Governance Reform at TriMet: A Path to Democracy and Accountability

As a recent transplant from Seattle, I have been fascinated by all the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the Portland and Seattle regions’ transit agencies. Most of these differences have their pros and cons. One agency vs several agencies, tickets vs smartcards, payroll tax vs sales tax, these are all issues that can be vigorously debated one way or the other.

The one issue with TriMet that I find both shocking and indefensible is that its Board of Directors is an unelected body appointed by the Governor of Oregon. It is obviously undemocratic, as the Board has no accountability whatsoever to the people living in the TriMet district. This leads to a huge amount of distrust and animosity towards TriMet, since residents and communities have no clear way to lobby for policy changes. If the Board was appointed by a local elected official or elected body, then at least there would be someone who can be held accountable. Instead, the Governor of Oregon has direct control over who runs our local transit agency and has little incentive to consider local concerns.

My experience has been with the transit agencies in the Puget Sound region, which have very different governance structures. King Country Metro, which runs transit in Seattle and the rest of King County, is governed by the directly-elected district-based County Council. This very simple structure means that every resident in King County has one direct representative on the transit board. The other three transit agencies (Pierce Transit, Community Transit, and regional agency Sound Transit) have boards made up of elected officials from throughout their transit service areas. In this model, the board is not directly elected, but rather is made up of various elected officials from local governments in rough proportion to population.

Sound Transit is a regional transit agency covering multiple counties, so it could serve as an appropriate model for better governance at TriMet. The 18-member Sound Transit Board consists of 10 elected officials from King County, 4 from Pierce County, 3 from Snohomish County, and also includes the Secretary of the Washington DOT to provide a measure of state involvement. As you might guess, the numbers from each county are proportional to their population. The elected officials include 3 county executives, 5 mayors or deputy mayors, 5 city councilmembers, and 4 county councilmembers. Even though the board is not directly elected, the public does have broad representation and pretty much anyone in the Sound Transit service area is likely to have a representative on the board.

While living in Seattle I was an active member of the Capitol Hill Community Council. When folks in the Capitol Hill neighborhood came up with innovative plans for transit-oriented development around the light rail station currently under construction, it was easy to determine which Sound Transit board members to work with on these ideas. We identified 5 members of the board who represented Seattle in some way, and proceeded to meet with those members and their staff. This turned out to be a very productive system. It’s hard to imagine anything comparable happening in the Portland region. Residents and neighborhoods can certainly push for changes at TriMet, but without elected officials being involved there is not much incentive for them to listen.

It would probably not be a good idea to have a directly elected TriMet Board, as this could inject too much politics into service policies that shouldn’t be based on election promises. The indirectly elected Sound Transit model, however, would ensure that people have representation and accountability while insulating the Board from direct electoral pressures. Each member during elections would be judged by their entire performance as mayor or councilmember, rather than only by their work on the transit board. I believe this is the model that TriMet should move towards.

How can this happen? One option is for the directly-elected Metro regional government simply take over TriMet, which is allowed by state law. This would make a certain amount of sense, since Metro is already in charge of long-range land use and transportation planning. Why not also run the transit agency? On the other hand, having a directly elected board might politicize transit service decisions too much, and there may be issues with the fact that Metro borders and TriMet borders do not line up. Of course, rather than the Metro Council acting as the TriMet Board, they could appoint elected officials for the purpose along the Sound Transit model.

If Metro continues to decline that opportunity, the other option would be for the state legislature or a citizen initiative to enact governance reform directly. Either option would require a major campaign by voters to push for this change. Groups like OPAL that are understandably frustrated with the direction of TriMet policy in recent years would do well to focus on governance as a major barrier to change. Rather than simply asking for longer transfer times or more bus service, it may ultimately be more productive to push for a more democratic agency that will be much more likely to listen to our concerns.

