But agency says maintenance is a priority

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Work is still in progress to the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail bridge, which will be named soon. (Photo taken on the Ross Island Bridge.) Early this year, TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane faced down accusations that poor maintenance was endangering public safety.

In February, Amalgamated Transit Union President Bruce Hansen issued a news release with photographs he said showed unsafe conditions on MAX trains and tracks, including a cracked rail and corroded switch boxes. In response, the Oregon Department of Transportation inspected the trains and tracks the next month. It issued a report saying there were no safety problems, and that only routine maintenance was required.

“The inspection supports the fact that our MAX system is safe,” McFarlane said after ODOT announced its conclusions. “Our skilled maintenance employees work hard every day to ensure that our system is maintained and operating as it should.”

But just last week, McFarlane abruptly announced he was reorganizing the agency to place a greater emphasis on maintenance. He created a new Maintenance Division for both buses and trains, moving all maintenance responsibilities out of the agency’s Operations Division.

The announcement came just a few weeks after routine repairs of the MAX tracks on the Steel Bridge damaged electric equipment buried in the deck, triggering systemwide delays. The reorganization had not been discussed at any recent meetings of the TriMet board, including the day-long retreat held last month.

McFarlane insists the new division was not created in response to a system breakdown or hidden crisis, however. He says it is intended to improve service to riders. TriMet will have 60 miles of rails to maintain when the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line opens in 2015. The oldest line between Portland and Gresham opened in 1986. It was extended through Beaverton to Hillsboro in 1998.

“We are growing the transit system at the same time we’re managing an aging system,” McFarlane said when he announced the reorganization. “This requires us to be even more focused on our vehicle and track system to deliver more reliable service to our riders.”

Hansen doesn’t buy it, however. He still believes TriMet has serious maintenance problems, despite the ODOT report. And he doesn’t believe creating a separate Maintenance Division will solve them.

“If you can’t solve them by communicating within the existing organization, changing it won’t help,” says Hansen.

Hansen also wonders why McFarlane announced the reorganization now, speculating it is related to the performance audit the Oregon secretary of state’s office is conducting of TriMet at the request of the 2013 Legislature.

“I think they’re feeling a lot of pressure,” Hansen says.

No crisis cover-up

TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch says there is nothing suspicious about the timing of the reorganization, however. Fetsch says it was recommended by Bob Nelson, who was hired as interim deputy general manager in July.

“One of Nelson’s assignments was to review the organization of the agency and make recommendations about how it can be improved. That took about four months,” Fetsch says.

Nor should anyone be surprised McFarlane is emphasizing maintenance, Fetsch says. She insists that maintaining aging infrastructure and equipment is a growing priority among transit agencies across the country.

The Steel Bridge is a critical link between westside and eastside rail lines. Nearly 560 MAX trains cross it every day, so even small problems can cause long delays throughout the entire system.

“Elevating maintenance to the executive level will give it the additional focus and attention it needs,” Fetsch says.

Money for maintenance

TriMet’s bus and rail maintenance budget is $109.5 million for the current fiscal year, an amount expected to increase by 3 percent next fiscal year. The agency already is planning to spend an addition $2.5 million on track and switch improvements in the next 18 months.

The Federal Transit Administration is increasing funding for maintenance through its State of Good Repair program. TriMet expects to receive

$6 million in such funding during the next two years, plus another $585,000 in federal grants during the next two and a half years to replace and improve signals, gate mechanisms and other electrical system.

“Maintenance is becoming a higher priority in transit agencies across the country,” Fetsch says.

Among other things, TriMet officials are starting to talk about making needed improvements to the Blue Line between Portland and Gresham, the first MAX line that went into service 30 years ago. A program called Renew the Blue will be rolled out in coming months.

The TriMet board also has approved an accelerated bus replacement program. Since McFarlane became general manager three years ago, the agency has purchased more than 215 replacement buses.

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