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New TriMet department sparks controversy

Officials say maintenance on bus, train lines an emerging priority


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Work is still in progress to the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail bridge, which will be named soon. (Photo taken on the Ross Island Bridge.) Earlier this year, TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane faced down accusations that poor maintenance was endangering public safety.

In February, Amalgamated Transit Union President Bruce Hansen issued a news release with photographs that he said showed unsafe conditions on MAX trains and tracks, including a cracked rail and corroded switch boxes. In response, the Oregon Department of Transportation inspected the trains and tracks the next month. It issued a report saying there were no safety problems, and only routine maintenance was required.

“The inspection supported the fact that our MAX system is safe,” McFarlane said after ODOT announced its conclusions. “Our skilled maintenance employees work hard every day to ensure that our system is maintained and operating as it should.”

But just last week, McFarlane abruptly announced he was reorganizing the agency to place a greater emphasis on maintenance. He created a new Maintenance Division for both buses and trains, moving all maintenance responsibilities out of the agency’s Operations Division.

The announcement came just a few weeks after routine repairs of the MAX tracks on the Steel Bridge damaged electric equipment buried in the deck, triggering systemwide delays. The reorganization had not been discussed at any recent meetings of the TriMet Board of Directors, including the day-long retreat held last month.

McFarlane insists the new division was not created in response to a system breakdown or hidden crisis, however. He explained it was intended to improve service to riders. TriMet will have 60 miles of track to maintain when the Portland to Milwaukie Light Rail Line opens Sept. 12, 2013. The oldest line between Portland and Gresham opened in 1986. It was extended to Hillsboro in 1998.

“We are growing the transit system at the same time we’re managing an aging system,” McFarlane said when he announced the reorganization. “This requires us to be even more focused on our vehicle and track system to deliver more reliable service to our riders.”

Hansen isn’t buying it, however. He still believes TriMet has serious maintenance problems, despite the ODOT report. And he doesn’t believe creating a separate Maintenance Division will resolve those problems.

“If you can’t solve them by communicating within the existing organization, changing it won’t help,” said Hansen.

Hansen also wonders why McFarlane announced the reorganization now, speculating that it is related to the performance audit the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office is currently conducting of TriMet at the request of the 2013 Oregon Legislature.

“I think they’re feeling a lot of pressure,” Hansen said.

Nothing suspicious

TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch said there is nothing suspicious about the timing of the reorganization. Fetsch pointed out it was recommended by Bob Nelson, who was hired as interim deputy general manager in July.

“One of Nelson’s assignments was to review the organization of the agency and make recommendations about how it can be improved. That took about four months,” said Fetsch.

Nor should anyone be surprised McFarlane is emphasizing maintenance, Fetsch said. She insisted that maintaining aging infrastructure and equipment is a growing priority among transit agencies across the country.

The Steel Bridge is a critical link between westside and eastside rail lines. Nearly 560 MAX trains cross it every day, so even small problems can cause long delays throughout the entire system.

“Elevating maintenance to the executive level will give it the additional focus and attention it needs,” said Fetsch.

TriMet’s bus and rail maintenance budget is $109.5 million for the current fiscal year, an amount expected to increase by 3 percent during the next fiscal year. The agency is already planning to spend an additional $2.5 million on track and switch improvements over the next year and a half.

The Federal Transit Administration is also increasing funding for maintenance through its “State of Good Repair” program. TriMet is expecting to receive $6 million in such funding over the next two years, plus another $585,000 in federal grants over the next two and a half years to replace and improve signals, gate mechanisms and other electrical systems.

“Maintenance is becoming a higher priority in transit agencies across the country,” Fetsch said.

Among other things, TriMet officials are starting to talk about making needed improvements to the Blue Line between Portland and Gresham, which was the first MAX line that went into service 30 years ago. A program called “Renew the Blue” will be rolled out in coming months.

The TriMet board has also approved an accelerated bus replacement program. Since McFarlane became general manager three years ago, the agency has purchased more than 215 replacement buses.




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