Reporter Janie Har in the 8/19/09 Oregonian questioned an ordinance on the day's City Council agenda proposing to continue a program providing free bus passes for Office of Sustainable Development (OSD) City employees working at the Ecotrust building on NW 10th. I challenged the program myself last year, on my community-activist blog, here. After first reading the ordinance overview yesterday, I was concerned about the inequity of some City employees getting free bus passes, while others pay half price with the City picking up the other half. I talked with Ms. Har before her deadine at 3 p.m., but did not have time to research the issue fully until later Tuesday evening -- my usual period set aside to review the information my staff has compiled for me prior to Council meetings on Wednesday.
Now that I have both staff and access to inside information, I was able to find out that some of my assumptions last year were inaccurate. In fact, the City subsidy for passes for OSD employees is and was the same as for all City empolyees - $38/month. The "pilot project" which was renewed last year and up for renewal again today was in fact a TriMet subsidy of about $500/year, rather than a City of Portland subsidy. So I pay $37 per month for my pass, while the City pays $38 on my behalf, TriMet pays $0. An employee working at the Ecotrust building pays $0 for theirs, the City pays $38, TriMet pays about $40 (theirs is all-zone, my price is for 2-zone pass).
The TriMet subsidy is worksite-specific and based on demonstrating improved mode-split in the pilot period and every other year after. The Office of Sustainable Development was able to apply because the employees at the Ecotrust building were considered by TriMet to be a separate entity that could show trip-mode statistics (detailing how many employees drive, take transit, and walk) independent of the overall City employee pool. The TriMet program looks to me to be available to any employer and is not specific to public employers. So it is not a special benefit for government employees.
The Mayor's Office pulled the ordinance today, stating in Janie's article that employees are moving from their current location since the Office of Sustainable Development merged with the Bureau of Planning to form the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. If this happens, the parameters for the current program would no longer be met.
This case illustrates one of the problems with emergency ordinances for things that are not really emergencies. The expiration date of the current program has been known since last September, when the one year extension was granted. If the renewal ordinance had been put on the Regular Agenda in July, there would have been time for employees to apply for the regular subsidized pass before the sticker program expired, when the program was not renewed. Now, there will be a lag between expiration of this free-pass benefit, and employees being able to sign up for half-price monthly passes.
Some will still question why the City should subsidize employees' bus fares at all. My response is that City employment requires many employees to work downtown, and it is in the public interest to encourage all employees, public or private, to take transit to commute downtown. Before we improved the numbers of people using transit and bikes, and walking to get to work, our area was frequently out of compliance with Clean Air Standards. We can't afford the space or money to build more parking structures and roads to accommodate more drivers. We could choose to relocate more workers outside of downtown, but the current location is geographically central and therefore equally convenient or inconvenient for all. The co-location of many public and private employers downtown, with PSU and the working Willamette River, is good for our economy and good for synergy. For all these reasons, I support partial subsidy programs offered by public and private employers downtown.