work session, Metro Councilor Shirley Craddick brought up the idea of transitioning some of TriMet’s responsibilities to ridesharing networks. Considering more innovative modes for public transportation would be a step in the right direction and likely would improve cost-effectiveness, quality, and ridership of transit while meeting the needs of the populations Metro seeks to assist.

Perhaps a more effective Emerging Technology Strategy could focus solely on ways to improve existing public transportation through new technology, rather than interfering with private transportation markets through subsidies and attempts to shape private development. Instead of subsidizing companies with PILOT funding, Metro could offer open-ended transportation vouchers directly to transit users, especially transit-dependent and underserved populations.

Transit vouchers could be spent on a variety of transportation options, including TriMet and the newer technologies the PILOT program intends to target, such as rideshare, bikeshare, and electric vehicle and autonomous vehicle rentals. Putting the money directly into the hands of transit users could drive innovation through consumer sovereignty on the demand side, encouraging competition and making companies work to meet transit users’ needs instead of Metro’s project specifications.

With its PILOT program, Metro seeks to encourage innovation while managing risk; but any risk associated with developing new technologies should be borne by the companies driving the innovation, not by the public. If Metro moves forward with the PILOT program, it will only hinder its own goals. Instead of shaping existing markets in the private sector, Metro should focus on applying technological improvements to public transportation options.

Moreover, Metro should reform the regulatory framework and barriers to entry that may be preventing the emerging transportation technology market from functioning at its best. After all, the expansion of Uber and Lyft in Portland didn’t take place because Portland subsidized these companies. It happened because Portland stopped banning them. Metro councilors and staff can’t foresee the direction that new technologies will take, so they can’t know enough in advance to guide the direction of innovation or adequately manage its risks. The best they can do is get out of the way.

Justus Armstrong is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Another Tax Increase from Kate Brown

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Governor Kate Brown’s top health care administrator is requesting that the legislature increase taxes on beer, wine, cider, cigarettes, cigars, and vaping pens. If approved, the taxes would result in $784 million in new revenue for the state over the next two years.

Health officials claim that this is a “public health” measure designed to reduce consumption of harmful products, but it’s really just a money grab. The state has an estimated shortfall of $800 million in Medicaid funding, and this proposal conveniently would raise almost that amount.

However, the proposed tax probably will not actually raise that much money because of a built-in contradiction: If consumption goes down, then tax revenue has to go down as well. Legislators cannot support it as both a public health measure and a revenue-raiser at the same time. For one goal to succeed, the other must fail.

It’s an open secret in Salem that the biggest “addiction” problem in the state is not tobacco or alcohol consumption; it’s the addiction that politicians have to taxation on smoking, drinking and gambling. They don’t want less of these activities; they actually want more.

Legislators are not our parents. Oregonians should be left alone so they can decide for themselves what products to use.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Metro’s Bond Measure 26-199 Raises Taxes on Homeowners, Requires No Accountability for Money Spent

By Miranda Bonifield

Metro claims Measure 26-199 is designed to address affordable housing, but the 652.8 million dollar bond measure raises taxes for homeowners without ensuring that it will accomplish its goals.

Metro claims these bonds would fund up to 3,900 low-income housing units. However, the measure doesn’t require a minimum number of units: Metro could build a few units, spend the rest of the money on “services,” and fulfill the requirements of Measure 26-199. The text of the measure even says these bonds may be used for things like grocery or retail space without limitation. In other words, there’s no guarantee the measure will make even a small improvement to housing affordability.

There is no deadline ensuring Metro provides these units in a timely fashion. There is no requirement for Metro to change its practices if auditors find Metro is failing to accomplish its goals. 26-199 asks you to trust Metro’s intentions without any accountability to encourage success. Meanwhile, urban growth boundaries and endless red tape keep Oregon’s housing supply from meeting the needs of our growing population.

Any major project needs firm deadlines and specific goals to have any hope of success, but Metro’s measure provides neither.

Miranda Bonifield is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Is Oregon’s Department of Justice for Hire?

