Making Democracy Work

Mass Transit in Marion and Polk Counties--Part 2

Mike Jaffe on Regional Transportation Planning (2010)

Notes by Sally Hollemon

Mike Jaffe spoke to both Units in February 2010 on Regional Transportation Planning. Mr. Jaffe works for the Mid-Willamette Valley Council of Governments (MWVCOG) as Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) Program Manager. He focuses on the Salem-Keizer-Turner area.

Cities, counties, and states develop plans and programs to address transportation issues--traffic congestion, reliable bus service, access to bike lanes, efficient freight movement. MWVCOG (which covers Marion, Polk, and Yamhill Counties and to which most of the cities belong) allows local governments to work cooperatively on projects of regional scope.

SKATS--The Salem-Keizer Area Transportation Study (SKATS), with which Mr. Jaffe works, brings together elected representatives from Salem, Keizer, Turner, Marion and Polk Counties, the Salem Transit District, and ODOT. These elected representatives make the policy decisions.

Projects from local and statewide transportation plans are incorporated into a SKATS Regional Transportation Systems Plan. This long-range plan contains recommended projects (road and transit improvements, bicycle facilities, etc.) and activities to accommodate anticipated growth over the next 20 years. The plan is updated every four years. The SKATS Transportation Improvement Program identifies which high-priority projects from the plan will be funded or built during an upcoming four-year period. Projects are paid for with a combination of federal, state, and local funds. Mr. Jaffe said the SKATS "motto" is cooperative, continuing, coordinated regional planning.

Public involvement is important, so open houses where citizens can review proposed plans as well as speaking to groups, such as the League, allow citizens to have input.

Air quality--Our region is currently in compliance with ozone standards of federal air quality, but the EPA is setting more stringent standards on ozone, so new regulations may require additional efforts to reduce ozone emissions.

Mass transit--Under current state law, gas tax money cannot be used for mass transit; it can be used only for roads. SKATS can give transit districts money only for capital improvements, not for operations. Salem-Keizer cannot use payroll taxes for transit operations (as Portland and Eugene do), and approval by the state legislature is required before our area could use payroll taxes for transit operations. The Salem Transit District is trying to show that it is a good steward of the money it has before asking voters again for an operating levy (since the last two levy requests were defeated by voters). A long-term funding source is needed for mass transit.

Ride-Share--SKATS helps fund the local Ride-Share program. Probably this year there will be a statewide Ride-Share program. This would, for example, allow people from Salem to Ride-Share to Portland. Emergency Ride Home allows a transit rider who is called home for an emergency, such as a sick child, to take a taxi.

Safe Routes to School--This is a program to educate parents and children about safe routes to their school with crossing guards at key intersections and encouragement to walk in groups along busy streets. Some money is available to do road improvements to make the routes safer for children.

Federal Surface Transportation Funds--The SKATS MPO receives about $2.5 million each year that can be used on a variety of surface transportation projects. Projects are funded over several years and use a combination of normal federal funds, state funds, and local funds. The total cost of the following projects is many, many millions of dollars:

Highway/mobility--State Street widening; Kuebler widening; Wallace & Glen Creek intersection
Operations--Regional Traffic Signal Control Center; signal interconnects
Multi-modal and Safety--Cordon Road at McCleay; 3rd Street in Turner; Chemawa Road bike lanes, sidewalks, bridge; Auburn Road bike lanes and sidewalks; Ward Drive sidewalks and signals; Union-Glen Creek bike path; Salem Parkway/access to Kroc Center, especially from Keizer (a new study)

Federal funds can be used for bus purchases and bus shelters. There are some new funds available to improve bus shelters along busy corridors and to add electronic signs that tell how long before the next bus arrives.

Federal Stimulus Funds--SKATS received about $6 million in stimulus funds, and the majority of those funds were used for pavement restoration, although some funds were used for a signal replacement and design of a bike path in Wallace Marine Park.

For more information, check out the SKATS website at http://www.mwvcog.org/transportation/skats.asp.

Summary of Interviews

Members of the LWVMPC Transit Study Committee interviewed the following elected officials, civic leaders and business representatives about their views on Salem-Keizer's transit system and their expectations and hopes for the system of the future. The interviewee's views are summarized in the articles below.

Transit Study Committee members who served on the interview team for one or more interviews included Sandra Gangle, Janet Adkins, Kate Tarter, Tina Hansen, Bob Krebs and Britta Franz.

