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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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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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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