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By Ian K. Kullgren January 15, 2011

Larson accuses TriMet of investing too much with the prospective returns being too little

Federal cash giveaways always get close attention from pundits and politicians -- and PolitiFact Oregon. More often than not, the funds that go toward research in the form of scientific and technological grants (and particularly odd-sounding grants) usually get labeled as wasteful spending. (Does anybody remember the great ant debate?)

Well, we’re on the case of another wasteful-spending accusation; this time radio personality Lars Larson is accusing TriMet of a particularly poor investment choice.

On Dec. 21, 2010, he sent out a mighty tweet proclaiming: "(T)he brain trust at Tri Met just announced they are spending 4.2 million in fed funds to save $168K per year."

To add a little insult to injury he also asked a question: "(C)an anyone down there do math?"

By our calculation, anyway, an investment of $4.2 million being paid back at $168,000 a year wouldn’t be cleared for some 25 years. That’s a ways off, to be sure, so we figured it was worth looking into whether TriMet was investing wisely "in these hard economic times."

First off, we needed a little context. What, exactly was this $4.2 million going to fund? We gave TriMet a call and Bekki Witt, the agency’s spokeswoman, e-mailed us a release.

Here’s how it starts out and where Larson gets his $4.2 million figure: "TriMet has received a $4.2 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to expand the use of regenerative braking on MAX trains. The grant will allow TriMet to install 20 energy storage units on light rail vehicles, capturing much of the energy generated by the trains’ braking systems and storing that energy for immediate and future use."

Sounds good. Now how about that $168,000 annual savings? Just read a little further: "The new units will release the stored energy to help power those trains as well as other trains on the system. The storage units, or energy capacitors, will capture and use nearly 100 percent of the power generated by braking trains, saving $168,000 a year in energy costs."

Based on those two paragraphs, it seems Larson is on to something. TriMet is spending more than $4 million to upgrade its regenerative braking systems so that they can store the saved energy. That energy adds up to a savings of about $168,000 annually.

But, as with most research, sometimes dollars are just the beginning when it comes to the returns. So, we gave Witt a call and asked her what she thought about Larson’s comments. The figures sound, right, we said. What gives?

First, she said, it’s important to understand the scope of the grant program from which TriMet received the funds. According to the FTA website, the program was created when "The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the federal stimulus) provided $100 million to be distributed as discretionary grants to public transit agencies for capital investments that will assist in reducing the energy consumption or greenhouse gas emissions of public transportation systems."

Witt elaborated: "TriMet is the first in the country to try this technology out. … We're kind of part of that research and development aspect of it."

As it stands now, TriMet does recoup some of the energy the trains create while braking, but that energy must be used almost immediately, either by the train itself or by a nearby train (the rescued energy can be transferred short distances). With this new technology, that saved energy can be stored and used for broader purposes, she said.

"It gives us that flexibility that we don't have right now," Witt said. "This is something we see as a valuable project that will pay off in the long term. it's kind of a pilot, if you will, to see how it might work for us and for other transit programs throughout the country."

When we contacted the Federal Transit Administration, the director and an engineer there echoed Witt’s remarks. "In time, we’re confident this regenerative braking will reduce transportation costs significantly around the country — while also reducing our dependence on oil,"  wrote administrator Peter Rogoff in an e-mail comment.

We wondered if any of this might convince Larson that the trade-off was not as stark as he initially believed. No, he said, it didn’t. TriMet’s press release was clear, $4.2 million to save $168,000 a year. "You don’t know what the value of research will be," Larson said.

It’s clear then, that there are two competing views here. Larson is looking at this grant in the Portland vacuum. TriMet and the Federal Transit Administration are looking at it in a broader, national context: TriMet is spending $4.2 million to refine technology that might, eventually, offer a significant return.

So what about the ruling? Well, it would be premature to offer up a figure for the return on research, just as Larson argued. That said, he certainly simplified the grant and the expenditure. To say it’s a simply case of spending ‘x’ to save ‘y’ seems somewhat disingenuous. As with most political statements, this one needs some context. We rate this claim Mostly True.

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Larson accuses TriMet of investing too much with the prospective returns being too little

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