TriMet officials strongly refuted Friday morning union accusations that the MAX light-rail system is unsafe.

TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch told reporters that recent accusations by the leadership of Amalgamated Transit Union 757 were nothing more than a "diversion campaign" to prevent the public from realizing the union was refusing to bargain on health care changes in its next contract.

"This was a just a diversion to prevent the public from realizing the real issue is health care reform," Fetsch said.

At Friday morning's press conference, TriMet officials released a report summarizing a recent inspection of the MAX system by the Oregon Department of Transportation. It found a number of locations requiring routine maintenace but nothing that threatens the safety of the public or TriMet employees.

"Up front TriMet officials said they would show us or let is see any and all parts of the track system that we would want to inspect and made it clear to us that they wanted complete transparency and wanted to know any areas of concern that we may have with their operation," according to the report.

(Click here to read the report.)

ODOT conducted the inspection in response to a press release from ATU President Bruce Hansen that claimed TriMet was not properly maintaining the MAX system. It included photographs of what Hansen said were dangerous conditions along the tracks. The report said the inspectors did not find anything as dangerous as Hansen claimed. The inspectors even met with Hansen and visited areas he suggested.

"After 50 plus hours if inspections and reviewing records, ODOT was unable to find any areas of safety report," said John Johnson, ODOT's manager of the rail safety section, in a statement released by TriMet.

Hansen says the union is still concerned about the MAX line safety. He was not able to get permission to accompany the ODOT inspectors as they toured the tracks last Friday.

"We still have safety concerns for the public and our employees," Hansen says.

TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane says employee health care benefits must be reduced to restore service cuts and increase service to meet growing demand. Hansen denies that, saying TriMet has too many managers and is pursuing unaffordable rail projects.

The two sides have yet to begin bargain the next contract. Negotiations on the previous two-year contract dragged on for more than 18 months and were finally settled by a state arbitrator last July in favor of TriMet. But ATU 757 filed an unfair labor practice charge against a majority of the contract with the state Employment Relations Board. It argued that the previous contract that was supported by ATU 757 was still in effect. The union has directed its members not to comply with the contract authorized by the state arbitrator, which allows TriMet to recoup $6.8 million in health insurance premium payments from them.

In response, TriMet filed an unfair labor practice complaint against ATU 757 with the Employment Relations Board. It seeks enforcement of the arbitrator-approved contract and wants ATU 757 to be held liable for the $6.8 million owned TriMet.

A ruling from the board could come at any time.

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