Author: Cascade Policy Institute

In 9 Years, WES Hasn’t Decreased Westside Congestion

By John A. Charles, Jr.

February marked the nine-year anniversary of the Westside Express Service (WES), the commuter rail line that runs from Wilsonville to Beaverton. Sadly, there was little to celebrate.

A central problem is that WES never had a clear mission. At various times the train was promoted as: (1) a congestion relief tool for Highway 217; (2) a catalyst for so-called “Transit-Oriented Development;” or (3) a way of providing “another option” for travelers. None of these arguments has panned out.

During legislative hearings in Salem, representatives from Washington County claimed WES would take 5,000 motor vehicles per day off of nearby highways. But WES is not capable of that because it only runs eight times (each direction) in the morning, and eight times in the afternoon. Unlike traditional commuter trains pulling eight or nine passenger cars, WES travels only in one- or two-car configurations.

During its best hours of performance, the total number of passengers is less than 0.5% the number of motorists traveling on Highway 217/I-5 at those hours, so there has been no congestion relief.

Prior to WES, two TriMet bus lines provided more than 4,000 boardings per day in parallel routes. Commuter rail has replaced inexpensive bus service with a massively subsidized train. Taxpayers would be better served if we canceled WES and moved commuter rail customers back to buses.

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

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WES at 9: Time to Admit the Mistake

By John A. Charles, Jr.

February marked the nine-year anniversary of the Westside Express Service (WES), the 14.7-mile commuter rail line that runs from Wilsonville to Beaverton. Sadly, there was little to celebrate.

In the first few years of operation, ridership grew and it was at least plausible that WES eventually could become a productive transit line. However, average daily ridership peaked in 2014 at 1,964 daily boardings, then dropped in each successive year. During fiscal year 2018, WES ridership has averaged only 1,668 daily boardings.

A central problem is that WES never had a clear mission; it was always a project in search of a purpose. At various times the train was promoted as: (1) a congestion relief tool for Highway 217; (2) a catalyst for so-called “Transit-Oriented Development;” or (3) a way of providing “another option” for travelers. None of these arguments make sense.

During legislative hearings in Salem, representatives from Washington County claimed that WES would take 5,000 motor vehicles per day off of nearby highways. But WES is not even capable of doing that because it only runs eight times (each direction) in the morning, and eight more times in the afternoon. Unlike traditional commuter trains pulling eight or nine passenger cars, WES travels only in one-car or two-car configurations. The train stations themselves are so short that even if TriMet started running eight-car trains, most passengers would have no way to get on or off.

During its best hours of performance, the total number of passengers traveling on WES is less than 0.5% the number of motorists traveling on Highway 217/I-5 at those same hours, so there has been no congestion relief.

Moreover, WES crosses more than 18 east-west suburban arterials four times each hour. On busy commuter routes, such as Highway 10 or Scholls Ferry Road, each train crossing delays dozens of vehicles for 40 seconds or more. Since the train itself typically only carries 50-60 passengers per run, this means that WES actually has made Washington County congestion worse than it was before the train opened.

WES has not been a catalyst for “transit-oriented development” and never will be because the train stations are a nuisance, not an amenity. The noise associated with train arrivals was always underestimated and is not likely to induce new residential construction.

As for the hope that WES would provide “another transit option,” there were already two TriMet bus lines providing over 4,000 boardings per day in parallel routes prior to the opening of WES. Commuter rail simply replaced inexpensive bus service with a massively subsidized train.

Several key statistics summarize the problems with the train:

  • WES was originally projected to cost $65 million and open in 2000. It actually cost $161.2 million and opened in 2009.
  • TriMet projected an average daily ridership of 2,500 weekday boardings in the first year; actual weekday ridership was 1,156. It grew over time to 1,964 in 2014, but dropped to 1,771 in 2016 and 1,668 in 2018. Since each rider typically boards twice daily, only about 850 people actually use WES regularly.
  • The WES operating cost/ride is roughly five times the cost of average TriMet bus service.