Anna Peterson--Mayor of Salem

Salem Mayor Anna Peterson stated that her goals for improving transportation in Salem include (not necessarily in this order) building a new Willamette River Crossing Bridge, completing the projects of the 2008 Streets and Bridges Bond (including sidewalk repair and ADA compliance), constructing a pedestrian/bicycling bridge from Riverfront Park to Minto-Brown Island, and going forward with the Bike and Walk Salem Plan. She believes the community needs to rally around projects that are happy, forward-thinking, collaborative, and that can be completed through a combination of funding sources.

Mayor Peterson acknowledged there is a heavy use of cars in Salem. People need to understand the value of public transit to the overall health, economic security and welfare of the community even if they don't use buses themselves. Transit is a regional service, important for getting people to work or school, recreation or shopping. Frequency and reliability of service is critical. She said many people depend on weekend bus service, especially low-income, seniors, youth and people with disabilities. Safe bus service leads to public acceptance and use, which saves money spent on gas and cars. Bus service can be important to business, as it reduces the need for parking, can help in recruiting employees for evening, night, and weekend shifts, and brings in customers.

Funding sources for public transit are limited; the Transit District needs a levy or legislative change to provide more funding for transit and to provide an alternative to the current total dependence on property tax. The first thing needed, to lay the groundwork for any funding change, is for the Transit District to collaborate with various interest groups; e.g., brown-bag discussions with leaders from across the community in order to design the most appropriate system and then to support its implementation. We need to think creatively to meet community needs and find ways to provide incentives for business support.

Salem is working on multi-modal planning, including good pedestrian and bicycle access to transit. Salem doesn't have a "bike-riding culture" as some other cities do, but bike riding is growing and we need to work on it. We also need to encourage carpools and vanpools, to reduce traffic congestion and facilitate easier access to work and recreation.

Dan Clem--Salem City Councilor and Chair of the Citizens Transit Task Force

Dan Clem, Salem City Councilor and chair of the Citizens Transit Task Force, concurs with the findings of the Community Transit Task Force on dealing with transit funding. Representatives of the business community, school district, Chemeketa Community College, State of Oregon, and Salem Hospital were at the table and were concerned about the effects of reduced service after the 2008 transit levy failed, especially on people who work 12-hour shifts or weekend jobs and students with late classes. Task Force members learned that large employers, as well as employees, could benefit from improved routes and schedules.

Transit use is increasing in spite of the cutbacks, especially with gas prices rising. Available funding options are insufficient to meet operating expenses. Cherry-Lift gets inadequate federal/state support. A payroll tax needs voter approval. There is mistrust about the need for passing a new tax base or increased operating levy. The public believes the Transit District should do the best it can with current resources. Better outreach by the District can build public support. If people could ride free for a week, they might change their inaccurate perceptions. Guest Opinions in local newspapers are needed. People misunderstand the Courthouse Square debacle and need to know that the financial responsibility is not solely a Transit District problem.

Clem believes other creative ideas should be considered, such as: (1) incentives for transit-friendly community development (Glen Creek NW is an example of an arterial with bus stops but no bus service.); (2) changing the model of circular routes; (3) providing more frequent coverage on some routes; (4) using small buses; (5) completing the high-priority transit corridor along Broadway and Salem Parkway; (6) building another bridge over the Willamette; and (7) implementing a streetcar between West Salem and Marion County.

Loyd Chapman--Past Member of Salem-Keizer Transit Board

Loyd Chapman, Past Member of Salem-Keizer Transit Board, believes the public wants frequency and accessibility of bus service. If broader and more convenient service is provided, more people will use it. Fifteen-minute service is best. We need better support from the business community to increase revenues. We need to "build bridges" that show how business interests can be served by better transit. If we provide passes for employers to give to their employees for a small annual charge, ridership will increase. We could add bus routes to industrial parks and improve mixed-use transit-friendly development at centers around our community. The District is already trying creative ideas, like more cross-town routes that don't have to go downtown.

Salem-Keizer Transit District is well run. It deserves better financial support. The property tax is a stable revenue source that could be supplemented with a small payroll tax. Representatives from Eugene and Portland have been able to get federal funding for larger transit projects. We do not currently have the "clout" in Congress to bring such resources to Salem. Our railroad bridge could be used for peak-hour or emergency transit; it's still possible because the barriers to vehicles at the ends of the bridge are movable.

Ray Burstedt--President of SEDCOR

Ray Burstedt, President of SEDCOR, served on the Community Task Force. He believes the public perception of transit is flawed. People don't feel that buses are safe, but they are safe. Also, he believes the District does a phenomenal job with the limited funding it has, but it is "maxed-out" and cannot expand services without additional funding sources. Seven-day on-time service with lots of routes is needed, but that goal can't be met with available dollars.

