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TriMet struggles in budget battle

Union fight costly, as Clackamas County opponents slam plans
by: Nick Fochtman Workers prepare the foundations for the Portland to Milwaukie Light Rail Line in South Waterfront. TriMet is struggling with budget problems but agency officials say the project doesn't significantly affect its bottom line.

As TriMet struggles to close a potential $12 million to $17 million funding gap, it is fighting more than just a budget battle. It is facing criticism from liberals, conservatives and just about everyone in between.

OPAL, a grassroots environmental justice organization, has launched Bus Riders Unite, a campaign to protest proposed fare hikes and service reductions.

'The most transit-dependent riders are going to be hurt, including the poor and people of color,' says OPAL Executive Director Jonathan Ostar.

Fiscally conservative Clackamas County activists have launched a ballot measure campaign to block funding for the $1.49 billion Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line.

'Grassroots opposition to this project is overwhelming,' says Jim Knapp, a co-sponsor of a ballot measure to require a public vote on the county's $25 million share of the project.

Advocate Michael Levine accuses TriMet of being insensitive to the needs of the disabled by raising fares for its LIFT paratransit service.

'TriMet is raising prices too high for many of them,' says Levine.

And, labor union officials accuse TriMet of unfairly trying to balance its budget on the back of the agency's workers.

'It's time for new top management leadership at TriMet. No more excuses,' says Jon Hunt, president of Amalgamated Transit Union 757, which represents the regional transit agency's rank-and-file employees.

Two TriMets

The situation has prompted TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane to launch of an unprecedented defense of the beleaguered agency.

Speaking to the City Club of Portland on Feb. 24, McFarlane said that when he was named general manager 20 months ago, he inherited an agency inspired by a Dickens novel that he called, 'A Tale of Two TriMets.'

One tale, McFarlane said, was that of a world-renowned transit agency with a history of innovative projects that benefit the region and offer transportation alternatives to thousands of people every day who travel by bus and train, reducing sprawl, pollution and rush-hour congestion.

'Whether you ride or not, TriMet keeps us all moving,' McFarlane told the City Club.

The other tale is a transit agency slowly strangling from a prohibitively expensive union contract, declining federal revenue, and a lingering recession that has reduced payroll tax collections, a major portion of TriMet's budget.

'We currently face a $17 million shortfall, and there is no low-hanging fruit left to pick,' McFarlane said.

Critics say many, if not most, of TriMet's wounds are self-inflicted. Among other things, they accuse the agency of favoring expensive rail projects over basic bus service, failing to prioritize services to the neediest customers and violating labor laws during the last round of contract negotiations.

Taking the lead

TriMet hasn't operated in a vacuum, however. Since it was created in 1969 to take over the failing Rose City Transit Co., TriMet has always worked closely with local, state and federal agencies to achieve regional transportation goals. Its partners include the Federal Transit Administration, the state, Metro and all the Portland-area counties and cities. Some or all of them have been involved in planning and funding TriMet's bus and rail systems.

The joint planning and funding efforts began early. The 1969 Oregon Legislature passed a law allowing the creation of transit districts funded in part with payroll taxes. TriMet soon adopted a 1990 master plan that led to creation of the downtown Transit Mall and dozens of park and ride lots throughout the region.

Then, when public opposition killed the proposed $400 million Mt. Hood Freeway through Southeast Portland in 1973, congressional, state and city leaders convinced the federal government to allow much of the money to be spent on the first light-rail line from Portland to Gresham along the Banfield Freeway.

Regional voters subsequently approved property tax measures to fund a MAX line to Hillsboro, and then one from Vancouver to Clackamas County called the North-South line.

The North-South line ran into trouble when Clark County voters rejected their share of the plan in 1995, invalidating the regional vote. A statewide funding measure for the Oregon portion failed the next year. Milwaukie voters expressed their opposition to the line in 1997 by recalling two City Council members who supported it.

Some light-rail critics argue that TriMet should have stopped building MAX lines and concentrated on increasing bus service after that. Congressional, state, regional and local elected officials did not see it that way, however. Working with TriMet, they figured out how to finance the Interstate, Airport and Clackamas Town Center MAX lines without public votes on property tax levies.

Work has already begun on the 7.3-mile Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line. In recent years, Metro has taken the lead on planning such projects.

McFarlane argues that the MAX projects have not hurt the service of TriMet's lines. He told the City Club that TriMet has paid less than 5 percent of the cost of each project. The rest has been paid by other governments. And McFarlane also says it costs TriMet far less to move passengers on MAX than by bus.

