A Streetcar Named Confusion

The blurred governance of Portland's streetcar system makes it hard to judge its success or failure.
December 18, 2014
By Charles Chieppo  |  Contributor
Principal of Chieppo Strategies and former policy director for Massachusetts’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance

"Good management requires good information," says Drummond Kahn, director of Portland, Ore.'s Audit Services Division. His agency's recent audit of the city's streetcar system demonstrates why a healthy democracy also relies on good information.

The audit found that 82 percent of the system's trips were on time, not 98 percent as Portland Streetcar had previously reported. It also found that estimated ridership, which the system's operators had previously pegged at 5.6 million for fiscal 2014, was actually more like 4.5 million (though the revised number still represents a 500,000-passenger increase over the previous year).

The on-time performance and ridership numbers were the headlines, but the audit dug deeper, calling the bureaucracy behind Portland's $251 million streetcar system "convoluted and confusing."

The Portland Bureau of Transportation owns, operates and is financially responsible for the system, which consists of two lines that that serve an area surrounding downtown Portland. But TriMet, the metropolitan area's transit agency, provides the operators and some administrative authority is given to Portland Streetcar, a nonprofit with its own governing board and executive director.

That kind of blurred governance translates into problems delivering accurate data, as evidenced by the on-time and ridership numbers. The audit found, for example, that the inflated ridership estimate was the result of some numbers being double-counted by TriMet.

But beyond problems with providing accurate statistics, the streetcars' governance system also makes it difficult to set goals. And without goals, it's impossible to judge the system's success or failure.

The audit found that Portland Streetcar has no safety benchmarks, and the picture is muddled when it comes to cost effectiveness. The Portland Bureau of Transportation claimed the streetcars met their efficiency target of $160 per vehicle operating hour, but has no documentation to back it up. Meanwhile, TriMet reported to the Federal Transit Administration that the system cost twice that much -- $323 per vehicle operating hour in 2012, the last year for which data are available. That compares to $142 for area bus service and $188 for rail.

The work of Portland's audit division clearly demonstrates that Portland Streetcar needs to sort out its governance and bureaucratic problems so it can establish appropriate benchmarks and provide reliable information to the public and the federal government.

Once that happens, the auditors can claim success. Then it's up to the public -- which provides the city parking revenue and pays the fares and the special property-tax assessment that fund the streetcar system -- to keep the pressure on to make sure that money is being spent efficiently.