The business community is concerned about increasing its costs; if they have to pay more in taxes, they should gain some economic benefit in return. Large employers know the potential benefit of improved service with bus routes near their locations, but businesses would oppose a payroll tax. The best process would be to recruit more new businesses to the community and increase the property tax revenue, thereby "floating all boats" with rising revenue. Burstedt pointed out that U of O demographers predict an 18 percent population growth in this area over the next ten years. Coordinated planning is needed to improve transportation. West Salem needs additional service.

Streetcars would be a wonderful thing, but how to pay for them is the big question. They would be great people-movers, with buses bringing passengers to the main streetcar route on circular feeder routes through neighborhoods.

Jerry Thompson--Chair, Salem-Keizer Transit Board of Directors

Jerry Thompson said: Property tax revenue is essential for operating an efficient bus system. Thirty percent of the funds that pay for our Cherriots system come from property tax at 76 cents per thousand dollars of assessed value. The owner of an average single-family house pays about $140-150 per year. But that is not enough. We need double that amount to serve our transit-dependent riders adequately and to encourage "choice" riders (those who have automobiles but want to use buses occasionally) as well.

We need to convince the public that they are paying for other types of public services for transit-dependent people who cannot get to work because of the gaps in the schedule. Many jobs require employees to work on weekends and later in the evenings when there is no bus service available. Many students at Chemeketa do not drive cars but need to get to evening classes in order to meet requirements. We need to demonstrate also that all property owners will benefit from improved service in that there will be safer, less congested inner-city travel if fewer cars are on the road and more people are riding buses.

We need better support from the outlying communities for CARTS. The cigarette tax is illogical as a funding source and is probably a gradually decreasing source of money. Polk County helped the CARTS program financially a few years ago but then stopped. We also have lost the subsidies for student bus passes from state BETC funds and Willamette University. We will soon be looking at the need to increase fares. We would prefer to reduce the cost of monthly passes to accommodate riders. When we raise rates, ridership tends to decrease because some people cannot pay more.

We already use private contracted services for CARTS, Cherry-Lift and the Trip-Link Call Center. The cost is not any less than we pay Transit District employees for providing the same services. We have looked at Eugene's Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) as a possible model for implementation on high-use bus routes in Salem. There are practical issues, however, as few Salem streets have enough lanes to permit such a dedicated bus lane.

Streetcar implementation, which was recommended a few years ago, remains a viable option. The rail bridge from West Salem to downtown looks feasible as a streetcar route for bringing workers who reside in West Salem. It would reduce vehicle traffic on the Center and Marion bridges. A circular route around downtown would not attract high ridership. Such a route was tested by using a rented rubber-tired trolley a few times during First Wednesday programs and it was not very successful. Other routes would be preferable, especially those that would attract high ridership.

We need a ballot measure that will bring sufficient revenue to restore weekend and evening service. That is the highest priority. We need to include additional service to areas that need it because routes were reduced due to lack of funding + in South Salem and West Salem especially. When we lost the last tax levy request, we moved from a coverage model to a productivity model, meaning that we preserved the routes with highest ridership. But now we have lost many young riders (due to the loss of subsidies), so our overall ridership is down.

We need to be specific about what services will be added when we market our next ballot measure. If voters understand how their tax money will be spent and what the return will be on their investment, they are more likely to support a levy request.

Richard Schmid--Mid Willamette Valley Council of Governments

Richard Schmid began by explaining that the MWV-COG is a voluntary association of 41 local governments and districts in Marion, Polk, and Yamhill Counties who pay dues to support common planning functions. They staff the Salem-Keizer Area Transportation Study (SKATS), which is the region's Metropolitan Planning Organization for federal funding purposes. Their goal is an integrated "3C" (continuing, cooperative, and comprehensive) process.

Mr. Schmid believes the Salem-Keizer Transit District is trying to be sustainable with the limited funding available. Buses are currently routed where the highest number of riders, especially transit-dependent riders and downtown workers, are located. The challenge is to restore Saturday and late-evening service so that the needs of these riders will be more adequately met. Service should also be expanded to those who are not transit dependent through more frequent and convenient service.

He considers it unfortunate that separate funding "silos" and conditions on use of transportation funds severely limit local planning and spending choices. He also considers cigarette taxes an illogical and declining revenue source for elderly and disabled transit. The existing property tax is stable in the near term but is inadequate to allow reasonable expansion of the system. A payroll tax might make sense in combination with the property tax, but would be more dependent on a strong economy.

