Town hall meeting sends message to TriMet representatives in a thoughtful and powerful discussion
You could cut the tension with a knife.
As the nearly 50 people piled into City Hall on Thursday, Jan. 26, with three TriMet representatives present, nobody knew what to expect.
As news had come down over the previous couple of weeks that bus line 30, which runs from Clackamas Town Center to Estacada, was on the chopping block, emotions were high. This was a line that Estacada residents rely on to get to work, medical appointments, school and much more.
Armed with a petition from local residents that included more than 500 signatures, residents organized a town hall meeting and invited TriMet to attend. With the offer accepted nearly as quickly as it had been extended, the question became how things would go.
Would the meeting become aggressive? Would emotions boil over?
What actually happened, however, was as far from what that as possible, and facilitator and City Councilor Brent Drodrill said it best.
'You represented the people of Estacada very well tonight,' he said in conclusion of the meeting.
'I thought our folks presented the need very well and the people from TriMet clearly listened and took notes,' he said.
The meeting began with some ground rules from Dodrill before TriMet's Pam Wilson, a marketing manager, Kerry Ayres-Palanuk, a service planning manager, and Clay Thompson, a marketing coordinator, made their opening statements.
'We're looking forward to a two-way conversation,' Wilson said. 'We are in the preliminary stages of a budget process and everything is on the table.'
Wilson explained some of the other options being considered in order to account for the $12-17 million shortfall in the next budget year. Among the options were eliminating the free rail zone in downtown Portland, eliminating redundant bus routes and halting the red-line MAX before it got all the way into Beaverton.
She also assured people that there was no formal proposal to cut line 30, that it was just one option on the table.
'We want to know who rides, why they ride and how often,' she said.
Wilson also explained to people how TriMet is supported through taxes and bonds. She said that 57 percent of its funding is from payroll taxes, which are extremely hard to forecast, while the remaining funding comes primarily from grants and fare revenues.
For an exact breakdown of where the $12-17 million shortfall is coming from, a 'Challenges and Choices' pamphlet was handed out and is also available online at trimet.org.
According to this, a decrease in payroll tax revenue will result in a projected loss of $3 million, federal government funding cuts are projected to reduce funding by $4 million and negotiations with the transit union over health care and other measures are projected to have an impact of $5-10 million.
With all of this information on the table, the floor was opened to public comments and questions. First up was Becky Ginsbach, who was one of the event's organizers, and had prepared a series of commonly held questions and concerns.
Among them were questions about the option of bringing a smaller bus to Estacada, why rural areas seem to be the first to be chopped and the option of simply halting any TriMet expansion currently planned.
The first question answered was the option of a smaller bus, as Thompson explained that 75 percent of the costs associated with running a bus are driver wages. Simply put: a smaller bus costs nearly the same amount.
The second question addressed was the idea that rural areas are targeted with cuts.
'All low ridership routes were considered all over the region,' Thompson said. 'Just to give people an idea, though, $266,000 in payroll taxes was collected in Estacada in 2009. Line 30 costs $900,000 to operate.'
Ayres-Palanuk added that despite these numbers, they weren't the only things looked at.
'We do look beyond ridership at whether other transit services are available and who it is that rides these lines,' she said. 'Are they minorities? Low-income households?'
Finally, the question of expansion was also answered. According to Thompson, the money used for expansion comes from a completely different pot that couldn't be used for operations even if they wanted to.
With the primary questions answered, the floor was once again opened for residents to voice their concerns. One by one, 20 people explained why they use the line and why it is important to them before the meeting had to be called to an end.
For a short list of some of the comments made, please see the attached box.
By the time the meeting had ended, TriMet officials had heard the concerns of Estacada loud and clear. It was obvious that for many, this bus line was the only real source of transportation and despite the low ridership, it probably meant more here than anywhere in Portland.
'I grew up in the smallest town in Illinois,' Wilson said. 'I realize that in rural areas transit is an essential element of life, and I was really impressed by the thoughtful input we got tonight.'
From here, the TriMet leadership group will continue to gather information and feedback before making a formal proposal to the board of directors Wednesday, Feb. 8. Wilson encouraged everyone to check trimet.org in the afternoon on Feb. 8 for information about what ideas were proposed to the board.
She did, however, explain that whatever is proposed is far from a final decision, but that proposals typically have a series of revisions before being put into place.
For Dodrill, the input from Estacada needs to continue.
'I encourage folks to continue to voice their need online,' he said. 'The more they hear, the more they will be influenced.'
Once the proposal is made there will be a series of open house meetings beginning on Saturday, Feb. 11, in Beaverton, Monday, Feb. 13, in Gresham, Wednesday, Feb. 15, in Portland and Thursday, Feb. 16, in Clackamas. For more information, visit trimet.org.