A Market-Based Solution to the MAX Security Crisis

and John A. Charles, Jr.

In the last few months, long-standing concerns about safety on TriMet’s light rail system have rapidly evolved into a full-blown crisis. Gresham and Hillsboro police predicted since the beginning that MAX would become a magnet for crime, and those predictions have come true.

Last Wednesday, The Oregonian reported yet another crime allegedly committed at a Gresham MAX platform on Christmas Eve. The assault became public when the victim, a transit-dependent single mother, spoke out to warn other women “that they need to be careful” and to demand that TriMet and local officials do a better job of protecting riders.

While TriMet general manager Fred Hansen recently has agreed to several necessary reforms, including reductions of fareless square and the pilot testing of turnstiles at one Gresham station, a much better solution so far has been ignored: allowing competition to TriMet so that consumers have real choices in transit service.

This may strike some people as unrealistic. The conventional wisdom is that transit service is inherently unprofitable, so it must be run by a government monopoly. But the conventional wisdom is wrong. We know that transit can be profitable because we have a track record of it right here in the Rose City. More than 360 privately operated automobiles served Portland as flexible quasi-public transportation between 1914 and 1917. The usual fare per ride was five cents, or a “jitney,” as it was called then — hence their name.

The freedom of jitney operators from streetcar tracks and governmental franchise restrictions gave them greater flexibility in destinations than the street railways that served as mainstream public transit in those days. Jitneys acted as buses, taxicabs and delivery vehicles, efficiently filling service gaps.

Jitneys came to Portland in 1914 in the midst of a depression which brought 20% unemployment in its wake. Since there was open entry into the jitney business, many unemployed people were able to start new transit services simply by using something they already owned — a car. Jitneys were owned and operated mainly by the poor working class.

Most of us have never had direct contact with jitney service, but according to Milwaukie resident John Gray, whose uncle ran a jitney business from 1915 to 1918 in Portland, jitneys mainly served hard-working blue-collar lumberyard workers. He says, “Jitneys were popular because they were fast, flexible, inexpensive and ran long hours.”

Jitneys also offered stiff competition to the Portland Railway Light and Power Company’s monopoly on public transportation by providing faster and more flexible service to passengers. The Oregonian supported the street railway monopoly and considered jitneys a “threat to an established business providing an essential community service.” Editorial writers neglected to mention that the jitney was a form of unsubsidized transportation directly responsive to popular demand.

The question of regulating jitneys came up continuously before Portland city commissioners between 1915 and 1917. Once jitney operators realized the huge degree of hostility they faced from the city Commission, most of them joined a union affiliated with the Central Labor Council. Eventually, jitney operation became a ballot issue, and jitneys were regulated out of business.

The real reason why jitneys were regulated out of existence in Portland, as in most other cities, was because they took passengers away from street railways. Regulators publicly proclaimed that regulations were intended to make jitneys “safer” to ride. Expensive license fees and liability bonds were imposed on jitney drivers, along with absurd rules of operation, ultimately making jitney operation infeasible.

If jitneys were once regulated out of business because of speculative safety concerns, next in line should be Portland’s light rail system which has quantifiable safety concerns. But little can be done through regulation because MAX is owned and operated by the regulators. As a government monopoly, the system has no accountability for safety, cost or any other measure of performance.

One way of making MAX accountable would be to deregulate the transit market to legalize all forms of competition, including jitneys. The modern version of jitneys could be small buses or vans carrying two or more passengers. Though they would have to follow some safety regulations and get proper insurance, they should not be subject to absurd laws like running 24-hour service or employing a minimum number of people.