34 responses to “Governance Reform at TriMet: A Path to Democracy and Accountability”

  1. A lot of people are extremely passionate about direct elections in TriMet, which I believe is a bad idea. I’m glad to see you don’t suggest we should directly elect their board. This is always one thing that transit critics will constantly point out – “we don’t elect them! They must be corrupt!” It is always disappointing to read about how even the Transit Rider’s Union (or whatever name they go by) wants to elect the board. Yeah right, like the average voter actually cares to get informed about TriMet issues. And don’t those who use transit the most and depend on it have among the lowest voter turnouts? It is a terrible idea, and it’s why we have a republic instead of a democracy. We can’t be electing every single public office.

    During my time down at Lane Transit District (the Eugene version of TriMet that works the same way), the board of directors was always glad they didn’t have to play politics. They all had genuine interest in transit and cared for their community. Many of them, however, knew little about transit. It isn’t exactly a lucrative position – and if you elect them, you should pay them. The proposal to unite TriMet and Metro as one organization, however, is a great idea. That being said, I doubt it will happen any time soon.

    In short, I agree with everything you said. Good work.

  2. I think that ALL taxing authority directors should be elected to that specific office. That means that the only criteria for being elected is to respond to the will of the people in operating that particular institution.

    Of course they should have to worry about the wrath of the electorate in every decision that they make. To do otherwise would be to ignore the will of the people. Pure representative democracy, just like the founding fathers set up.


  3. Wrong again, JK. The “founding fathers” set up a constitutional republic, not a pure representative democracy.

    Again, assuming your beliefs are facts is what makes the Tea Partiers look so stupid. If you’re going to constantly invoke the founding fathers and the Constitution, at least take a few minutes to learn what the founding fathers actually did and what the Constitution actually says.

  4. Can it honestly be said that TriMet’s Board all had a “genuine interest in transit” and that the Board “doesn’t play politics”?

    Every one of those Board Members played politics to get into the position – the Governor of Oregon doesn’t go around surveying those most directly impacted by transit issues and assigns them the job of TriMet Board Member. We have a restaurant owner out in Reedville – have you seen the bus stops near his restaurant? If he cared about transit, why are those transit stops so utterly pathetic that it makes Mexican bus service look appealing? A newspaper publisher who has received quite a bit of money promoting MAX lines – what has he done for the bus system?

    Each of those Board Members is on the TriMet Board precisely because of politics – namely, they donated to a Governor’s political campaign or otherwise assisted the Governor in some other fashion. POLITICS.

    They have no care or consideration for the workings of transit. For most of them, their only experience with transit are the V.I.P. rides given to local dignitaries when new rail lines open. And it’s that level of concern that goes straight down to the heart of the bus system – if the Board doesn’t care, neither does the GM, nor the managers, nor the mechanics, nor the drivers. And what do we have – a dysfunctional bus system that has one of America’s oldest, least reliable and fuel efficient, and most polluting bus fleets. Someone who cared about transit wouldn’t voluntarily say “we’re not going to buy new buses for five years so we can build a rail line.”

    Metro is no better. Just look at the voting turnout for the TriMet measure versus any Metro race.

    Portlanders (and by that I mean the region, not the city) do care about transit. Putting the Board up to a public election (since TriMet is a distinct level of government – unlike King County Metro where the county runs the transit system) makes sense on many levels. Today, TriMet is a government that has no checks and balances from the public who must pay for the actions of TriMet’s Board and employees, and never was that any intent of the form of government we have. No, it isn’t a direct democracy. But it is a representative democracy – and TriMet doesn’t even meet that criteria.

  5. I think the simple thing to do is have Metro take over Tri-Met. The elected Metro Council could set overall transit policy and funding issues (like adjusting the payroll tax or possibly finding a new revenue source), while appointing actual transit experts to operate Tri-Met and implement the council’s policy decisions.

  6. Here is what the lovable Joe Rose says about this post:

    This morning, Portland Transport discusses possible ways to make the TriMet board more accountable to readers while not making it too political. Yes, it’s pretty wonkish. Still, a good read.

    Attaboy Joe, toe your corporate masters line, we wouldn’t want any pesky actual oversight into Trimet operations would we?

