I was asked by the Portland Tribune to provide perspective on TriMet’s current situation, as were a number of other people and organizations in the community and they all run in today’s paper on the opinion page. Here’s what I shared (the title I submitted was “Four prescriptions for a sustainable TriMet”):
TriMet finds itself in a very challenging budget situation. While there may be some debate around which of many painful choices are required to balance the budget, there is no painless way out in this moment.
But we, TriMet’s community, should not miss the opportunity to learn from the current situation and make some long-term changes to avoid being in this situation again.
Here are four ideas to make TriMet more resilient:
- Balance capital construction with stable operating capacity — The Regional Transportation Plan has several aspirations for transit, all worthy: "Expand high-capacity transit, expand frequent service transit, improve local service transit, support expanded commuter rail."
Recently we have expanded high-capacity transit and commuter rail at the expense of frequent and local service. We may not have intended it, but we are failing in our aspirations because we overcommitted operating revenue based on forecasts that were not accurate.
It may be true that the Great Recession could not have been predicted, but TriMet was already depleted in 2008. As a region, we need to pace the construction of transit capital projects and maintain adequate operating reserves for a prudent range of economic assumptions. As keeper of the Regional Transportation Plan, Metro must exercise oversight of TriMet’s long-term finance plan to assure that we can meet our goals for all parts of the transit network.
- Reach a sustainable labor agreement — TriMet and ATU must negotiate a labor agreement that is fair to employees with competitive wages and benefits yet which does not diminish the ability to operate the transit system. The current agreement, which allows someone to join the agency at 45, then retire at 55 with lifetime health care, threatens to turn TriMet into a health care provider rather than a transit service.
Both entities negotiated to this state of affairs, and they need to work together to resolve it. If they cannot, then the community, and if necessary the Legislature, must be ready to assist them.
- Provide accountable governance — TriMet board members, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, have little accountability to citizens in their service district. This has fostered distance and distrust during tough decisions. The appointment authority for TriMet’s board should be shifted to the regionally elected Metro president and council. This is a less radical step than asking Metro to exercise its authority to take over TriMet.
And while we’re at it, let’s increase the requirement that only one member of the board be a regular transit rider to place that qualification on a majority of the board members.
- Give riders a seat at the table — TriMet has advisory committees for its budget, for accessible transit and for all its major capital projects, but does not have a general-purpose advisory committee for users of its system. TriMet should institute a standing rider advisory committee and populate it with independent voices from its user community.
TriMet must have an ongoing dialogue with its riders. This will foster a healthier discussion when hard choices need to be made.
If our community can implement these common sense reforms, TriMet can continue its legacy as one of the nation’s best transit systems.