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Our Opinion: TriMet sets a new and better direction

“If you wait long enough you actually get some good news in the job.”

Those words from TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane reflect a growing optimism about the transit agency’s future as it considers actually expanding service in the 2014-15 fiscal year.

After several years of cutbacks and deferred maintenance on equipment, TriMet administrators now are proposing a $607 million budget that will begin to reverse those reductions. For TriMet riders, the better news is that this budget does not include a fare increase.

Since TriMet’s primary source of revenue is the payroll tax levied on businesses and agencies within the TriMet service area, the rosier financial picture can be directly attributed to the continuing economic recovery in and around Portland. This, combined with the agency’s efforts to control costs, have put TriMet in a position to increase and improve transit service.

In recent years, when TriMet eliminated bus lines, reduced service frequency on MAX, dropped the fare-free zone and increased fares elsewhere, it experienced exactly what anyone could have predicted — a decline in ridership. That trend is already stabilizing, however, and the proposed 2014-15 budget will allow for more frequent service and steady fares.

TriMet is correct to assume, as well, that fare revenues will rise due to increasing ridership. More service at the same price can only result in a greater number of customers.

With the new budget TriMet also is on track to purchase 90 new buses and, by 2016, have an average bus age of eight years. Beyond that, McFarlane’s proposed budget starts to answer some of the concerns raised by a recent secretary of state audit of TriMet’s operations. That audit criticized deferred MAX track maintenance, which is being addressed in this budget. The budget also allocates funding for manager training and positions intended to improve communications between management and union employees.

This latter area — the unsatisfactory relationship between management and union workers — has been a public concern and also was called out by the secretary of state’s audit.

TriMet administrators still must do a great deal of work to establish trust with the Amalgamated Transit Union 757, which represents most of the agency’s employees. It took a state-appointed arbitrator to impose the most recent contract after many months of unsuccessful negotiations. Now, mediation is set to begin on the next contract.

MacFarlane believes the current negotiations will go better than the previous ones because he thinks the two groups have established a common language. However, the proposed 2014-15 budget is predicated upon an agreement with the union to continue to curtail the expense of health benefits, and union leaders already are objecting to that assumption.

Rising payroll tax revenue generated by a growing private-sector economy will temporarily provide TriMet and its employees with a better financial foundation for future negotiations. But the economy always will have its ups and downs, which means TriMet still must control the upward trajectory of benefit costs for its workforce. True stability for TriMet will come only when both management and union leaders are able to work in collaboration to control costs, maintain service and plan effectively for the region’s transit needs. The independent performance audit of TriMet conducted by the Oregon secretary of state’s office confirmed that is the biggest challenge facing the agency.

TriMet has its share of critics — from within and without — but no one can seriously question whether the metro area’s economic future is directly tied to a functional mass transit system. For that reason, Portland area residents should be pleased that the proposed budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year offers expanded service, but they also should keep the pressure on TriMet administrators and union leaders to make sure the same level of service — or better — is available for decades to come.



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