Transit official praises report; labor chief says results biased

The legislator behind the unprecedented state performance audit of TriMet doesn’t see any reason to panic over the future of the agency — yet.

State Rep. Chris Gorsek, D-Troutdale, says TriMet apparently has enough money now to restore some previous service cuts. And even though the audit found that preventative maintenance of the rail system had fallen off, the audit says TriMet is aware of the problem and is addressing it.

“It doesn’t look like the Legislature needs to step in during the 2014 session,” Gorsek said of the annual session that began Monday in Salem. “But if TriMet doesn’t make substantial progress on some of the issues raised in the audit this year, the Legislature may need to get involved in 2015.”

The audit released by the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office last week found numerous challenges facing the regional transit agency. Among other things, TriMet is confronting nearly $1 billion in unfunded employee health and pension costs, aging rail lines that only recently have become a top maintenance priority, and a communication breakdown with rank-and-file workers that makes resolution of ongoing problems difficult.

Gorsek says those issues, which have repeatedly made the news, were not the reason he asked the 2013 Oregon Legislature to pass a bill requiring the audit. Instead, Gorsek says he has a long and deep interest in TriMet operations. He grew up riding buses in East Multnomah County, starting with those run by TriMet’s predecessor, the Rose City Transit Company. After a stint in the Portland Police Bureau, he earned a doctorate in urban studies at Portland State University and now teaches at both PSU and Mt. Hood Community College, two schools with many students who depend on transit.

“Transit is so important to this region. It’s not only how so many people get around, it’s key to economic development opportunities,” Gorsek says.

As a former Troutdale city councilor and current first-term legislator, Gorsek says he has heard from many constituents who don’t think TriMet listens to its riders when making decisions.

TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane thinks the audit strengthens the agency’s hand in its current contract negotiations with Amalgamated Transit Union 757, the union representing most TriMet workers. The audit confirmed McFarlane’s repeated claims that ballooning employee benefit costs threaten TriMet’s financial future.

“The most serious and looming concerns are the health benefit costs of employees, and the $852 million unfunded liability to pay these benefits for current and future retirees, as well as their beneficiaries. TriMet also needs to fund an additional $274 million liability to pay retirees in its defined benefit plans, now closed to new hires,” the audit reads.

According to McFarlane, this shows why TriMet must reduce employee benefit costs going forward. Otherwise, the agency will face a large and growing funding gap within a few years.

“The audit is an independent, third-party evaluation that confirms what we’ve been saying. Some critics have said we’ve been misrepresenting the figures, but the audit backs us up,” Hansen says.

ATU 757 President Bruce Hansen disagrees, however. He accuses the auditors of simply parroting TriMet and blasts them for appearing to take sides in the contract negotiations.

“The fact that the auditors rendered opinions on bargaining proposals is extremely unsettling,” Bruce said in a prepared statement released last week. “Considering that we are in the midst of complex contract negotiations, the auditors’ one-sided approach, where TriMet’s bargaining positions are simply parroted, is neither helpful nor fair.”

In fact, the audit was released at a critical time in the contract negotiations. Dozens of face-to-face sessions have been held without the two sides reaching agreement. Monday marked the 150th day since the talks began. Under the state’s collective bargaining law, TriMet now can declare an impasse and request mediation to reach a final contract. ATU 757 is opposed to this, in part because the last time that happened a state-approved arbitrator imposed TriMet’s final contract on the union. ATU 757 is still appealing that ruling, but, in the meantime, that contract remains in place.

Hansen is upset by more than just the financial conclusions, however. He thinks the entire audit is biased in TriMet’s favor, despite the fact auditors interviewed many rank-and-file workers.

“When I finished reading the report, I felt pretty disheartened,” Hansen says. “The auditors just seem to be in lock-step with TriMet on every key issue. I’m not sure, at this point, how our members are going to feel. Many of them took a real risk in talking with auditors conducting workplace interviews. These folks are going to see that their voices have been completely ignored. In general, the message seems to be TriMet management is doing a terrific job, they just aren’t telling the workers about it.”

Like Gorsek, Hansen thinks the auditors were not given enough time to complete their assignment. He notes the audit itself says, “(Due) to the large scope of the request and the short time frame, we could not fully develop and verify our findings.”

This the second time Hansen has been disappointed by a state review of TriMet. In early 2013, the union released pictures and internal documents which, they said, show serious safety problems along MAX light-rail lines. However, the Oregon Department of Transportation followed up with an inspection that found “no concerns for public safety.”

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