Initial Reactions to the TriMet Audit

The State audit of TriMet and the agency response are now available.

There are no huge new revelations. But here are a few initial takeaways:

  • Underfunded liabilities for both pensions and health benefits are confirmed as a significant financial challenge for TriMet
  • Excess executive compensation is NOT identified as a source of financial strain, perhaps taking some wind out of one of ATU’s persistent claims
  • I was surprised by a couple of things:
    1. The poor state of tools and processes that allow management to communicate with employees
    2. Lack of a rigorous performance evaluation system for either union or non-union employees

13 responses to “Initial Reactions to the TriMet Audit”

  1. A little too convenient how it says that administrative people need more money, healthcare costs need to go down, cuts need to happen, etc. Kind of exactly what benefits TriMet right now.

  2. My suggestions for getting TriMet back on track (so to speak).
    1. Put all state funded employees (Payroll tax is a state tax) on PERS and on the Oregon Health Plan. Period! This would have to start with new hires. Public employee unions could negotiate for wages/salaries and working conditions, but no longer for pension and health benefits. These was be set by the elected state legislature.
    2. Put local jurisdictions on notice that bus service that costs more than $5 per ride would be subject to cancellation. Cities and counties would be given the opportunity to work with their residents and businesses to come up with the needed balance to keep service going. They could also come up with capital money to expand these services (buy more vehicles) much as the City of Portland has done with Streetcar. TriMet operates 33 bus lines with cost per ride from $5.25 up to $15.26, (WES is at $14.24, so I would include it); these lines haul relatively few people and are a huge drain on TriMet’s budget. Savings could be used to take more lines to Frequent Service status and start new crosstown lines.

    • 1. “Put all state funded employees (Payroll tax is a state tax) on PERS and on the Oregon Health Plan. Period! ”

      Put all state funded employees on 401k programs like the rest of the world.

      2. Put local jurisdictions on notice that bus service that costs more than $5 per ride would be subject to cancellation.

      Watch all the suburbs pull out from Trimet and Trimet becomes a Portland only transit agency. Run the numbers, I bet Trimet’s financial situation gets worse by not having the majority of the metro area paying into Trimet.

      • Even if the ‘burbs left, would it be the worst thing? As long as the ticketing and transit maps overlapped it seems like a balkanized transit system would still be ok. The busiest frequent service buslines are all in Portland. Perhaps we could have two regional transit agencies: one devoted to a goal of fast frequent high ridership and one devoted to providing wide coverage to people who need access transit.

        • If there was a uniform fare system, particularly one with transfer privileges, it might not be so bad, particularly if different agencies concentrated on their service boundary interfaces. (See this old post for discussion of that subject). In practice, what you often get is fiefdoms that don’t necessary play well together.

          One of the things that was mentioned in the audit–and this is something that Jarrett Walker often points out–is that TriMet doesn’t set forth any official policy as to how much of its service hours will be spent on “ridership” routes–routes that have a large potential customer base, and can be expected to lose less money (Portland isn’t big and dense enough for public transit to be a moneymaking operation, except possibly on a few lines), and how much will be spent on “coverage” routes, which exist for other reasons (providing lifeline service to disadvantage populations, providing or enhancing network effects for the core, justifying/maintaining the footprint of the taxing district, or keeping some powerful politician or special/interest happy).

    • Those bus routes may be less productive, but are just as needed by those who use them as are more productive ones. The real problem is that areas are developed in ways that are unfriendly to transit. They’re low-density, have poor pedestrian infrastructure and separated land uses. Those routes should be carrying more riders but because of that aren’t.

      • It can also be a lack of bus shelters, infrequent service, old buses (note how the suburban lines get the oldest buses), and questionable routing. If you make riding the bus a miserable experience, then it’s no wonder some of these lines are losing riders.


      Poorly made, I know (I’m not the best with photoediting, esp. on paint) but this is the hole left in the TriMet system after throwing away the “useless” routes that cost more than $5 a ride. That’s a ton of people deprived of their transit system.

  3. Actually Portland has a lot of service that is very expensive, not just the burbs; and the latter have plenty of healthy lines. The question is, if indeed TriMet is at risk, how do you share the costs of high cost local service? Portland uses parking meter money to cover its share of Streetcar operations; maybe Washington county could use a portion of their transportation property tax to support their high cost lines.
    If TriMet could share the burden of lines that cost over $5/ride, more resources could go into making lines like the 20, 35, 76/78, and 77 full Frequent Service lines, and create new cross town lines, especially to the south…CTC to Wash Sq via Sellwood Bridge.

  4. The headline in my transportation policy blog – if I had a transportation policy blog –
    Oregonian, ATU Condemn TriMet Audit
    Lacks Stuff That Oregonian, ATU Can Condemn TriMet For

    The audit gives J. Rose, the O’s Ed Board and the ATU exactly zero ammunition, so there’s that. But otherwise, it’s an inning’s worth of softballs. All of which cost resources of time and money to implement, and with it being far from certain that any improved outcomes (other than more process) will result from the added effort. While the audit is mildly critical or the agency’s processes, it did not present any evidence of the kind of faulty decisions, corruption and general-evil doing that TriMet’s been accused of. People have disagreed with the decisions, and loudly. That does not equate to flawed or corrupt results.

    It’s notable that the auditors mostly looked at rather gauzy notions of participation and transparency and no to hard measures. It would not mollify the loudest critics, but those with an open mind might benefit from information comparing TriMet to its peers in public transit. As of say 10 years ago, those metrics, like amount of service, cost of service and so on were among the best.

    Ok, I’m speeding off to an undisclosed location before that one poster we all enjoy so much lays into me.

  5. Excess executive compensation is NOT identified as a source of financial strain

    The I don’t think the audit really got into that; it seemed to lump executives together with lower general/administrative employees. And it’s not really the “financial strain”, as if executives were taking a large part of the budget, it’s more symbolic and about whether the compensation is deserved and how it has been set.

    Overall, as the audit said at the very beginning, “due to the large scope of the request and short timeframe, we could not fully develop and verify findings”. Instead of being an in-depth study, it was really only an overview of how things exist.

  6. If TriMet can get a decent deal on healthcare and pension costs, then there is no need to cut any service.
    But regardless, I’m not suggesting that low performance routes be dropped but that the cost over $5/ride be shared with local jurisdictions? Is that really asking too much?
    Is it OK to run bus service where every ride costs $6,7,…10 bucks a pop? Why not beef up better performing lines to FS status…you serve a lot more people that way. People can and do move closer to good transit.

    • FYI Lenny, Both Washington County and Willsonville do financially contribute to the operations of WES. I believe it ends in a few years though. It’s hard to tell how much it is since Trimet combines the Portland Streetcar, Washington Country and Willsonville contributions as a single line item in their budget.

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