  7. The system Zef describes is also in place for the C-Tran board in Clark County, which consists of city council members and county commissioners.

    As a reporter, my observation was this led to somewhat stronger and more diverse opinions among board members, probably a bit less policy expertise by board members, and in general an organization that seemed slightly less staff-driven than TriMet.

  8. There is no ‘governance’ by our board!

    They are all political appointees, ‘favor’s’ that the governor awards to people that he likes!

    What does that have to do with actual people in the Portland Metro area?

    Not a damn thing!

    If an organization is going to pretend to serve the public then it has to have some sort of way the public can influence its governing structure.

    Trimet was set up with the exact opposite intention.

    They didn’t want the public to have any say in its operation.

    Go watch those board meetings. You will hear Rick Van Beverin (the latest chairman of the board) say in regards to public comment:

    “our charter does not require us to have a public comments period, but we are doing it anyway”.

    In other words, the overlords who created this place were trying to keep the public out of it.

    Good way to run a business maybe, hell of a way to run a “public” service agency don’t ya think?

  9. Metro taking over would be an act of obstructing any change at all.
    The Metro Council is already identical to the TriMet board and management.

    The other approach above appeared to be identical to JPACT whic is already identical to TriMet and Metro.

    Metro can’t take over control of the payrol tax from the legislature and if they did they would make things much worse.

    Look what they have done to the federal Flex Funds and Construction Excise Tax.

    IMO the whole opt-in charade is an attempt to fabricate consensus for a regional tax.

    All of TriMet, Metro, JPACT & many other officials and agencies are dominated by entrenched activists who Portland Transport regulars think are doing all the right things.

    If any of the regime et al wanted democracy or better governance they would advocate for public votes on some major issues and projects.

    For starters votes on Light Rail and Metro’s 2040 density plans for the region’s communities.

    But they know the outcome would topple the status quo so they prefer to obstruct and prohibit any democracy by public votes.

    As an excuse they parrot is that anyone can run for Metro etc. as if the current tyrannical cabal that gangs up against any challenger doesn’t exist.

    The only point of any change in the TriMet board would be to change what they are doing. Not putting lipstick on the process.


    There are rules against this:
    “assuming your beliefs are facts is what makes the Tea Partiers look so stupid.”

  10. Metro has already made it clear that it has absolutely no use or consideration for the region’s bus service – or for its riders. Metro is nothing more than a mouthpiece for area developers and dreamers.

    I’d accept Metro taking over TriMet – if there were ironclad guarantees to the bus system – including ironclad guarantees of immediate AND future reinvestment in the system, but Metro which already holds the pursestrings has shortchanged bus replacements and bus stop upgrades from the various funds Metro manages. Maybe…just maybe…the idea of a regional bus system just doesn’t make sense anymore, and the bus system should revert to each city in the region. Of course, Metro would have to resign itself to the fact that now every city is going to apply for matching funds from Metro to replace buses, and Metro would be forced to comply with it because a city that wasn’t awarded a million dollars to replace a handful of buses (to maintain current transit service levels for existing taxpayers and citizens) in favor of another city receiving $100 million for a developer-oriented rail project wouldn’t go unnoticed.

  11. Steve, how exactly is the Metro Council “identical” to the TriMet board? The Metro Council is elected and the TriMet board is not. Even if you feel like they are made up of the same sort of people, at least with Metro voters can decide to not re-elect them. If Metro is doing a really terrible job, new people will be elected to run it. That is the essence of representative democracy.

    Right now TriMet is in the position of being a transit agency with an unusually large amount of authority (for example, most transit agencies can’t borrow against future operating revenues without a public vote), but also an unusually small amount of public accountability. I would rather have an accountable board than go in the direction of public votes for everything. The bus measure last year, for example, would have been easy for an elected board to support, because it was the right thing to do and there would be time for the public to see that over time. Direct elections can easily play on people’s fear and misconceptions.

  12. Well, Since Steve thinks Metro and Trimet are full of the same people, they must be doing a pretty good job of appointing the right type of people…

    Either way, I tend to agree, it would be better for Trimet if they had an elected board.