'This pattern is intentional,' McFarlane told the City Club. 'It preserves TriMet's precious operating resources for bus and rail operations and, in additional to the jobs it creates, we get a highly efficient system with only a minimal investment.'

Many of the critics do not believe MAX provides equal - let alone better - service than buses, however.

'Buses are more flexible. They pick up and deliver people to more places. And when one of them breaks, they don't strand hundreds of passengers at a time somewhere,' says Ed Zumwalt, a longtime light-rail opponent who is fighting the Portland-to-Milwaukie project.

Critics also say that while TriMet's annual rail-related debt payments may be relatively small, at least some of the money could be spent in other areas.

Union offers to save

Union officials do not accept McFarlane's blame for the agency's budget problems, either. Their contract negotiations are headed for arbitration after the state Employment Relations Board ruled that TriMet's final offer violated labor laws.

Union officials say that before the negotiations broke down, they submitted an offer to reduce health care costs that was rejected by TriMet, which wanted concessions that the union found unacceptable. Union officials say their offer would save the agency around $3 million a year.

Union officials also say TriMet could save millions by hiring the drivers for its LIFT paratransit system instead of contracting for them. According to the officials, a 2008 audit commissioned by TriMet says the agency would have saved $3.6 million in 2004 by bringing the system in house. They believe the savings would be even greater today, and have asked that TriMet update the audit with current budget figures.

The union officials also say TriMet could save an additional $5 million by reducing the number of management positions to 2006 levels.

Altogether, union officials argue they have proposed and identified at least $11.6 million in cost savings that TriMet management is refusing to act on.

McFarlane says the only answer is for the union to resume negotiations on the next contract, however.

• TriMet's altered budget plan makes fewer service cuts

TriMet recommended cutting $12 million from next year's budget in the refined proposal presented to the agency's board of directors Wednesday morning.

According to TriMet managers, the cuts are necessary for several reasons, including $3 million less in anticipated payroll tax revenue, an estimated $4 million cut in federal transit funds and unresolved contract issues.

The proposed cut is $5 million less than the maximum $17 million that agency officials anticipated. The change occurred after TriMet managers realized that contract negotiations with Amalgamated Transit Union 757 may not be resolved for another year.

Although the unresolved contract issues could cost $10 million, the managers decided to cover only half the cost in next year's budget. If an additional $5 million is required, that issue will be presented to the board at that time.

The reduction means that TriMet won't have to cut bus and rail service as much as previously discussed. No weekend bus lines would be eliminated. However, 25 lines would be reconfigured and have trips reduced, saving $1.1 million. Affected lines include routes 6, 8, 9, 12, 15, 16, 17, 18, 36, 37, 43, 47, 48, 50, 55, 59, 67, 70, 73, 77, 82, 87, 89 and 92.

MAX service would remain the same.

TriMet is still proposing to eliminate all zones and move to a flat fare for the entire service area. The lowest fare would be $2.50. Tickets would be good for two hours in any direction, however, instead of just one way, as originally proposed.

The charges are estimated to generate $6 million in new revenue.

The Free Rail Zone would still be eliminated, meaning that tickets would be required to ride MAX trains downtown and in the Lloyd District. The change is estimated to generate $2.7 million in additional revenue. Free bus service was eliminated from the zone two years ago.

The board already has approved raising LIFT fares to $2.15 in April, and each year after that until they match the other fares, after which they will increase at the same rate.

The first increase will generate an estimated $700,000 in additional revenue.

Other proposals TriMet officials are considering to close the budget gap include reducing support for the Portland Streetcar, internal efficiencies and selling advertising on TriMet's website.

The agency will have five public forums this month to discuss the new budget proposals. The forums are:

• March 19, 4:30-6:30 p.m., Clackamas Town Center Community Room, Lower Level, 12000 S.E. 82nd Ave., Happy Valley

• March 20, 4:30-6:30 p.m., Beaverton Library Conference Room, 12375 S.W. Fifth St.

• March 21, 4:30-6:30 p.m., Portland Building Auditorium, 1120 S.W. Fifth Ave.

• March 22, 4:30-6:30 p.m., Multnomah County East County Health Center, Sharron Kelly A and B, 600 N.E. Eighth St., Gresham

• March 27, 5:30-7:30 p.m., Multnomah County Library, North Portland Branch, second-floor meeting room, 512 N. Killingsworth St.

For more information, visit the agency's website: www.trimet.org/choices.