TriMet is promising to restore service without increasing rates in next year’s budget — especially if the union representing most of its employees agrees to additional health benefit cuts.

“This budget continues our effort to achieve long-term fiscal stability, while restoring and improving service for our riders,” TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane said when releasing the budget. “I am committed to staying on course to reduce our benefit costs so we can focus on our core mission of providing more service to our growing region. This will keep our commitments to our employees, retirees, riders and payroll taxpayers for the long term.”

The proposed $607 million operating and capital budget comes at a critical time for TriMet. After years of cutting service and increasing fares because of the revenue reductions caused by the Great Recession, the regional transit agency is beginning to restore service on heavily used and other lines. It is also continuing work on the $1.49 billion Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail project, the most recent of its regional MAX lines.

But to prevent further financial problems, MacFarlane says TriMet must extract further concessions from the members of Amalgamated Transit Union 757, which represents most of its employees. A state-appointed arbitrator imposed the most recent contract after years of unfruitful negotiations, and the mediation on the next one is scheduled to begin next month.

According to a recent performance audit by the Oregon secretary of state’s office, TriMet’s “most serious and looming concerns” are related to the cost of health care benefits and the $852 million unfunded liability for retiree health care.

TriMet’s budget projections are dependent on funding schemes for two benefit pension plans adopted by the agency’s board of directors in February. The plans accelerate funding from historic levels to bring both pension plans to fully funded status within 15 years.

TriMet’s three-year contract proposal includes an average 3 percent annual wage increase, an 80/20 preferred-provider health care plan and a $10 co-pay HMO plan, both with a 6 percent premium contribution, matching the non-union health care plan.

The 2015 budget takes effect July 1 and runs through June 30, 2015.

TriMet’s funds come from three primary sources. “Approximately 95 percent of TriMet’s operating revenues come from three sources. These are payroll tax revenues (55 percent), passenger revenues (24 percent) and federal formula funds (15 percent). In addition, the budget also includes capital and light-rail program revenues which are dedicated to uses other than operations,” according to the budget documents.

TriMet admits the past few years have been rough. According to the agency, ridership declined, especially on the MAX, between 2012 and 2013, in large part due to fare hikes, increased fare enforcement, and the end of the Free Rail Zone. The roughly 3 percent decrease in ridership nearly matched agency projections.

But according to TriMet, ridership is beginning to recover. MAX weekly ridership is up 1 percent from December 2013 to February 2014, and systemwide peak ridership was up 2.1 percent. TriMet also added back more bus service in September 2013, and saw an overall 0.5 percent increase with 23.4 million boardings during the winter quarter. In addition, WES commuter rail ridership had double-digit growth throughout the past year.

Public input is welcome during the comment portion of the board meeting at 9 a.m. Wednesday, March 26. Feedback on the proposed 2015 fiscal year budget also will be accepted online at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., by calling 503-238-RIDE (7433) weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., 503-238-5811 (TTY), or by writing FY15 Budget c/o TriMet at 1800 S.W. First Ave., Suite 300, Portland 97201.

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