  13. Erik, you make good points about the issues inherent in regional bus service. I may write a post on this in the future. The short version is that it is hard to operate a regional bus service because the basic geometry of local transit guarantees that the highest ridership and farebox recovery will be in the most dense areas, which are usually in the city and not in the suburbs. Thus we have the vote last year on bus replacement, where Multnomah sensibly voted for it, while the other 2 counties sensibly voted against it. The suburban areas simply don’t gain as much from good bus service. We really need some kind of local-option tax that could be used to supplement bus service in areas that need it. Many cities use a parking tax to fund added transit service, with the added benefit of encouraging more people to actually use that transit service.

  14. Has no one considered Portland Streetcar, Inc.?

    It treats TriMet as a private checking account for federal and local funds.

    It can preempt public right-of-way.

    It adheres to no known standards for alignment of tracks.

    It is governed by a self-perpetuating oligarchy.

    It allows no public oversight of its activities.

    TriMet is an open book by comparison.

  15. Jim, this statement is just patently false:

    “It allows no public oversight of its activities.”

    Portland Streetcar, Inc. is a contractor to the City and makes no significant decisions (alignments, contracts, fares, etc.) that are not ultimately voted on by the elected members of City Council.

    Which elected officials play that role for TriMet?

  16. zefwagner,

    Of course the Metro Council is identical to the TriMet board. Being elected or appointed has meant nothing.

    It’s pure fantasy to think Metro doing a really terrible job would result in new people being elected to run it.

    Their history debunks that entirely. The Metro district boundaries and gang like tactics make any authentic representative democracy effectively impossible.

    Metro would be better disbanded entirely or limited to Multnomah County and TriMet better broken up into a few smaller agencies, some privately run.

    Your notion that the TriMet levy was best left to their own board is a hoot. By the way the measure did not include the word bus.

    It was not the right thing to do and voters got it right.

    Of course most of you think Metro and Trimet are full of the same people doing a pretty good job.

    That’s a problem and underscores the biases that keep you silent as costs soar, TriMet borrows millions more against their operating revenue and the both of them force their agenda on the neighboring communities without votes.

    Ya’ll must feel that is “the right thing to do and there will be time for the public to see that over time”

    and opposition and resistance is foolish “people’s fear and misconceptions”.

    I suspect you would all support more Light Rail no matter what it costs or how much bus service was cannibalized. If PMLR were $300

    or $400 millions per mile dat OK? No matter where the money is raided from?

    That is what Barbur will cost.

    Chris Smith,
    Do you honestly think the Portland City council provides oversight simply by listening to staff and voting to approve everything?

    Yeah that’s some due diligence. Accept everyting staff reports and vote to adopt the staff reccomendations.

  17. Steve, you kind of seem to regard any process/voting/form of government that doesn’t result in TriMet being seriously throttled as inherently flawed while the ones that would as clearly the right way to go, without going much deeper than that.

  18. When you look at transportation policy in this region it is evident that Metro along with JPACT sets that policy. TriMet, despite its independent board, is really just carrying out these policies for which,BTW, their is very broad concensus in the region’s elected officials.
    Note that WES was really pushed by Washington County, not TriMet; Portland Streetcar is a child of that City and its neighborhood associations. Since the 70’s the construction of a light rail network has been accepted by almost every elected official. I’m not sure the Seattle area with four different transit agencies is the model for better regional transit.

  19. Steve S:
    There are rules against this:
    “assuming your beliefs are facts is what makes the Tea Partiers look so stupid.”

    Thank you, Steve, but I’m well aware of the rules of this site. As far as I know, nobody on this site claims to be a tea partier (unless you’re telling us otherwise?). And even if they (you?) are, saying somebody simply appears stupid is not the same as calling them stupid outright. Yes, it’s a gray area, but I stand by my remarks. People who ignore demonstrable facts because their beliefs won’t allow critical thinking do, in fact, appear stupid. Maybe ill-informed would be a more PC way of saying that? Anyway, if you take offense to that, then that says a lot more about you than you realize.