Ridership and Cost Trends for WES

2009-2018

(inflation adjusted, 2015 $)

2009 2010 2011 2012 2014 2016 2018 % Change since 2014
   
Avg. daily boardings 1,156 1,313 1,571 1,700 1,964 1,810 1,668 -15%
Operating cost per ride $27.41 $24.46 $20.43 $18.39 $15.85 $13.55 $16.73 +6%
Cost/

train-mile   

$54.70 $54.12 $53.30 $53.79 $51.12 $53.82 $60.56 +18%
Cost/

train hour

$1,180 $1,166 $1,171 $1,180 $1,109 $1,178 $1,307 +18%
Average subsidy/ride $26.18 $23.00 $19.01 $17.64 $14.36 $12.07 $15.30 +7%

In June 2016 TriMet staff persuaded the Board to approve the purchase of two used rail cars to expand the WES fleet. The estimated cost for the purchase was $1.5 million, plus $500,000 more for retrofitting.

TriMet claimed that this purchase was necessary to satisfy the “expected demands for growing WES service.” That demand was a fantasy.

WES is destined to be a one-hit wonder―an expensive monument to the egos of TriMet leaders and Westside politicians. Taxpayers would be better served if we simply canceled WES, repaid grant funds to the federal government, and moved the few commuter rail customers back to buses.

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

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TriMet Shows Public Pension Reform Is Possible

By John A. Charles, Jr.

The Oregon legislature recently adjourned and once again took no action to reduce the unfunded liabilities of the Oregon Public Employee Retirement System (PERS). The reason is that most legislators think PERS reform is impossible. 

That belief is wrong. 

TriMet is not part of PERS and has been slowly reforming its pension program since 2002. As a result, 100% of all new employees are now in 401(k)-style pensions that have no long-term liabilities for employers. These are referred to as “defined-contribution” (DC) pensions in which monthly payments are made by management into retirement accounts owned by employees. Once those payments are made, the employer has no further financial obligations. 

This stands in contrast to “defined benefit” (DB) programs like PERS in which employees are promised high levels of retirement payments regardless of how investment funds are performing. 

The success of the TriMet reforms can be seen in its latest pension fund valuation, which shows that annual benefit payments for pensions will peak in 2034 at $75 million, then drop to zero by about 2085.           

TriMet’s pension reform offers a guide to the legislature on how to reverse the spiraling PERS disaster, where unfunded liabilities have grown to $25 billion. The state should move all employees to defined-contribution plans as soon as possible. 

This essay summarizes a new Cascade study of TriMet’s successful pension reform program. “Following in TriMet’s Tracks: Defined-Contribution Plans a Necessary First Step to Oregon’s Fiscal Health” can be found here.

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

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Study: School Trust income would go up by 600% if lands were sold

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contact:
John A. Charles, Jr.
503-242-0900
john@cascadepolicy.org

PORTLAND, Ore. – Cascade Policy Institute released a study today showing that revenue generated for schools by the Oregon Common School Trust Lands (CSTL) likely would go up by 600% if the lands were sold and the net income added to the existing Common School Fund.

The study, A Proposal to Generate Adequate Returns from Common School Trust Lands, also showed that Oregon is only making $4.25/acre from its CSTL portfolio, the lowest among nine Western states. The state of Washington is earning the most, at $37/acre.

Management of Oregon’s 1.5 million acre portfolio of CSTL has long been a contentious issue. In 1992 Oregon Attorney General Charles S. Crookham issued an opinion clarifying that CSTL must be managed primarily for revenue maximization. Advocacy groups representing non-school interests have worked to subvert that directive ever since.

Environmental groups have repeatedly lobbied and litigated to eliminate revenue generation from the Trust Lands, claiming that commodity production is an outdated concept. They finally succeeded during the three-year period of 2013-15, when Oregon’s Trust Land portfolio actually lost $360,000/year in net operating income. Those losses had to be paid for by Oregon public school students.

The Oregon Land Board voted in 2015 to sell most of the Elliott State Forest in order to remedy this problem. However, the Board reversed itself in 2017, and Governor Kate Brown subsequently sought bonding authority from the Legislature to allow her to borrow $101 million (requiring $199 million in debt service) in order to “buy out” a portion of the Elliott so that it no longer would be subject to the Constitutional mandate to earn money for schools.

Those bonds have not yet been sold, and the Elliott is expected to incur more losses during 2018.

Last year Cascade Policy Institute commissioned economist Eric Fruits, Ph.D. to do a comparative analysis of nine Western states with large CSTL portfolios to determine under what circumstances it might make sense for states to sell these lands and invest the net proceeds into stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments. Dr. Fruits concluded that six states (including Oregon) likely would be better off selling CSTL assets; two states would be better off maintaining ownership; and one state likely would benefit from divestment, but more information is needed.

