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Appointees to TriMets board of directors must think for themselves

Daunting array of concerns - financial and security - need to be handled soon

Two new TriMet board members -one from Washington County and one from Gresham - arrive at a time when the region's transit agency is confronted with major challenges related to money, unions and public frustration.

The board members, including newly installed board p/resident Bruce Warner of Hillsboro, must be prepared to directly engage the public in meaningful ways as they help guide TriMet toward firmer financial ground. The change in board leadership presents an opportunity for TriMet's policy makers to set a new tone for communicating with riders, the general public, the business community that pays the transit payroll tax and even the union that represents TriMet's workers.

A thicket of tough issues

Warner, along with Travis Stovall of Gresham, joined the TriMet governing board last week. The two volunteers, who were appointed by Gov. John Kitzhaber, better be prepared for rough roads ahead. They and the other five members of the TriMet board must be willing to act as independent thinkers - not extensions of the TriMet administrative staff - as they grapple with issues ranging from unsustainable employee benefit costs to the need for greater safety on the transit system.

TriMet is facing a daunting array of concerns:

* The agency is looking at a $17 million budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year that must be closed through service reductions, fare hikes and other measures.

* Some residents of the region are rebelling against continued expansion of light rail, placing a portion of the funding for the Portland-to-Milwaukie MAX line in jeopardy. Many of these residents are reacting not just to the potential cost of light rail, but to the changes they believe a MAX line will bring to their communities - including higher-density development.

* Security on the MAX system continues to be a concern for many riders and residents. Recent high-profile incidents have contributed to a perception - one that's not always justified by statistics or even by observation - that MAX cars and platforms are an unsafe or uncomfortable environment.

* TriMet's negotiations with the transit union have been stalled for many months and are headed for binding arbitration. Without changes to the health benefits in the contract - benefits that TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane says are among the richest in the nation - TriMet's ongoing financial problems may be unsolvable.

Talk to the people

All of these issues complicate TriMet's future, but they also give the agency's board of directors a compelling reason to have an honest dialogue with the communities that TriMet serves within the three-county region. These communities are diverse in their views of transportation and development, but they all need safe, affordable and financially stable transit service.

We believe Warner - who is the former executive director of the Portland Development Commission as well as the former director of Oregon's Department of Transportation - is well-equipped to provide independent and assertive leadership for the TriMet board. Meanwhile, Stovall beefs up the business perspective of the board as he replaces a board member with a union background, Lynn Lehrbach.

While TriMet's board of directors is appointed by the governor, the board members should, and do, see themselves as representatives of a citizenry whose interests can diverge from those of transit workers and transit planners. In the past, TriMet has enjoyed broad - although never unanimous - support for the idea that public transit is important for livability and economic development.

That public consensus is fraying for a variety of reasons, which means that the need for open communication is greater now than it has been in the past. The TriMet board, under Warner's leadership, should be prepared to listen to business voices, riders, transit critics and others - and then incorporate what they hear into the decisions they make on behalf of an entire region.



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