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.

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