Cascade President John A. Charles, Jr. stated, “The Oregon Land Board has a fiduciary obligation to manage CSTL assets for the benefit of schools. Losing money every year violates that obligation. The Trust Lands have a market value of over $700 million, and students would be best served if the Land Board simply sold its real property portfolio and turned the proceeds over to the Oregon Investment Council, which has earned an average of 8.2% annually from the Common School Fund since 2010. In fact, there is no management option that would earn more money for students than selling these lands.”

The full report, A Proposal to Generate Adequate Returns from Common School Trust Lands, can be downloaded here.

Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon’s premier policy research center. Cascade’s mission is to explore and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity. For more information, visit cascadepolicy.org.

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Oregon Small Businesses Deserve the Tax Break They Expected

By Steve Buckstein

While most Americans are reaping the benefits of the recent federal income tax cut, the Oregon legislature has just passed SB 1528 on a partisan vote that could deny several hundred thousand Oregon small businesses an equivalent state income tax cut they should expect.

Proponents of the bill argue that some of these businesses already got a state income tax break in 2013 and therefore shouldn’t benefit any further. But fewer than ten percent of the businesses the bill will hurt got that break. More than 90 percent won’t get any state break if Governor Kate Brown signs the bill.

Oregon is a small business state. Many are family businesses that depend on their business income to support their households.

Governor Brown says of the bill, “We’re looking at the implications for Oregon’s small businesses and Oregon’s economy.” She has until mid-April to sign it into law. Small business groups like NFIB are urging her to veto it.

If she does sign the bill, opponents might gather signatures referring it to voters in November. And hundreds of thousands of those voters will be the very people the bill impacts.

Oregon doesn’t need more tax revenue from small businesses to balance its budget, and giving them a tax break should be good for our economy. If you agree, call the Governor at 503-378-4582 and ask her to veto SB 1528.

Steve Buckstein is Senior Policy Analyst and Founder of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Time to Decentralize Oregon’s Education Reform Efforts

By Kathryn Hickok and Steve Buckstein

Three years ago, Oregon state government killed off what should have been the last of three big education reform efforts since 1991. Each promised to solve the unsolvable: how a one-size-fits-all public K-12 school system could educate all Oregon students and launch them onto a lifelong path of educational and career success. The fatal flaw in these reform efforts was that they relied on centralizing control over education policy.

Now, the Oregon legislature is embarking on what may turn into a fourth “impossible mission” to achieve student success in our public school system. Members of the Joint Committee on Student Success will travel around the state asking everyone they meet what constitutes success in their communities. They then will return to the State Capitol and recommend that every school do “what works” somewhere—most likely at a higher cost to taxpayers than they are paying today.

But rather than wait years to judge this latest reform effort a failure, why not try another path: the school choice path? School choice allows students and their families to choose where and how to get the educational opportunities that are right for them. School choice recognizes that children learn in different ways and at different paces and puts parents, not bureaucrats, in the driver’s seat of their kids’ education. That truly would be a revolutionary movement in the direction of student success.

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon program at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. Steve Buckstein is Cascade’s Senior Policy Analyst and Founder.

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TriMet Shows That Public Pension Reform Is Possible

By Scott Shepard and John A. Charles, Jr.

The Oregon Legislature is currently meeting, and the conventional wisdom is that reform of Oregon’s overly generous Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) is impossible. According to Governor Kate Brown, we signed contracts with public employee unions, a deal is a deal, and we should just quietly accept our fate that the massive cost of PERS will lead to layoffs and service cuts at schools and other service providers.

There is another way.

The Portland regional transit district, TriMet, is not part of PERS and has been slowly reforming its pension program since 2002. As a result, 100% of all new employees are now in 401(k)-style pensions that have no long-term liabilities for employers. These are referred to as “defined-contribution” (DC) pensions in which monthly payments are made by management into personal accounts owned by employees. Once those payments are made, the employer has no further financial obligations. The eventual pension payouts will be a function of the market performance of whatever investments are chosen by individual employees.

This stands in contrast to “defined benefit” (DB) programs like PERS in which employees are promised various levels of retirement payments calculated through arcane formulas that leave management mostly clueless about the level of funding obligation they’ve agreed to. In many cases, those liabilities turn out to be much larger than expected.