Of course, few people would start up a jitney service when TriMet receives more than $210 million annual in payroll taxes to subsidize its operations. As long as that revenue stream is monopolized by TriMet, competitors would have difficulty competing for service. One way to jump-start competition would be to use a percentage of the payroll tax revenue (perhaps 25%) and convert the funds to transit vouchers, made available to the lowest-income riders. Such vouchers, as with food stamps, could be used for any qualifying transportation purchase, including bus, light rail, taxi, jitney or FlexCar. By making transit providers compete for the revenue, market discipline would force changes on everyone, including TriMet.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for TriMet alone to expand services to cover the new centers of business and employment developing around Portland. Jitneys are perfect for moving people inexpensively in these newly developing areas. Jitneys were popular when consumers were actually allowed to ride them. Getting the government out of the way would be a good start to bringing back this low-cost transit service.


Sreya Sarkar is Director of the Wheels to Wealth Project and John A. Charles, Jr. is President of Cascade Policy Institute, a think tank based in Portland, Oregon.

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Posted by at 06:00 | Posted in Measure 37 | 22 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Jerry

    This is a well-thought piece that once again proves that the private sector is the best solution when government monopolies run amok.

    Remember, one of the largest customers of Fed EX is the US postal service – because they can not compete even with their government-mandated monoply. Why? Because, just like TriMet, their is NO accountability whatsoever for anything.

    If these idiot politicians ever had to actually use TriMet on a regular basis you better believe things would change in a heartbeat. NONE of them ever do, however, so that is why the status quo will be maintained and why the light rail crime problems and cost overruns will never be solved or even addressed.

    What a mess!!!

    Total incompetence being rewarded each and every day. Keep up the good work.

  • Bob Clark

    I’m all for deregulating Portland and Oregon so as to empower people to be freer and more creative. However, don’t taxies, today, serve a role similar to the jitneys of yester century, and aren’t taxies fairly expensive for making routine trips to work and back? Excuse a digression, too, but why aren’t companies like Intel and Nike pressing for a westside bypass of central Portland? It would seem to offer opening up their available labor supply and make transporting freight a lot easier.

    • Richard Brown

      As for Taxis, it is the same government regulation that keeps Taxis from becoming competitive threat to trimet. For Nike and Intel the problem is Metro. Let us not forget the purpose of Max is not safe transportation but to fit a Social Engineering agenda: get us out of our private transportation and make us wards to the “transit oriented development ” state.
      In the end Nike and Intel would rather suck-up rather than to face the wrath of metro and it cohorts: 1000 statist of Oregon.

      • CRAWDUDE

        It is prudent for them to suck-up because of the subsidies and tax breaks the state gives them, but not otheer businesses.

    • Steve Buckstein

      Bob, as Richard points out below, taxis are heavily regulated. For 23 years Portland only allowed four taxi companies to operate in the city. Then Cascade Policy Institute and the Institute for Justice teamed up and presented compelling evidence that such a limitation was harmful to the very people the city said it was trying to protect by keeping the number of taxis down and the fares up.

      Unfortunately, the city only allowed two more companies to compete; far from a free market in transportation. Jitneys could be the next big step toward offering real choices to Portland’s citizens.

  • devietro

    Of course competition makes for better products and services, thats common knowledge and one of the many reasons why government likes to keep thier monopolies.

    Here is how I would fix the transit mess we are in.

    1. Allow competition

    2. Actually enforce fairs, Oregon law allows for very steep penalties for riding without a fair but they are rarely enforced and when they are enforced the penalties are not anywhere near the legal maximum.

    3. Eliminate fairless square, all its doing is allowing for transients, gang members and other nefarious characters free and open access to our city.

    4. Allow for heavily discounted (but not free) passes for people who fit a set of requirements. These requirements should include things like low income, clean criminal background for 5yrs and no recent history of substance abuse. This pass would be revocable by any law enforcement officer.

    5. Being that the amount of money collected from tri-met would increase sharply if measures were enforced adding more security to max will pay for itself.

  • CRAWDUDE

    It shouldn’t be called Fareless Square, it should be callede Downtown Elitist Square. The argument they make to keep it Fareless can be applied to every other area of the city / line too! That very fact makes it nufare to the rest of the tax paying, fare paying public.

    If getting rid of it from 7-7 will generate half a million dollars, imagine what its complete elimination will produce.

