Plenty of culprits could be blamed for the financial hardships TriMet is experiencing.

A slow economy and high unemployment for the past four years haven't provided any lift to TriMet's main source of revenue, the payroll tax. The agency also faces potential cuts in federal funds, and it struggles to pay for employee benefits that go so far beyond generous that they've become unsustainable.

These were some factors at play when the TriMet board recently adopted a $458 million operating budget that makes major changes to the transit system and its traditions. The Rail Free Zone in downtown Portland will cease for a variety of reasons. Fares will be increased throughout the TriMet system, and the obsolete fair zones will be eliminated. Some bus and MAX service will be trimmed, although TriMet has done a good job in this budget of preserving service while attempting to maximize revenue.

A future of cutbacks?

The process of closing a $12 million budget gap for TriMet's 2012-13 fiscal year was certainly difficult, but it also was a warning of what's to come if the transit agency doesn't rein in costs driven primarily by employment contracts. An even better indication of that future will arrive later this summer if an arbitrator decides in favor of the transit union and adds another $5 million in expense to this budget, thereby triggering more cost reductions.

TriMet is supposed to be one of Portland's treasures - a system that provides transportation to hundreds of thousands of people who otherwise would be jamming roads. That system, however, cannot be maintained unless TriMet begins to bend the upward curve in personnel costs toward a lower trajectory that's more supportable.

TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane has talked openly and often about the challenges of maintaining service and also sustaining promises made to employees. The TriMet health plan for unionized workers, for example, is one of the most munificent in the nation, costing more than $18,000 per employee each year - an expense that's growing. If the health plan isn't amended significantly, it will equal more than half of TriMet's underlying payroll tax revenue by the year 2020.

Reforms are mandatory

For TriMet to continue to exist, something has to give. TriMet administrators and union leaders must negotiate contract agreements in the future that give more consideration to riders and to communities served by transit. TriMet's employee union recently elected a new president - Bruce Hansen - replacing a longtime predecessor. We urge Hansen and TriMet's administration to strive for a more constructive relationship that takes the hard fiscal realities into full account.

TriMet also should push for reforms in the Legislature that will even the playing field between the union and the administration during negotiations. The current practice of binding arbitration takes away the union's right to strike, but it also has resulted in contracts that cannot be supported forever. Legislators in 2013 should, at the very least, change the binding arbitration law to allow the needs of transit users and communities to receive greater weight.

It's not as if the communities don't care. TriMet's just-completed budget process proved this by eliciting 16,000 comments from local residents and voluminous testimony at public hearings and meetings. Portland-area residents want to know their transit agency will be viable for the long term and capable of providing better - not diminishing - service. Such reassurance will come only if TriMet and its employees can agree to compensation and benefit packages capable of being supported by the fares and taxes already in place.

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