My Advice to TriMet

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.


12 Responses to My Advice to TriMet

  1. al m
    April 5, 2012 at 7:11 am Link

    Pretty good…..

  2. al m
    April 5, 2012 at 7:24 am Link

    1 correction-you can’t leave with any sort of benefits after 10 years of service until you are 58!

    Propaganda Chris, it even influences you!

  3. Nick theoldurbanist
    April 5, 2012 at 7:55 am Link

    “1 correction-you can’t leave with any sort of benefits after 10 years of service until you are 58!”

    >>>> Still excessive; I worked in a union shop for 22 years, and had to have 20 years of service to retire with health benefits. When I retired at 55, I had to pay 50% of the group premium until 65.

  4. Chris Smith
    April 5, 2012 at 8:56 am Link

    I’ve heard different things on that point from different sources inside TriMet. I’d be delighted if someone could post the actual contract or benefits language on that.

  5. Max
    April 5, 2012 at 9:51 am Link

    Here’s the contract. I don’t have time to go through it, maybe someone else will —

  6. John Malloy
    April 5, 2012 at 10:03 am Link

    If one were to retire from Tri Met after ten years, that would men that they have about 7 years as a full time employee, as it takes ab average of 3 years to go full time. It also takes almost three years to get to top wage. So with that in mind, the pension is almost nothing it is calculated at $71, a month for every year at full time, and pro rated for the part time years, so we are looking at about $900.00 a month. Compare that the Fred Hanson after 10 years at $15,000 a month, plus health care.
    The issue that is never addressed is why bus drivers need health care, It is because it is one of the most stressful jobs anywhere. The fact of the matter is a very high percentage of transit workers die with in five years of retirement due to the heavy levels of stress. I would like to see Neil McFarlane go through the 6 weeks of training, and drive a bus for 6 months, working split shifts. It is not uncommon for a part time driver to go to work at 5:00 am and be done with their day at 5:30PM and still have to take a bus back to the garage to get to their car at 6:15 and drive home. For that they get paid for 6 hours. Commuting twice a day, adds to the gas bill as well. You cant do this job with out a reliable car. It is not like the drivers are asking for anything more than to just be able to survive.

  7. Nick
    April 5, 2012 at 10:42 am Link

    These are great ideas. I love the advisory committee idea.

    I’m also a HUGE opponent of putting the board of directors to a public vote. And while I wouldn’t be against Metro taking over TriMet (though not for it either), I think your proposal to shift the Metro council to voting control over the TriMet board makes a lot of sense. I think it’s a great way to compromise with the people who want us to vote in each TriMet board member. Great idea.

  8. Jason McHuff
    April 5, 2012 at 12:34 pm Link

    The appointment authority for TriMet’s board should be shifted to the regionally elected Metro president and council.

    Yes! And besides the issues of accountability, local control and the fact that the agency shares roughly the same boundary (with TriMet out if Sandy, Molalla and Canby, there would only need to be something done for Estacada, as well as for Wilsonville which is in the Metro boundary), remember that Metro already deals with transportation issues and is somewhat co-dependent with TriMet–Metro needs good transit to implement the 2040 and other concepts, and TriMet needs Metro to be supportive of transit.

    Also, I’ve been told that TriMet is looking into a rider’s advisory committee.

    And as for health care, I’d say realize that fixing it is beyond their control, and get together with other employers and labor groups and actually try to solve the problem. Specifically, argue for a system that divorces health care from employment and makes it not be a per-employee cost.

    Why not just give everyone who files a tax return showing a certain amount of income (or does community service work) access to the health insurance exchange, with the funding coming from the private and public money that is now being spent? And if they can’t get that, at least try joining up with other governments and trying some options.

  9. al m
    April 5, 2012 at 1:42 pm Link

    Still excessive; I worked in a union shop for 22 years, and had to have 20 years of service to retire with health benefits. When I retired at 55, I had to pay 50% of the group premium until 65.

    ~~~>What kind of work were you doing?
    Obviously the health care stuff is going to go bye bye , the world being the world and the jealousy that rules the hearts of men.

    It’s too bad that the race to the bottom cannot be stopped apparently.

    Americans say hello to GREECE!

  10. Lenny Anderson
    April 5, 2012 at 4:54 pm Link

    Excellent Chris, especially the Metro Council appointment of the TriMet board with a majority being transit riders.
    TriMet really listened to the CAC for the Interstate Lightrail project…several stations were relocated at our suggestion. For a number of years Fred used to met informally with a bunch of transit critics like myself (yes, I can be critical), Jim Howell and others, and he listened. I wonder why they never formalized that into an advisory committee. Just think how effective the Streetcar CAC that you led has been in making that project a better one. Its a no brainer.
    And of course, the transit union, needs to step up and share a bit of the pain. I would suggest they fashion a deal that produces enough money to put all FS lines back up to 15 minute frequency. As Jim Howell mentioned to me, that would create some jobs as well and the union could go to the community and say “we got your 15 minute headways back!” Riders would love the Ops!

  11. Chris Smith
    April 5, 2012 at 10:17 pm Link

    1 correction-you can’t leave with any sort of benefits after 10 years of service until you are 58!

    It looks to me like you can retire at 55, but you get a reduced pension?

  12. EngineerScotty
    April 6, 2012 at 2:52 pm Link

    WeAllRideTheBus gets their turn for an editorial in the Tribune

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