The advantages for taxpayers of moving public employees into DC pensions is now evident in the actuarial valuations done for TriMet. According to the most recent valuation, projected annual benefit payments for TriMet DB pensions will peak in 2034 at $74.6 million, and then steadily decline to $6 million in 2072. They will hit zero by the turn of the century.

This was not something that TriMet did casually. Management was forced into it because of decisions made a decade earlier that caused long-term retiree obligations to explode. TriMet Board members are appointed by the governor. In the early 1990s, Governor Barbara Roberts and TriMet General Manager Tom Walsh wanted public approval of a massive expansion of TriMet’s light rail empire and the tax funding to pay for it. They feared that controversy about a union contract could endanger public support.

In their efforts to avoid strife, in 1994 they granted expensive concessions to the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 (“the ATU”) on behalf of its represented employees. Loren L. Wyss, the long-serving president of TriMet, objected and his battle with Walsh became public. In back-channel communications with Gov. Roberts, Walsh made it clear that either he or Wyss needed to go. In August 1994, Wyss met with Gov. Roberts, where he submitted his resignation.

As later explained in The Oregonian,

“…the contract just approved by Tri-Met union employees will protect all its members from additional contributions to their pensions for 10 years. It will also guarantee 3 percent minimum wage increases in the future…every single dollar of health, welfare, dental and vision plans will be paid for by the public employer; [and] the retirement age will decline to 58 within 10 years….”

The die was set for cost escalation. In the decade from 1994 to 2004, salaries and wages increased 72 percent; annual pension costs went up 160 percent; and the cost of health care benefits rose 116 percent. These increases plus stagnant revenues in the latter half of the period resulted in a tripling of unfunded pension liabilities, from $38 million in 1993 to $112.4 million in 2002.

Fred Hansen followed Tom Walsh as General Manger; and he moved new, non-union hires into DC pensions after 2002. This was a first step towards fiscal sanity. Resistance from the ATU kept TriMet from moving its new unionized workers to DC plans for another decade, by which time a citizens’ committee of Portlanders had issued a report declaring TriMet “on the brink” of disaster.

During a protracted negotiation with the union in 2012, TriMet CFO Beth deHamel testified at a binding arbitration hearing,

“TriMet’s union defined benefit plan would be placed on critical status and under federal oversight if it were a private pension plan subject to ERISA.” She also stated that unless something was done to shore up the plan, “TriMet could be forced to default on its pension obligations or its other financial obligations in the future.”

Union leadership eventually agreed to move all new members to DC pensions by 2013, while protecting existing members from reform. As a result of this delay, the union workers’ DB fund remained only 59 percent funded in 2013.

Nevertheless, the trends were now moving in the right direction. The number of active employees still accruing DB pension benefits fell from 1,580 to 1,460 from 2016 to 2017 alone. In 2017 the unionized workers’ DB account reached nearly 80 percent funding, with unfunded liability falling by nearly $50 million in a single year.

Neil McFarlane was TriMet General Manager during that era. He commented recently, “The shift [to DC pensions] has been a success. TriMet is paying more than the required annual contribution every year right now” because the system is closed. “We will be fully funded within the next few years: five to ten for the union plan, fewer for the non-union.”

The DC plan to which TriMet moved new workers has been recognized as one of the best in the country. It features low costs, high returns, and a guaranteed employer contribution that is paid irrespective of employee matching contributions. As a DC plan it does not create open-ended, unpredictable public liabilities to be paid by generations as yet unborn.

TriMet has not fully banished the ghosts of unsustainable employee-benefit promises past. It still faces a massive and escalating unfunded liability driven by health care costs, known in accounting jargon as “other post-employment benefits,” or OPEB. The health care benefits that TriMet granted away in the 1994 contract debacle have been described as “universal health care into the afterlife.”

The description is only a minor exaggeration, as the plan offered TriMet’s unionized employees health care without premiums and with mere $5 co-pays, and benefits that ran not only throughout retirement, but to the employees’ spouses and dependents for fully 16 years after the employees’ deaths. Total unfunded liability for OPEBs reached an astonishing $769 million dollars in 2016.

