Featured Stories

TriMet shouldnt leave public trust at the bus stop

TriMet released an eight-minute video showing the Sept. 29 incident where a TriMet operator kicked a mother off a Line 57 bus from Beaverton Transit Center because her baby was crying.

The community's trust in government agencies is hardly boosted when a public employee goes off the rails and starts berating customers and taxpayers.

But even when such inexcusable actions occur - as they did in late September on Line 57 with a TriMet bus driver - the real issue isn't the behavior of a single individual, but rather the public agency's reaction.

On that score, we agree with TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane that his agency could increase its credibility with the community by also increasing the speed and transparency of its response toward errant employees.

We realize this is tricky ground involving confidential personnel records and the need to comply with union processes. But we also think there's a path TriMet could take to ensure that the public clearly sees it dealing with problem employees, even while protecting their employment rights.

The incident in question occurred Sept. 29 in Hillsboro, when a driver scolded a passenger who had a crying child. When the driver told the woman she would have to take the toddler off the bus if the child would not stop crying, other passengers were so offended that they left the bus in protest one stop later.

The incident could be chalked up as a particularly bad day for the driver, if not for the fact that the same individual has a long history of similar complaints. A public records request by the Portland Tribune reveals 209 complaints have been lodged against this driver during her 10-year tenure. The driver has a pattern of being confrontational and disrespectful toward the public.

That's hardly the image TriMet hopes to project as it grapples with difficult and contentious issues. The transit agency is being forced to cut service, due to the struggling economy. At the same time, it is pursuing expansion of its light-rail system to Milwaukie - through communities that have mixed feelings about MAX's arrival.

Overall, we believe TriMet has been building public trust in the past few years as it dealt more directly with the matter of safety and transit-related crime. For example, we liked it when TriMet began playing classical music on the MAX platform at Northeast 162nd Avenue and East Burnside Street in Gresham, which had a soothing influence, resulting in fewer incidents of criminal behavior.

More recently, TriMet has allocated more money to the job of training its employees in customer service. However, it is operating in an environment where the public has lost faith in government agencies in general.

When it comes to addressing unacceptable behavior, TriMet's challenge is that very public acts - such as drivers being rude to passengers - often have been resolved in the privacy of a personnel file. McFarlane acknowledges that TriMet can enhance riders' trust by being more transparent and public in its actions. When people have legitimate complaints, they want to know exactly how those concerns are resolved.

TriMet was able to provide such openness in the case of the MAX driver who left the station after a child was separated from his father. The agency fired the driver and announced its decision. Similarly, when a bus driver accidentally killed two people - one of them a Gresham resident - in Old Town, the agency again fired the driver and announced its decision.

In this instance, however, an employee has been a serial offender of the agency's rules, but her discipline has been done in secret - until now.

We don't think this driver is at all representative of the more than 1,400 TriMet operators who interact with 330,000 riders on a daily basis. But one bad apple can sour an entire agency's image if complaints aren't dealt with directly and openly - and such swiftness is what we hope to see from TriMet as the agency learns from this case of the disagreeable driver.