  20. Aaron, my experience is that anytime you assign attributes to a group based on a label, you’re not helping drive a healthy policy discussion. It would be better to avoid it.



  21. I have attended board meetings of almost every governmental entity, elected or appointed, in this region over forty years of citizen activism.

    Portland Streetcar, Inc., neither elected nor appointed, is the only one I have been shut out of. You, yourself, told me I could not attend, Chris, because it is private.

    Indirect supervision, say by City Council, is not enough, Chris. Neither is a “Citizen Advisory Board.” I want to look you guys in the face as you are deciding how to spend millions of public money. Some of it is mine.

  22. It might be worth thinking about why some positions are elected and some appointed. Elections give power and independence. Serving at the will of voters means you don’t serve at the pleasure of anyone else. Does giving Trimet complete independence from other municipal governments make sense? I don’t think so. I’d rather see it subordinated to Metro.

    To the criticism that Metro and the Portland City Council are dominated by special interests, isn’t that how democracy works? If you don’t like what they’re doing organize and make yourself heard. There is going to be as much turnover on the PDX council as there has ever been. Candidates are looking for ways to distinguish themselves. Why not tell them how?

  23. Ideally, there would be a “Metro County” that would combine Metro, TriMet, the portions of the three counties, etc. so everything would be run by one agency. Though having independent agencies focused on specific functions can be beneficial, too.

    Having a Metro-appointed board is an option that’s feasible. It would not introduce the cost and effort of elections (for positions which are unpaid and may not be a stepping stone to another office), and Metro already deals with transportation issues.

  24. When you look at transportation policy in this region it is evident that Metro along with JPACT sets that policy. TriMet, despite its independent board, is really just carrying out these policies for which

    That’s akin to Washington setting the policies, and Oregon following it. Or Beaverton setting the policies and Portland holding themselves to it.

    TriMet and Metro are distinct governments. They are not subservient to one another. It is not a parent-child relationship. (TriMet could be argued to be a child to the State of Oregon, however, the same as the state-county relationship. But Metro has an independent charter.)

    TriMet should not be following Metro policy out of convenience or any other reason. TriMet is not Metro. TriMet is it’s own organization.

  25. Ideally, there would be a “Metro County” that would combine Metro, TriMet, the portions of the three counties, etc. so everything would be run by one agency

    That would actually require a significant vote, because it would replace Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas Counties with a super-county (one that, by the way, would consist of close to half of Oregon’s entire population), PLUS it would require residents that are within the counties but outside of either Metro or TriMet’s districts (which are not identical) to approve going in the district.

    Remember that several cities (all within Clackamas County) have already voted out of TriMet – what makes one think that they would actually want to rejoin TriMet and throw away the good transit system they’ve built up – with lower tax rates, and return to the days of TriMet provided service (a piss-poor single rush-hour bus route)?

    Multnomah County would likely like the idea – since it’s clear to them that the two other counties generate more tax revenue than they need. But the other two counties aren’t stupid either – folks in Washington/Clackamas Counties aren’t happy to be subsidizing Multnomah County’s excesses and boondoggles. Such a change would not only require voter approval – but would easily go down in flames. (But, it’d pass in Multnomah County, so it must be a good idea and then efforts would be made to try and make the change without voter approval.)

  26. Aaron Hall Says: Wrong again, JK. The “founding fathers” set up a constitutional republic, not a pure representative democracy.
    JK: Wrong again. Yeah, I suggest YOU take a few minutes to learn….”:
    The United States relies on representative democracy, but its system of government is much more complex than that. It is not a simple representative democracy, but a constitutional republic in which majority rule is tempered.” (Bold added, from: )

    Aaron Hall Says: Again, assuming your beliefs are facts is what makes the Tea Partiers look so stupid.
    JK: You are the one “assuming your beliefs are facts”. BTW, why did you introduce the Tea Party into this? Do you have something against ending government waste?