Compare: State Paralysis on PERS 

TriMet’s pension reform efforts offer a valuable guide to the Oregon legislature on how to contain and reverse the spiraling PERS disaster. The unfunded liabilities for PERS have grown from $16 billion to more than $25 billion in less than ten years, even with the far-too-optimistic 7.2 percent assumed-savings rate (i.e., discount rate) in place. Were the rate adjusted down to its actuarially appropriate level, PERS’ unfunded liability would explode to $50 billion or more at a stroke.

Even at the current recognized rate, funding status has fallen below 70 percent, even while mandatory payments to PERS by government employers have passed 26 percent of payroll.

Municipalities are laying off workers, depleting public services, and raising fees in order to fund the present level of recognized PERS unfunded liabilities. Some reduction in pension benefits will have to happen, one way or another. All parties will benefit from an orderly effort to reform benefits while there is still time. 

The Way Forward

The state should follow the tracks laid by TriMet by moving its employees from DB to DC plans as soon as possible. As TriMet has demonstrated, this move will begin to stanch the fiscal wounds that have been inflicted by a generation of recklessly overgenerous pension benefit promises.

Unfortunately for everyone, PERS reform has been hamstrung for more than 20 years by a wayward state Supreme Court, which has thwarted previous attempts at thoughtful change with erroneous interpretations of the federal Contract Clause. The legislature will be obliged to make bigger changes than would have been required years ago. It will have to move all current workers, whenever they were hired, to DC plans for all work performed after the date of the effective legislation.

While this reform will be significant, it also will be deeply equitable. Right now, older workers are receiving higher benefits for each hour worked than ever will be available to younger workers. This isn’t fair, and it may violate civil rights laws: Younger workers are more diverse than their older peers, which means that benefit reductions that affect only new workers have a disparate impact on women and minorities.

The reform will also pass constitutional muster. As the Oregon Supreme Court finally recognized in its Moro decision, correcting its long-held error, the legislature may change any benefits for work not yet performed, even for current employees.

The Oregon Legislature can and must follow TriMet’s example. The sooner this is done, the less drastic any later steps will be. According to TriMet General Manager McFarlane, solving a pension crisis “doesn’t get any easier with passing time.”

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market research center. Scott Shepard is a lawyer and was a visiting law professor at Willamette University during 2016. This essay is a summary of a case study of TriMet’s pension reform written by Mr. Shepard for Cascade Policy Institute. The full report is available here. This essay was originally published in the February 2018 edition of the newsletter “Oregon Transformation: Ideas for Growth and Change,” a project of Third Century Solutions.

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Following in TriMet’s Tracks: Defined-Contribution Pensions a Necessary First Step to Oregon’s Fiscal Health

By Scott Shepard

Scott Shepard is a lawyer and was a visiting law professor at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon during 2016. He is the author of “A Lost Generation but Renewed Hope: Oregon’s Pension Crisis and the Road to Reform,” an academic study on Oregon state pensions published August 1, 2017 by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He is an Academic Advisor to Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market public policy research center.

Introduction 

As recently as 2012, TriMet faced a pension funding disaster. Indefensibly overgenerous pension benefits granted in the early 1990s threatened to bankrupt the public transit system and to cripple the Portland metro area. While TriMet still has difficult reform ahead of it (regarding its other post-employment benefits promises), it has achieved pension fund stability by replacing its unsustainable defined-benefit pension promises with a well-designed, defined-contribution retirement plan.

“Defined-contribution” (DC) pensions are retirement benefit plans in which monthly payments are made by management into personal accounts owned by employees. Once those payments are made, the employer has no further financial obligations. The eventual pension payouts will be a function of the market performance of whatever investments are chosen by individual employees.

This stands in contrast to “defined-benefit” (DB) programs like Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System (PERS). Under DB programs, employees are promised various levels of retirement payments calculated through arcane formulas that leave management mostly uninformed as to the level of funding obligation to which they have agreed. In many cases, those liabilities turn out to be much larger than expected. 

TriMet has brought its pension funding liabilities under control by moving its employees from defined-benefit plans to defined-contribution plans: first its management employees hired after 2002, then its unionized employees hired after 2012. The shift followed the lead of most private sector businesses, the federal government, and an increasing number of states. As a result of the change, TriMet’s pension obligations are moving steadily and reliably toward full funding within the near to medium term. This glide path to full funding is allowing the organization to focus on other vital personnel issues such as managing the cost of other post-employment benefits (“OPEBs,” which are primarily health care benefits for unionized workers) for current workers and retirees.

