Today's announcement that Fred Hansen, general manager of TriMet, will leave the transit agency at the end of June continues a dizzying exodus of key elected and appointed public-policy leaders from the Portland region.
Tom Brian is retiring at year end as chairman of the Washington County Board of Commissioners. Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler was recently appointed state treasurer. And Metro President David Bragdon is not able to run for a third term. Whatever the reason, the region is losing some extraordinary leadership capacity.
Now, add Hansen, who is a hired executive, to the list of important departees.
Hansen has led TriMet since late 1998. During that time, the transit agency opened light-rail lines serving Portland International Airport and North Portland. This past September, it linked Clackamas County along Interstate 205 and through a rebuilt transit mall in downtown Portland.
Also under Hansen's watch, TriMet initiated frequent bus service routes that carry the largest share of its ridership, made operational cost control a priority and decided riders should pay a greater share of the cost of transit.
TriMet arguably has served as the state's most successful public-sector economic development engine, capturing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding and inspiring billions of private investment along MAX lines.
Politically, TriMet also has enjoyed success. In a region where cooperation among leaders often first spins out of control before settling into place, Hansen was a measure of calm and effective insistence that transportation investments be balanced.
TriMet still has challenges
Yet, all is not perfect for TriMet - with or without Hansen.
For a time - as recently as 30 months ago - rider safety along MAX was in crisis. At the time, we thought it took too long for Hansen to respond to incidents of crime and to provide for the increased safety that is now in place with additional security personnel, better station lighting and surveillance cameras.
Nor has TriMet escaped the crushing national recession. Because the agency is funded by a regional payroll tax, its budget has foundered as the private sector laid off thousands of employees. In late February, TriMet announced that it would respond to a $27 million shortfall for next year by cutting four bus routes and reducing frequency of operation along 17 other bus routes and MAX lines.
Meanwhile, an investment in connecting suburban westside communities with commuter rail service has been slow to take hold as ridership remains low.
Looking forward, Hansen first plans to take some time off. He says he will remain a Portland resident and work in the area of transit, land-use and economic development - with a special emphasis on sustainable practices.
What's ahead for TriMet and the region?
The transit agency should continue to embrace women and minority contractor hiring - a linchpin of success for TriMet under Hansen. More than ever, the transit agency must focus on efficiently moving people, easing congestion and spurring employment and economic development.
These opportunities are on the horizon as light rail is extended to Milwaukie and much later through Southwest Portland to Tigard. Still greatly unsettled is how the region will connect Portland and Vancouver with an expanded Columbia River Crossing. And in all cases, how much federal support will be granted is unclear.
TriMet's next leader must be a continued innovator and broker of regional cooperation. All too often, local, regional and state agencies become befuddled as they fight over their own initiatives. They must recognize that the public deserves and demands results and cooperation as a pathway to success.
That improved cooperation must begin immediately, and when it comes to transportation solutions, it must better embrace the private sector and balanced investment in cars, trucks, buses, MAX, streetcar, bikes and pedestrians.