    • dean

      Just curious…does anyone have any actual, reliable crime statistics other than sensationalist medai reports that show that the MAX line has more crime on a per capita basis, correcting for income demographics, as compared with other arts of the city and region? For example, Rockwood is low income and high crime, so Rockwood area transit stops also have high crime, but what does the crime have to do with transit? If Rockwood had lots of car jackings would we want to ban cars?

      As for transit market competition, I’m agnostic on the idea, but wouldn’t jitneys simply “high grade” the busiest routes and times, thus skimming off customers and making public transit even worse economically? And if we “regulated’ them for safety, background checks, vehicle inspections, and so forth, wouldn’t that require a new bureaucracy?

      • CRAWDUDE

        My comment was about Fareless Square not the crime on the entirety of the MAX line. Though, the fact that TriMet didn’t report the 41 year old lady who was sexually assaulted on Christmas by an illegal alien………makes me wonder how many other crimes they don’t tabulate.

        People seem to get the Fareless Square issue and crime confused, Fareles Square should be eliminated because it is nolonger fair or equitable to have it. As I stated in my post the you responded to “The argument they make to keep it Fareless can be applied to every other area of the city / line too!”

        • dean

          I’ve always felt the whole system should be free of charge, meaning taxpayer supported. That would get the cars off the roads.

          • Patrick

            Sorry Dean, making transit free of charge would not get any more cars off the road. There are a number of reasons why so many of us own and drive a vehicle, rather than taking transit and it has nothing to do with the price. I mean think about it logically, cars are not cheap to own, operate or insure. Even with the fares, it is already much cheaper to take transit than drive. If cost was the main or only consideration why wouldn’t you use transit?

            I live in the Portland/Metro area where transit is obviously available, but given my type of work, my family structure, what I need to transport and where I need to go, taking transit, (whether free or even if you paid me to ride), is not a feasible option, safety concerns aside. I am going to take a wild stab in the dark here, but I would guess that there are a whole lot of other people out there with very similar situations.

            In fact as a business owner in the tri-county area, I help pay for Tri-Met every year in the form of my mandatory Tri-Met tax and yet I still don’t want anything to do with it. If given the choice to pay that tax or not, without question, I would choose not to pay. This is not because I don’t care about the environment or any other such nonsense, it is because after observing the cost to benefit ratio, it is not a wise investment of my, or any one else’s financial resources.

          • Jerry

            What Dean doesn’t understand is that the vast majority of people DO NOT LIKE riding public transit – PERIOD. It doesn’t matter if it is free, a bus, or a light rail.

            This clearly demonstates the depth of his misunderstanding of most people. He might like to ride it, but numbers don’t lie. MAX is a joke – and nothing anyone does will change that. You could pay people to ride it and the traffic will not be lessened one iota.

          • CRAWDUDE

            I doubt it would keep even 1 car off the road but that is a pipe dream I’ll let you liberals go on believing.

            I do however believe that it should be either free for everyone or free for no one, downtown elitists already get the mass majority of the urban renewal money, they don’t deserve a free ride too!

          • dean

            Interesting. Count the times people on this site have said we give too much to the poor so they don’t bother to work. But if we “give” transportation nobody will bother to use it? I find that hard to believe. Owning and operating a car is dang expensive and getting to be more so daily with $100 a barrel oil and going up. Yes, some of us live int eh wrong place or have dispersed business needs that preclude us from using transit, but many others could use transit but don’t.

            I think the reason we don’t make it free, 2 reasons are that if we did there would be too much use, meaning the system would have to be expanded, and then taxes raised to pay for the expansion. Second, many of us, myself included, are uncomfortable with anything being “free” because we know there is a cost.

  • Jerry

    Find it hard to believe, then, Dean, but it is true.

    Ridership would not increase if it was free. We know this because the fares are so seldom enforced it is like free now.

    I know cars cost money – but so what?? Why has traffic increased in every measurable study since light rail?? Can you answer me that?