Oregon and its municipalities can only envy TriMet in this regard. The defined-benefit PERS funding costs continue to spiral out of control. These unbridled expenses are crushing local governments and school districts, forcing layoffs, hiring and wage freezes, bigger class sizes, reduced government services, and increased taxes. The failure to reform harms younger and more diverse workers at the expense of their older colleagues, and private-industry workers in favor of their government-employee neighbors. Taxpayers have said “enough,” voting 60-40 in 2016 against significant state tax hikes that inevitably would have been dedicated to helping to fund the PERS shortfall.

One necessary step toward addressing this problem is for the state of Oregon to follow in TriMet’s tracks, moving PERS workers from DB to DC plans. TriMet started down this road fully 15 years ago, while the state has dithered. Oregon must play catch-up by moving all PERS-covered workers to DC plans for work to be performed after the changeover.

This move by itself likely will not be enough to solve Oregon’s public pension crisis. The state has already promised more than it can reasonably pay. But moving to DC plans for all work not yet performed is a necessary first step. And the faster the legislature acts, the less severe—and the less upsetting to retirees and current and future employees—will be the other reforms required later.

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TriMet Needs a Broader Definition of Diversity

By John A. Charles, Jr.

TriMet has been recruiting a new General Manager for the past six months. At its January meeting, the Board announced the name of the leading contender and offered the public a chance to ask questions.

Before the questioning began, however, an executive search firm hired by TriMet summarized the recruiting process. Celia Kupersmith of KL2 Connects said that more than three dozen applications had been vetted, and a significant number of them were women or racial minorities. A black woman was one of three finalists.

However, the top applicant was Doug Kelsey, a white male currently employed by TriMet.

Many activists in the audience criticized the process. They complained that TriMet had proceeded too quickly and with not enough transparency. In particular, they were upset that virtually all applicants requested privacy in order to protect the jobs they already had. Soon thereafter, the TriMet Board announced that it would delay a final hiring decision while it reassessed its process.

Many of TriMet’s critics have a naïve view of the business world, and it shows in the self-contradictory nature of their demands. They want a deep pool of talent, rich with ethnic and gender diversity, but they also want a very public process. The two goals are mutually exclusive. Complete transparency means most qualified candidates will not apply.

They also have a narrow concept of “diversity.” Race and gender are just two attributes the Board should consider. What about intellectual diversity?

TriMet has been working off the same philosophical playbook for over 35 years. The focus has always been two-fold: (1) building a network of low-speed, low-capacity light rail lines; and (2) maintaining “labor peace” by agreeing to wage agreements that include expensive retiree benefits. That vision is looking very stale these days.

TriMet’s ridership is in a steady decline. It peaked in fiscal year 2012 and ridership has dropped in each of the last three years. Only 2.4% of total travel in the Portland region takes place on transit, making it irrelevant or even a nuisance to most taxpayers.

Light rail has lower ridership today than before the Orange line to Milwaukie was built. During FY 2017, boarding rides per-hour on MAX reached the lowest level since light rail opened in 1986.

TriMet’s financial position would be unsustainable were it not for massive and growing subsidies. During the past two decades, TriMet has promised so much to employees in the form of pensions and post-employment health care benefits that the agency now has unfunded liabilities of nearly $1 billion.

At the TriMet hearing in January, I asked Mr. Kelsey whether he saw any possibility that TriMet’s next light rail project—a multi-billion line to Bridgeport Village—might be canceled under his leadership, given the problems stated above. He responded that light rail was still a very important part of TriMet’s planning and he was not about to abandon it.

That answer concerned me because TriMet seems wedded to an outdated business model. Both in Portland and elsewhere, ridesharing companies such as Uber and Lyft are steadily eroding the market share of both regulated taxis and transit operators. This trend will only accelerate as autonomous vehicles become a reality.

Over the next 20 years, shared driverless cars likely will revolutionize the transit industry. Capital-intensive light rail and streetcar systems will face rising costs with declining ridership, creating a fiscal death spiral.

TriMet and its executive search consultants have done a commendable job of recruiting a diverse field of CEO candidates when measured by race and gender. What is lacking is a broader concept of “diversity” to include new ways of thinking about transit.

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 originally appeared in The Portland Tribune.

