Metro mulls question of TriMet takeover

The question of whether or not Metro should take over TriMet has come up again, with state Rep. Chris Gorsek (D-Troutdale) sponsors HB3316, which would mandate that Metro exercise its authority to do exactly that.

Metro councilors expressed a lack of interest and doing so, and have expressed an opinion that a Metro takeover of TriMet would not fundamentally address the issues facing the agency, with Tom Hughes calling the idea a “solution that doesn’t solve the problem”.

TriMet critics such as OPAL’s Jonathan Ostar disagree, stating that the current board is not responsive enough, particularly to the needs of the transit-dependent.

This is an issue which has come up several times before. With Tiffany Schweizer’s impending departure (her term expires at the end of June, and she is prohibited by term limits from any further service on the board), and another vacancy on the board waiting to be filled, there will be soon two openings for Governor Kitzhaber to fill.

The interesting questions, of course, are as follows:

  • What should the board do differently? Some have advocated replacing the current GM; others would require him to pursue different policies.
  • How would a change in the appointment structure of the board, cause the board to do those things differently?

Both questions are important.

In the past several years, Portland Transit has taken looks at the TriMet board. The former post is woefully out-of-date as to the personnel (the current board roster is here), but still is accurate with regard to the legal requirements.

What could a new board do differently?

While I’m frequently critical of TriMet and of its management–and of Metro President Hughes–Hughes is correct in that many things that constrain TriMet would do so no matter who occupy the board seats. While some of TriMet’s wounds have been recently self-inflicted, many are based on decisions made years ago, which TriMet cannot easily undo. Even if you think that the past eight years of rail projects (everything after the Yellow Line) were a bad idea, TriMet is more or less stuck with them; a new board would not likely be able to, without outside help, mothball WES, for instance.

A new management might adopt a different mix of tactical measures than the current one–such as a different fare structure, a different allocation of service, or further cuts to administrative functions.

One other possibility would be a dismantling of TriMet’s capital projects infrastructure–essentially, a layoff of the bulk of the capital projects division. Most (but not all) work that is done by capital projects is funded by grants and other constrained sources, and some of the work that is done would be necessary even in a transit agency that only provided local bus service and existing rail; but there might be some operational benefits to not doing capital projects. On the other hand, if you are of the view that most of TriMet’s capital projects (or at least the recent ones) are pork-laden boondoggles, or represent an unacceptable diversion of service from the transit-dependent to those who have alternative modes of transportation (including driving), salting this particular earth might be an attractive option.

The bottom line, of course, is what should TriMet’s overall mission be? Comprehensive transit service throughout the metro area? Quality transit service in the urbanized parts (but skeletal service to sprawl)? Service that focuses on the poor? Reductions in driving? Environmental outcomes, such as reduction in greenhouse gasses or overall energy consumption? Land-use outcomes? Is TriMet’s fundamental purpose to be a social service agency, a transit agency, or a green agency? Much of the arguments over what its proper course of action seem to stem from unspoken disagreements over this.

How would a new board be certain to implement policies that are desirable?

Much of the criticism of the current board centers around the fact that it was a) appointed by a mainstream, pro-business Democratic governor (and confirmed by a like-minded Senate), who doesn’t necessarily share the values and goals of either the political right, or of many on the left; and b) it is stuffed with business leaders and other “model citizen” types–folks who have demonstrated skills in things like management, law, or finance (and can be counted on not to pee on the carpet), but who may lack understanding of, or empathy with, communities that TriMet is charged with serving–particularly underprivileged riders. Many who advocate changing how the board is selected, do so out of a desire to alter the board’s composition.

The advice “be careful what you wish for”, arguably applies here–especially for TriMet’s critics on the left.

A Metro Council takeover is the easiest means to imagine happening–the current Council’s reluctance notwithstanding. Metro already has the legal right to do so. However, the Metro Council, after all, has a similar overall political lean as does the governor’s office. Tom Hughes is (much like Kitzhaber) a pro-business Democrat who is not afraid to give the environmental community the back of his hand. Metro does have more ardent liberals like Bob Stacey on board, but it’s political center of gravity is well within the Democratic Party mainstream, and more in tune with elite politics than the populist variety. (I’m actually surprised that no Tea Partiers have managed to get elected to the Metro council, particularly from the suburban districts–sooner or later, I expect AFP or similar groups to bankroll an insurgent run for the council–particularly in District 2). And keep in mind–many of the controversial decisions that TriMet gets blamed for were actually driven by Metro and the various municipal governments.

Depending on how district boundaries were drawn, a directly-elected TriMet board would likely have a similar composition as the Metro Council–and could potentially be gerrymandered to be dominated by the suburbs; the TriMet service district has a population of 1.5 million, but the city of Portland is only around 500k.

Other arrangements that I’ve seen proposed are likely unconstitutional. One such proposal is a board elected by pass-holders, but excluding those from participation who don’t use the system. While this would undoubtedly produce a rider-friendly board, it also undoubtedly flies in the face of the one-man-one-vote principle. If TriMet were private (or quasi-private), it might have greater freedom on how its governance is structured, but going that route would deprive the agency of the plenary powers of government–most notably taxation; an agency that still depended on elected officials for revenue could not be truly independent of them.

One other possibility might be legal restrictions on who may serve on the board–other boards and commissions that the governor appoints may have restrictions on composition. (The Oregon Transportation Commission, who oversees ODOT, is required to be politically and geographically diverse, for instance). Legislating requiring that some number of TriMet board members be transit users (or even carless), or have professional expertise in transit planning or related fields, could be introduced. (Personally, I wouldn’t mind a ban on anyone involved in real estate from being on the board, but that’s not going to happen, and likely not legal). For a long time, the board traditionally had a labor representative, a tradition broken only recently when Lynn Lehrbach of the Teamsters was replaced with a nominee with no union background.

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