A full plate for new TriMet leader

Our Opinion

Wednesday marked an end and a beginning as longtime TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen retired from his job heading up regional transit services for the Portland area.

Hansen leaves a tremendous legacy. In his almost 12-year tenure, he opened three extensions of MAX light-rail service, inaugurated suburban commuter rail service in Washington County, instituted numerous frequent bus service lines, grew transit ridership by almost 25 percent and expanded the use of minority contractors.

In that time, TriMet became a national and even world model for linking transit, land-use and economic development.

But many questions - some quite unsettling - face new TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane and a transit board of directors that includes several new gubernatorial appointees (among them is Portland Tribune President Steve Clark).

Among the most prominent of these issues are:

• TriMet's need to make extensive service cuts to balance a $27 million shortfall in its 2010-11 budget year that begins today (July 1).

• The agency's continuing review of the tragic April 24 bus accident that killed two pedestrians and injured three others in a downtown Portland crosswalk.

• Additional steps that TriMet must take to ensure better safety along bus and MAX lines.

• Resolving the question of how large the federal government's contribution will be toward the $1.4 billion cost of the planned Milwaukie-to-Portland MAX line.

• Continuing to deal with an uneven local economy that in good years contributes significantly to transit operations through a regional payroll tax.

• Playing a key role in deciding what kind of a new Interstate Bridge might eventually better link Portland and Vancouver.

• Reaching agreement on a new labor contract with union members and beginning to address the cost of a huge unfunded liability for health care benefits for current and retired transit workers.

How TriMet addresses these issues will shape not only the transit agency, but also how the Portland area manages congestion relief, connects communities, provides for public safety and improves the economy in one of the worst times for funding public services since the 1930s.

TriMet - like schools, the state and cities and counties - will be faced with deciding what priorities it can afford and seek to achieve. It also must determine what things it should ignore, postpone or leave to others.

One key fact lies ahead: TriMet cannot address nor solve its many problems and needs alone. It must engage other public agencies in even more effective partnerships than before. And with that, private-sector engagement and citizen participation will become even more important for an agency whose actions have a major impact on the Portland area's quality of life.