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News from GPCOG

Posted on: April 29, 2022

The Path Forward to Fund Our Regional Transit System

April 29, 2022

Dear PACTS Committee Members,

This morning, the Portland Press Herald ran a frontpage story: Planned bus fare holiday stalls over dispute among Portland-area transit agencies - Portland Press Herald.

The article states that PACTS has committed to a meeting to discuss the split letter. I’d like to clarify. Several transit operators asked to meet with staff to discuss outstanding concerns about the split letter. Any meeting about a decision that was made by the Policy Board needs to happen within the PACTS process and, of course, be publicly accessible. No meeting is scheduled at this point. To be clear, the officers have not agreed to a meeting to revisit the ARPA allocation decision made by the Policy Board.

The operators’ request reminded me of when I started with GPCOG six years ago. At that time, transit operators met in private meetings, divided the region’s transit funding amongst themselves, and then submitted this division of money for - essentially - a rubber-stamp approval by PACTS. For many years before this, and including a few years after I started in my job, the providers did this essentially without oversight or involvement from the region and without demonstrating results.

The outcome of this way of making decisions has produced today’s transit service. It performs poorly against comparable places, especially for bus riders. We have five separate bus facilities. We have duplicative routes. We have stops and transfers that aren’t coordinated.

I believe we are paying more but getting less.

About three years ago, the PACTS governing body recognized that this region deserves a 21st century transit system, not a siloed 20th century one. It realized that the broader community needs to play a bigger role in balancing the self-interest of agencies with the needs of the region, and that we must  invest in a more seamless experience for the region’s transit customers. PACTS embarked on a path to:

  • Be transparent. All meetings are now publicly noticed. Public transportation is discussed in depth at all levels of PACTS.
  • Be inclusive. PACTS added transit riders, employers, municipalities, and other stakeholders to committees.
  • Expect outcomes. PACTS has developed criteria for proposed transit investments, and vigorously scores proposed projects.

This is a much better way to make regional decisions. It also was embraced by our federal partners at FHWA and FTA through the MPO’s federal recertification.

We make better decisions when a diversity of perspectives and stakeholders are at the table. It’s true that transit agencies are the experts in operating transit. They can inform and explain. Indeed, it’s the role of experts to communicate with clarity, welcome the public into discussions, all while embracing different perspectives. We do the public a disservice if we use acronyms, insider-speak, or excessive detail. That language alienates people with an interest in the future of public transportation and discourages them from weighing in.

Transit operators used to make all the decisions about their own budgets, including where/how to spend the region’s federal funds. With this new way of doing things at PACTS, they no longer do. I understand why that is frustrating. That frustration has most recently been expressed in some transit operators withholding signatures from the standard split letter, but this acrimony is not new. Transit discussions at PACTS were and are notoriously contentious including pre-pandemic, when there was much less federal funding available for transit.

The newspaper article cited several transit operators criticizing the PACTS decision-making process. The process, which was approved unanimously last summer, is open, transparent, deliberative and based on data. The concerns raised in the article were all raised, heard and vetted in PACTS meetings. You can watch the RTAC meeting here (item starts at 20:02) and the Policy Board meeting here (item starts at 58:37). You can also review the staff report, which lays out all the decision milestones in the process.

The decision-making process for investing the ARPA funds worked. It was a split vote, which is never comfortable. But conflict is natural when there are transit operators with different interests seeking resources and when the table is expanded to include diverse stakeholders seeking a better transit future.

The way we decide things in a democracy is with a majority vote. But we have a hitch in our region. After the PACTS decision, each of the six “designated recipients” is asked to sign the split letter, which allows for federal transit funds to flow. Historically, this has been a formality. But, technically, if any one operator decides not to sign, the entire region’s funding is held up. Each individual transit operator has veto power over the entire region’s transit funding. This is broken. If just one operator is unwilling to compromise, the other agencies and the region are forced to negotiate against themselves to get to a unanimous decision.

Last year, the Executive Board asked staff to bring back a discussion in 2022 to explore possible changes to the region’s designated recipients. This hold up of the ARPA-funded transit service improvements is a good reminder of why we need to revisit this challenge. It will be a difficult discussion, but one that is perhaps unavoidable if we care about our region’s public transit system.

On the upside, however, with a PACTS process that is transparent, inclusive and outcomes-oriented, the region is making solid progress toward a strong network that serves the region’s customers and wisely uses taxpayer funds. Indeed, all seven regional transit operators are participating in the Transit Together study, which identifies opportunities for systemwide efficiencies, while reimagining and improving the network. This is a huge opportunity for our region.

After this morning’s article, we all still need to work with each other. Relationships are damaged, rocky, even distrustful. This has been the case since before I started at GPCOG. What to do? The transit providers have asked for regular monthly meetings of the Transit Task Force. These will be helpful in facilitating collaboration and communication between the providers on day-to-day issues, moving us toward a more seamless system for riders. As the director of GPCOG, I and our staff team, are committed to improving how we all collaborate as a region to build a transit-rich place that serves as many people as possible.

Onward,

Kristina Egan

Executive Director, GPCOG

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