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TriMet challenges still remain after labor agreement approval

Future more certain as agency, union patch up differences

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF TRIMET - Opening the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line on time and withn budget is just one of many challenges still facing TriMet. New Type 5 trains have been ordered for it.TriMet says its new labor agreement resolves a potential fiscal crisis.

But that was only one of many challenges facing the regional transit agency, and the others must still be addressed.

“The labor agreement represents a sea change. It starts a new era of financial stability,” TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane says of the collective bargaining agreement approved by the agency’s board of directors and the members of Amalgamated Transit Union 757 last week.

The agreement, which was negotiated with the help of a state conciliator and a representative of the local union’s international organization, will reduce spiraling health care and retirement costs, helping TriMet to meet its obligations for many years to come.

The agreement also includes the first negotiated pay raises for the members of the agency’s largest union in many years, hopefully signaling an end to the bitter contract disputes of recent years.

“It puts us in the realm of normal labor-management relations, where we can negotiate raises and health care benefits every few years,” says McFarlane.

That does not mean all of the issues facing TriMet have been resolved, however. The agency is still grappling with problems caused by the Great Recession, which crimped revenues for several years. And it is facing an altered political landscape for pursuing future transit projects.

Ongoing challenges include:

• Finishing the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail project on time and within budget. The new $1.5 billion MAX line has been a lightning rod for controversy during the recession and labor disputes. TriMet needs to open it without cost overruns on Sept. 12, 2015, as promised.

• Potential future budget problems. TriMet received aproximately 15 percent of its budget from the federal government in the form of grant and other assistance. Congress has been unable to agree on a longterm transportation funding package for many years, however. Only a stopgap measure is keeping the Highway Trust Fund going, and it will expire in May, meaning the next Congress must act to continue it.

• Restoring service cut during the economic downtown. The agency has only recently begun adding back some of the service that was reduced to save money during the recession. The current budget adds more buses to the frequent service lines that were trimmed and increases the frequency of MAX runs. But service is still not completely back to previous levels, even though ridership is increasing as the economy improves.

• MAX repair and replacement projects. TriMet put off some expensive track work in recent years to save money. They include replacing a number of aging track switching mechanisms covered by pavement. Replacing some of the switches will cause delays in MAX service that must be covered by shuttle buses. Miscalculations have caused problems throughout the light rail system in the past, something TriMet hopes to avoid in the future.

• Service enhancements outside the downtown core. TriMet is working with cities surrounding Portland to better serve them. Housing and employment patterns have changed since the original bus and MAX lines were established. More people are living and working in cities once considered bedroom communities of Portland. To better meet their needed, TriMet is working on a number of Service Enhancement Plans that will require new lines and more money.

• The first bus rapid transit line. Metro, the regional government charged with transportation planning, is moving toward recommending a new form of transit. A steering committee has recommended significantly increased bus service between Portland and Gresham within the corridor that includes Powell Boulevard and Division Street. It could include dedicated lanes for buses, upgraded stations and even different types of buses — a combination called bus rapid transit, which TriMet has not tried. Metro is expected to hand the Powell-Division transit and development project to TriMet for final planning next March.

• Controversy surrounding the Southwest Corridor Plan. Metro is also studying a new high-capacity transit line in the corridor between Portland, Tigard and Tualatin. Voters in Tigard and Tualatin have approved ballot measures requiring public votes on any new MAX line, however, raising questions about whether that is a viable alternative. If not, bus rapid transit could be an option, or the project could stall, like the Portland Streetcar extension to Lake Oswego.

Despite the challenges, McFarlane says the new labor agreement puts TriMet in a better position to respond to them.

“There’s more certainty now that we will be able to pay all of our bills in the future,” says McFarlane.


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