By Justus Armstrong

Last June, former Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick was hired by the Oregon Department of Justice as a Special Assistant Attorney General (SAAG). What many Oregonians may not know is that his entire salary is being paid by an out-of-state private source.

New York University’s State Energy & Environmental Impact Center, backed by Bloomberg Philanthropies, funds Novick’s legal fellowship with the aim of strengthening state attorney general offices in their crusade against the Trump administration’s environmental policies.

The unprecedented practice of providing external funding to state attorneys general to push a policy agenda ought to raise ethical concerns. As attorney Andrew Grossman put it: “What you’re talking about is law enforcement for hire….Really, what’s being done is circumventing our normal mode of government.”

In August 2018, Competitive Enterprise Institute published a report by Christopher Horner which details the roots and function of the SAAG program. Law Enforcement for Rent: How Special Interests Fund Climate Policy through State Attorneys General describes the genesis of the SAAG program as an informal coalition between states, spearheaded by former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

A letter included in the report’s appendix from Schneiderman and Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell to Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum shows she was invited to a March 2016 meeting of this coalition. The letter describes the program as “an important part of the national effort to ensure the adoption of stronger federal climate and energy policies.” Correspondence between members of the coalition (also compiled by Horner) expresses a desire to collaborate on targeting companies in the energy industry with regulatory and enforcement tools.

This same environmental policy agenda drives NYU’s Center, as expressed in its communication with state attorneys general. Emails state that the “opportunity to potentially hire an NYU Fellow is open to all state attorneys general who demonstrate a need and commitment to defending environmental values and advancing progressive clean energy, climate change, and environmental legal positions.” NYU’s website directs interested attorneys general to demonstrate a need for outside funding to pursue these legal positions.

If this sounds questionable, imagine a similar practice being used to serve other political agendas. If a nonprofit backed by Charles and David Koch offered to fund a position in a state to provide legal assistance on regulatory matters, would it be considered a conflict of interest? If the National Rifle Association were bankrolling state employees to serve as a “resource” on gun law enforcement, would it raise red flags? This isn’t simply about protecting the environment versus not. It’s a question of impropriety and corruption. NYU states in its agreements that fellows owe their loyalty solely to the state attorney general once they’re assigned there, but SAAGs like Novick are still being paid by an outside source while working on behalf of the state.

It appears that Rosenblum was anxious about the ethical gray areas of this arrangement from the start. Emails from within the DOJ show that Rosenblum instructed the DOJ not to use the word “volunteer” to describe Novick’s position in his hiring paperwork. The obfuscating language of the hiring process is notable: In reality, Novick isn’t working as a “volunteer” or a “research fellow,” but as an environmental lawyer, as he has been for years. Rosenblum also showed apprehension about the potential media attention the unprecedented arrangement could draw, as one email states:

“We need to be sure we are prepared to explain his position to the media, who, no doubt, will be interested. (Because he is being paid by an outside entity—which is quite unusual I think)….”

Novick’s position is quite unusual indeed, and Oregonians deserve an explanation. Regardless of one’s views on Novick, Rosenblum, or Bloomberg’s environmental policy agenda, embedding privately funded legal counsel in our justice department is a conflict of interest. The Attorney General’s office should be loyal to Oregon citizens, not out-of-state donors, and should uphold the law rather than push a legislative agenda.

If statutes aren’t clear enough on the practice, Oregon voters may need to consider a constitutional amendment to keep privately paid employees out of state offices and keep the DOJ from undermining the democratic process. The Resistance agenda belongs on the campaign trail, not in law enforcement.

Justus Armstrong is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Watch “School Choice Changes Lives!” Online Now

By Steve Buckstein

On September 25, Cascade Policy Institute and its School Choice for Oregon project hosted a live audience event in downtown Portland, “School Choice Changes Lives!”

Designed to attract an online audience and social media participation, the event aired simultaneously on Facebook.

National school choice experts Dr. Matthew Ladner (Charles Koch Institute) and Tim Keller (Institute for Justice) were the featured guests for this fast-moving, question-and-answer panel discussion on school choice.

