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TriMet weighs budget options

Beset by money issues, agency looks to future


People who live and work in Washington County have a special reason to want TriMet to overcome its budget problems.

The regional transit agency has not significantly realigned its service in the county in nearly 20 years. But TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane admits residential and employment centers have greatly changed within the county over the past two decades, meaning TriMet is not adequately serving many residents and workers.

“The last time TriMet reviewed its service in Washington County was in 1994 or 1995, before the westside MAX line opened. There are pretty dramatically different residential and employment centers in the county now,” says McFarlane.

Knowing this, TriMet has launched a comprehensive review of its service in the county called the Westside Service Enhancement Plan. Working with local governments, community organizations, employers and business organizations, it has identified serious gaps in the service provided by the current bus and rail routes. The study has also identified where additional and new service will be needed to meet the demands of future growth.

But more than that, the study includes a number of preliminary recommendations for filling those gaps. They include more frequent and express service along certain routes, creating new routes to serve new and future residential and employment centers, and helping to provide so called last-mile options between transit stops, homes and work sites.

In Beaverton, enhancements could mean increased service to the Progress Ridge and South Cooper Mountain areas, where growth has exploded in recent years, despite the Great Recession. Among other things, TriMet is considering increasing service along Southwest 170th Avenue and better connecting Progress Ridge to the Tigard Transit Center.

There’s just one problem — money. McFarlane says TriMet cannot implement much of the plan at this time. In fact, the regional transit agency has been cutting service since 2009 to help balance its budget. The TriMet board of directors had to close a $12 million funding shortfall in the current budget. The $485 million operating budget McFarlane proposed on March 13 basically holds the line with no significant service increases or decreases.

A major issue is employee health care benefits. McFarlane says TriMet cannot continue paying its union employees what he calls “the most generous health care benefits in the country.” His proposed budget calls from the members and spouses of Amalgamated Transit Union 757 to pay more of their health care costs, a demand strongly opposed by the union. ATU 757 officials say TriMet should cut management salaries and stop new rail projects instead.

Although McFarlane says there are some small realignments TriMet can make within Washington County with its existing revenues, big changes cannot occur until the agency overcomes its long-term funding problems.

“We need partners to address our current and future needs, and one of them is our union,” says McFarlane.

From county to city

Twenty years ago, TriMet focused its bus service in Washington County on moving people from suburban communities into Portland. The major lines were east and west alignments connecting such cities as Forest Grove, Cornelius, Hillsboro and Beaverton to downtown. The westside MAX line that opened in 1998 reflected this service model. Officially known as the Blue Line, it runs from downtown to near the Hillsboro Civic Center, passing through the Oregon Zoo and Beaverton, with 32 stations along the way.

But much has changed in Washington County over the past two decades. Beaverton and Hillsboro have become large employment centers themselves, thanks to the growth of such companies as Intel and Nike. Some employment and housing developments have sprung up along the Blue Line, including the Hillsboro Civic Center, which is helping to spark a revival in the city’s historic downtown, and Orenco Station, which has become a national model for transit-oriented development. Even The Round at Beaverton Central, which has struggled financially for years, is showing signs of life thanks to the city’s commitment.

But much of the growth in Washington County has also occurred away from the Blue Line. For example, housing has exploded in the Bethany area north of Sunset Highway, far from the MAX line. A little farther to the north, enrollment has increased 50 percent at Portland Community College’s Rock Creek campus. Despite that, the area is only served by a two bus lines that have not changed much over the past 20 years.

And much of the future growth in Washington County is expected to take place away from the Blue Line or concentrated bus service. For example, development is already under way in the North Bethany area, where bus service is infrequent. The county is planning for large mixed-use development in the Amber Glen area where the new Kaiser Permanente hospital is scheduled to open. And a large mixed-use development is also being planned for an unincorporated area south of the Tualatin Valley Highway known as South Hillsboro. The city expects to annex the area once planning is complete.

TriMet knows it must change and increase service to meet the needs of these relatively new and future growth centers. One approach recommended by the plan is the addition of more north-south routes to better serve the growing number of people who live and work in the county.

This is now a more realistic option than ever before. Washington County and local governments, including Hillsboro, have invested heavily in a number of north-south connections in recent years. For example, additional lanes and other improvements have turned Brookwood Avenue/Parkway and most of Cornelius Pass Road into major transportation corridors.

Bus service needs grow

McFarlane says TriMet recognizes the changes that have occurred in Washington County and have worked to help accommodate them over the years. Improvements have included more frequent service along TV Highway and the creation of the Westside Express, TriMet’s first commuter rail line between Beaverton and Wilsonville. TriMet is also planning to reroute Line 47 later this year to provide better service from Intel’s Ronler Acres campus in Hillsboro through the heart of the Bethany area to PCC’s Rock Creek campus.

But McFarlane says major changes will require new revenue, which TriMet cannot expect to receive until the public believes the agency’s budget problems are under control.

“It is incumbent on us to prove we are providing the best possible return on the dollar,” McFarlane says.



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