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Four Strikes and You’re Still Out: Oregon’s Ongoing Quest to Centralize Education Policy

By Steve Buckstein 

In 2015 Oregon state government killed off what should have been the last of three big education reform efforts since 1991. Each promised to solve the unsolvable: namely, figuring out how a one-size-fits-all public Kindergarten-through-high-school virtual monopoly system could educate all Oregon students and launch them onto a lifelong path of educational and career success.

First came the Education Act for the Twenty-First Century in 1991. With its Certificates of Initial and Advanced Mastery (CIM and CAM), it aimed to produce “the best educated citizens in the nation by the year 2000 and a work force equal to any in the world by the year 2010.” After it failed, the Quality Education Model arose in 1999 and is still limping along primarily to justify arguments for spending billions of additional taxpayer dollars to achieve the successes no such plan can deliver.

In 2012 Oregon made its third big reform effort. The Oregon Education Investment Board (OEIB), headed by its creator, Governor John Kitzhaber, promised to centralize education policy more than either of the two big reform efforts it followed. Kitzhaber concluded that those previous reforms simply didn’t control a broad enough swath of the education spectrum to work. Kindergarten through 12th grade simply wasn’t a grand enough vision. So, his OEIB effort sought to control everything from pre-Kindergarten through graduate school. But by 2015, “…the ease with which lawmakers…agreed to dismantle it reflects the widely shared view that the board did more wrong than right in its three-plus years of operation.…” This would have been the perfect time to adopt the “three strikes and you’re out” concept for Oregon’s education policy efforts.

The fatal flaw in all these reform efforts was that they relied on “smart” people centralizing control over educational policy and decision making. As I discussed in “Forced Participation: Public Education’s Fatal Flaw” and “The Oregon Education Investment Board: Top Down on Steroids,” centralizing control over education policy and forcing students to attend schools chosen for them by others are destined to fail because they fly in the face of one of America’s most cherished values: choice. Parents don’t appreciate politicians, bureaucrats, or experts making decisions for them about what is best for their children. Advise? Sure. Command? No way.

Today, rather than call a halt to this inevitable string of big reform failures, the Oregon legislature is embarking on what may turn into a fourth “impossible mission” to achieve student success in our public school system. Members of the Joint Committee on Student Success will spend this year traveling around the state asking everyone they meet what constitutes success in their communities. They will then return to the marble halls of the State Capitol and recommend that every school be mandated to do “what works” somewhere—of course, at a higher cost to taxpayers than they are paying today.

Rather than wait years to judge this latest big reform a failure, it is time to try another path: the school choice path. Of source, school choice is in conflict with the command-and-control efforts that are central to the big reform efforts Oregon has tried since 1991.

Instead, the school choice path allows students and their families to chose where and how they get the educational opportunities that our advanced society is now capable of providing. No longer would students be required to attend schools based on their ZIP codes. No longer would the tax dollars Oregonians pay to educate students be spent only in schools built by local governments and populated by public employees.

The school choice path recognizes that different children learn in different ways. They learn at different paces, too. And, they no longer need to be assigned to one brick building for years and years, only to be moved by the system into another building when they reach a certain age or grade level.

Today, most families, even low-income families, have the tools they need to explore the many educational options available for their children. They want to pick and choose from a wide assortment of options: from traditional neighborhood schools, to public charter schools, to private schools, to online learning, to home schooling.

The school choice path is being carved out in other states much faster than it is here in Oregon. The latest and most versatile school choice programs being enacted elsewhere are Education Savings Accounts. Unlike vouchers, which only let parents pay for private school tuition, ESA funds may also be used for other approved educational expenses, such as online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, and other customized learning services and materials.

Also, while voucher funds all go to private school tuition or are lost to the families, funds remaining in ESA accounts each year may be “rolled over” for use in subsequent years, even into college. This creates incentives for families to “shop” for the best educational experiences at the lowest cost, as well as incentives for schools and educational programs to price their services as low as possible.

On the school choice path, if a school fails students it doesn’t get more money, it gets less as students leave and take their allocated money with them to other schools. This is the path that finally will put students first.

Before Oregon’s fourth education reform strike inevitably fails and takes a further toll on students and taxpayers, let’s decide to take another path—the school choice path.

(This Commentary is an update of a 2012 Commentary, “Three Strikes and You’re Out: Replacing Top-Down Education Control with School Choice.”)

Steve Buckstein is Senior Policy Analyst and Founder of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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