    • dean

      Jerry…I can take a whack at that. First, Portland area traffic has increased because our population has increased a lot since light rail was built, and even though the proportion of people using transit has stayed the same or risen a bit, the number driving has increased. Take away transit and you will have a lot more cars on the road, like Houston, Atlanta, Phoenix, and other sprawly cities do.

      Enforcement is important for the small percent of people who are scofflaws, but since a large majority pays the fare, your thesis is flawed. People are mostly honest but not stupid. If something is free and available and convenient enough it will be used, especially as gas prices continue to rise.

      • Chris McMullen

        You need to rethink your whack, Dean. MAX has not, I repeat, has not reduced traffic on our freeways. When a MAX line goes in, Tri-Met cancels the bus routes near the line — forcing people to ride the train or drive. The lie Metro and Tri-Met sold us that MAX would somehow decrease traffic just bolsters the general populace’s mistrust in government. If MAX was so desirable (as they promised), ridership would be skyrocketing while auto trips would level or decline. The reverse is what’s true.

        Also, Houston, Atlanta and Phoenix are barely more ‘sprawly’ than Portland. AAMOF, they all rate about the same as far as people per square mile is concerned. I’d gladly trade that ridiculous train for their highways and economic vitality.

        • dean

          Chris…where did I say MAX reduced freeway traffic? I did say that if we made transit free we would get more cars off the roads. But even then, history says that empty roads soon refill with new cars.

          I have lived here 30 years and do not recall any promise that MAX or any other traffic investment would “reduce” traffic on local freeways. On the contrary, the original MAX line was built as an alternative to a *proposed* freeway that would have eliminated (by government condemnation) over 4000 homes in southeast Portland. And in addition to building MAX, ODOT widened the Banfield to 3 lanes in anticipation of increased traffic.

          Transit provides an alternative to driving. Some people are going to choose to drive. Others to use transit, others to bike, or to live within walking distance of daily needs. Freedom of choice is a good thing no? Why should everyone HAVE to drive? And before you answer that, consider that investing ONLY in roads means you are favoring cars (and buses) over every other means of getting around.

          Atlanta I think rates about the worst in the US for traffic AND air pollution other than LA.

          Your point on density is well taken. Portland is not very dense by national standards. You can trade by moving to one of those great sunbelt cities Chris. I’ll stay here with MAX, rain, liberals, microbrews, bike lanes…

  • Chris McMullen

    “Why should everyone HAVE to drive? And before you answer that, consider that investing ONLY in roads means you are favoring cars (and buses) over every other means of getting around…”

    That’s seriously one lame-brain statement, Dean-o. No one is ‘forced’ to drive. That’s what buses are for. Buses are flexible, light rail is completely inflexible. Roads accommodate cars, taxis, buses and pedestrians, light rail does not. How you can defend spending billions of local dollars (yes local, federal funds are local funds, Oregon gets back a federal dollar for every Oregon dollar we send to DC) is beyond all sense of logic and reason.

    You remind me of an evangelical Christian, Dean. All you do is defend your beloved government programs — no matter how wasteful or stupid. Just like a born-again — they defend their religion no matter how much evidence to the contrary.

    BTW, I’ve lived in Oregon 41 years. And I can’t stand to see this state with so much potential hobbled by liberal transplants such as yourself.

    • dean

      Chris…you cut me to the quick. An Evangelical Christian! What a dirty low down accusation! I feel so bad now I am going to weep.

      Was it liberal transplants who stopped the Mt Hood Freeway and opted for MAX or was it native son Neil Goldschmidt and a whole lot of others? BTW, that decision happened before I made my way west, so don’t blame moi. Should only native Oregonians get to vote here? Or is 40 years residence the new requirement? I mean..what is your point?

      And where in my posts above did I “defend spending billions” on light rail? For the record, I am an occasional light rail user, a bus shunner, and a streetcar skeptic.

      • CRAWDUDE

        Lol Dean, I view/use public transit inder the same formula as you.

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