    Aaron Hall Says: If you’re going to constantly invoke the founding fathers and the Constitution, at least take a few minutes to learn what the founding fathers actually did and what the Constitution actually says.
    JK: Good advice. Please follow it.


  27. Although I’m at a loss of where I found it, I want to say that I think there’s a law in Washington State that transit boards in the state must be comprised of elected officials.

    It isn’t exactly a lucrative position – and if you elect them, you should pay them.
    The Portland Public Schools Board is elected but unpaid. If there’s concern candidates spending would spend big bucks, maybe there’s a way of requiring all candidates to limit contributions to a reasonable amount (like less than $300).

    As I mentioned in another thread, several Metro positions are up for election in May 2011 (depending on where you live within the Metro district), if people feel transit is an issue they should ask candidates every chance they have if they support Metro’s takeover of TriMet. If they don’t like the answers, they should consider running for the position themselves.

  28. JK: WOW!! Do you really NOT understand the difference between “relies on” and “is”. You even quoted the link I gave you and still don’t see the part that says “It is not a simple representative democracy, but a constitutional republic in which majority rule is tempered.”

    What part of “NOT a simple representative democracy” don’t you understand?

    [personally directed comment removed]

  29. Aaron G

    You’re substituting my actual points with your concocted “you kind of seem”.

    The totality of evidence showqing widespread rejection of the TriMet/Metro agenda has never been more clear. Only through the racket like conniving and obstructing of public votes is the agenda still moving slightly forward.

    It is your side who views voting as an impediment. Any timie there is opportnity foir a clear cut vote on anyting related to the agdenda the racket gangs up to thwart it.

    That includes big donations from those making bank on action.

    Every recent vote that was allowed has turned against the agenda. The earlier defeats of light rail, the last TriMet Levy, Sellwood bridge/MLR fee scam, Metro’s Damascus comprehensive plan, Boring petition to escape TriMet, and soon the Urban Renewal schemes.

    The deliberate and conniving obstruction of public votes on the LO streetcar, MLR & CRC/Light Rail shows who is anit-voter.

    It is your side who is conspiring to avoid any public measurement of TriMet or Metro’s plans.

    Sure anyone can file to run for a position. But they’ll thave to take on the whole racket that runs everything.
    Just like the Clackamas County citizens are having to take on the whole gang Tom Hughes called out to defeat them.

    Hughes warned that this voting is a problem that could spread and become a bigger problem.

    Of course it is. It would mean the end to what Metro seeks to impose.


    No one is more pandering than you. WES’s biggest (and really only) force through the entire planning & public involvement process was TriMet.

    Your revisionist story telling is a hoot.

    The web is full of proof like this of TriMet’s dominating role.

    ” It’s amazing when you think that this has been 10 years in the making,” said Mary Fetsch, TriMet spokeswoman. “We’re really excited.”

    Joe Walsh, TriMet’s project manager who shepherded the rail line through the federal application and funding maze, breathed a sigh of relief that the work was about to begin.”

    I attended one of TriMet’s/Walsh’s PSU sessions. Is was a fantasyland presentation of fabrications which reality has shown to be the case. .

    Your preference for the racket over voters is quite evident.


    Had I used your exact language disparaging railvolution lunatics instead of stupid tea party people would have been removed.

    Anyone seeking sound and sustainable fiscal policies in pretty much a tea party type. However there is no actual party or memebership. So JK, myself, John Chalres and others are obviously among tea party types.

    And your excuse doesn’t wash. I’ve said before some here appear stupid only to be admonished.

    You’re is a gray area?

    As for your tripe about “people who ignore demonstrable facts because their beliefs won’t allow critical thinking do, in fact, appear stupid” —look in the mirror and bone up on how MLR is to be funded. Or any number of educational elements of these boondoggles you support. .

    I took zero offense from your remarks so you got that wrong too.

    I was pointing out the hypocrisy of PT. Which you also missed.

  30. Steve:

    First of all, I haven’t said one word about MLR’s funding. You’re confusing me with somebody else.

    Second, for somebody who took no offense, why so defensive?

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