If you missed the live event online, you can watch it now to learn how school choice can benefit all Oregon children. Whether you’re a parent, grandparent, educator, and/or taxpayer, you won’t want to miss this opportunity to learn from experts how School Choice Changes Lives!

You can watch the archived video at Facebook.com/SchoolChoiceforOregon. If you’re not on Facebook, simply go to SchoolChoiceforOregon.com; click on the Social button and watch School Choice Changes Lives on YouTube. There is no login required to watch on YouTube.

If you think Oregon’s school children are not getting all the opportunities to learn that they deserve, you won’t want to miss this event. So go to Facebook or YouTube, and learn how School Choice Changes Lives and how you can get involved to help make school choice a reality in Oregon.

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Electric Buses: Another Costly Fad

By John A. Charles, Jr.

The TriMet Board recently approved a plan to replace its entire fleet with battery-electric buses (BEBs) by 2040. If implemented, this will cost taxpayers $553 million more than buying diesel buses.

It might be worth the premium if battery powered buses were cleaner or more reliable, but they aren’t. King County, Washington has been testing BEBs since April 2016. On average, they only travel 2,771 miles between service failures. Diesel buses are good for 17,332 miles—more than six times as long.

In addition, battery buses are not the best environmental option, because they draw electricity from power plants using fossil fuels. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority went through an extensive analysis in 2016, and found that “renewable” natural gas derived from landfill methane had a much better environmental profile than electric vehicles.

For that reason, the MTA decided to convert its bus fleet to renewable natural gas, not electric. The agency concluded that renewable natural gas “achieves 39% greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, at half the cost” of electric buses.

What does TriMet know that the Los Angeles MTA doesn’t? That question should be answered before we spend $553 million.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Kate Brown’s Environmental Showmanship Has No Substance

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Governor Kate Brown has announced a legislative proposal that she claims is necessary to “resist” the Trump administration’s changes to federal environmental regulations.

While this bit of showmanship will play well to her base, it has no actual substance. The Oregon Environmental Quality Commission has long had the authority to adopt its own standards that are equivalent to or stronger than federal regulations, and it has done so many times.

In fact, it’s entirely plausible that if federal statutes such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act were completely repealed by Congress, there would be no measurable effect on Oregon. The state runs its own environmental programs and doesn’t need Congress or the Environmental Protection Agency.

Gov. Brown may find it convenient to manufacture an environmental crisis; but ambient loadings of air and water pollution have been falling for decades and will continue to do so, regardless of who is President. This is a great American success story, driven mostly by technological innovation and a commitment by corporate boards to continually reduce emissions.

We don’t have an environmental crisis, and we don’t need another law. Gov. Brown should stop using President Trump as a prop in her re-election campaign.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Oregon Parents Need More Options for Children with Learning Challenges

By Miranda Bonifield

For students born with learning disorders like dyslexia, learning to read without a specialized program is an incredibly difficult task. Instead of being a satisfying challenge, it becomes a demoralizing chore.

Consider the experience of Tara Mixon, who quit her job to homeschool her dyslexic first grader.  His self-confidence had plummeted when he couldn’t learn to read alongside his Kindergarten class. Transitioning to a single income meant she couldn’t afford specialized tutoring, which often costs more than $50 per hour. Tara’s hard work means her son can enroll in fourth grade this year, but she is far from confident in the public schools’ ability to address his needs. Like many parents of dyslexic students, Tara fears her son will fall behind his peers again and lose the confidence he has built over the last two years.

New legislation recently passed in Oregon makes an admirable effort at early identification of reading disorders, but experience has shown parents and children alike that good intentions don’t guarantee results.

Instead of trying to shoehorn students with unique needs into a single system, Oregon should empower families with school choice. Implementing a system like Education Savings Accounts would allow parents like Tara to enroll their students in specialized programs or pay for tutoring—turning reading from an insurmountable obstacle back into the joy it should be.

Miranda Bonifield is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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