He said Oregon needs an effective intercity transit system. While the CARTS system is a beginning, it covers a limited area and is not part of a larger regional system. He also noted that the communities served by CARTS outside of Salem are not contributing through property taxes or other means.

Regarding streetcar feasibility, Mr. Schmid believes an analysis of which routes would work best is the wrong approach. He thinks, instead, policy makers should analyze transportation needs and determine the best solution for meeting them. He pointed out the advantages of streetcars: they are visible and attract riders; they provide reliability to businesses along each route because the tracks are not movable; and they can enhance property values. He also said it is imperative for the community to have a vision for the future. SKATS has a role in the process of visioning, but it is hard to get people involved.

Jason Brandt--President, Salem Area Chamber of Commerce

Jason Brandt said: The Chamber of Commerce understands that the Transit District has an important community role. It needs to get people from Point A to Point B, especially those who do not drive or have cars. The system must be efficient for those who need it, but for people with cars, it is difficult to compete with the convenience they enjoy. Also, there is a perception that the current system is not reliable or efficient. Many employers believe that employees cannot get to work by bus because of gaps in routing and scheduling.

The Salem Chamber is broad-based; its 1,240 members employ 30,000 workers collectively. Some are champions of transit while others place less importance on the service. The Chamber gave conditional support for the last transit levy. Many business owners were concerned about costs that were a result of federal mandates, such as the cost of Cherry-Lift service. Businesses in the community are concerned that property tax constriction may continue to occur in the next few years due to a challenging economy and that available revenue will be further reduced, leading to further cuts in service. They are opposed to a payroll tax.

Business people know that the transit system needs to be reliable. They don't typically use the transit system, so the focus of feedback tends to be on efficiency of routes based on occupancy and market demand. The Chamber is interested in a creative solution + one that is at the "outer edge" of the box but not "outside the box." A streetcar system could be a creative way to build ridership and increase revenue. Former Mayor Janet Taylor supported the streetcar idea. A good business model would need to be put together to make it workable. The business community would be interested in that conversation. If it pencils out and meets appropriate criteria (based on cost per rider and dollars returned on investment), that would create a strong model for support from a wide range of community interests, including the Chamber.

Cathy Clark--Keizer City Council V.P. & Chair of SKATS

Cathy Clark, designee of Mayor Lore Christopher to speak to the League on behalf of the City of Keizer, said: The City of Keizer's important transportation priorities are
  • To ensure high-quality maintenance of roads in order to avoid costly repairs later
  • To implement Keizer's 2009 Transportation Systems Plan including bike-pedestrian projects; sidewalk upgrades, especially in older neighborhoods; and full urban upgrade of Chemawa Road from River Road to Keizer Rapids Park
  • Eventually to construct a bridge over the Willamette River to Polk County

Keizer has a good partnership with Salem-Keizer Transit, but the City believes the District needs to find ways to improve services and public relations. The convenience of riders is not as good as it was in the past, and the public perception of bus safety is an uphill battle. Buses on Routes 9 and 19 are very full with commuters who work in Salem, but Keizer businesses generally do not value transit because most of their customers and employees arrive by car. Also, the loss of BETC funds has caused a problem for youth; Keizer and Salem Police want to see the youth engaged in activities but are aware that many cannot access the activities without bus passes.

It is unfortunate that most federal funds must be used for capital expenditures of the District, not for operations. This policy should be changed; the ADA is an unfunded federal mandate, yet its cost must be partially met with property tax revenue. The current economy and the Courthouse Square debacle make this a poor time to consider a new tax levy. The District should wait until after Courthouse Square is resolved. An effective public relations campaign is needed. We should "tell the story" of the benefits of public transit through fact-based examples. We should be specific about a list of projects that will be accomplished by whatever funds are sought + people like the approach of a "promise" or "contract" to do specific things with taxes. The school district and Chemeketa have been successful with tax levies through this approach.

Only one in seven Keizer residents works in Keizer; the rest work in Salem or elsewhere. For the future, we need to rethink the design and intensity of development and housing mix. We now have economic segregation in residential subdivisions. We need a new model of community that would allow multi-generational housing and easier commutes between residences and jobs. We should encourage walking as well as other forms of active transportation.

We need more direct bus routes to select destinations; the addition of routes #15 Keizer Station to Chemeketa and #18 east-west Keizer circulator have been good improvements. Consideration of a streetcar would require a community conversation. Meanwhile, a rubber-wheeled trolley for hire during special events or to circulate around Keizer Station is already available.