Board chairman adds his credibility as agency struggles

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO BY CHASE ALLGOOD - TriMet board president and Hillsboro resident Bruce Warner regular rides the MAX line from his home near Orenco Station to Portland.  In the middle of TriMet’s labor dispute, Amalgamated Transit Union 757 officials and their supporters have focused much of their criticism on the agency’s general manager. They have practically accused Neil McFarlane of single-handedly destroying the regional transit agency by insisting on service cuts, fare increases and union benefit reductions to balance the budget.

But when McFarlane recently spoke about TriMet’s problems at a Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce gathering, he was not alone. He was joined by Bruce Warner, the president of the agency’s board.

For Warner, the trip to the talk was easy. He moved to Hillsboro around 18 months ago. But Warner says his appearance was meant to convey the message that McFarlane is not acting on his own.

“Neil is operating with the full understanding and support of the board,” Warner says. “We respect what he is trying to make happen.”

ATU 757 officials question whether the board is aware of everything McFarlane does, however. “When you go to the meetings, you wonder if the board has even read what they’re voting on,” says ATU 757 President Bruce Hansen.

Since becoming board chairman in February 2012, Warner has been more active and visible than any of his predecessors in recent memory. Among other things, he has personally signed guest editorials and letters to local media concerning such hot-button issues as TriMet driver overtime and the fight with Clackamas County commissioners on completing the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line.

“We appreciate having a chair who understands our issues and is so involved,” McFarlane says.

No one who knows Warner should be surprised by his high profile. Before becoming board chairman, he held a series of increasingly pressure-filled public positions in the state and region. They include executive stints at Hillsboro, Washington County, the Portland Development Commission, Metro and the Oregon Department of Transportation.

In fact, Warner says those jobs are what convinced him to become TriMet board chairman. Like other positions on the board, he was appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. When Gov. John Kitzhaber first approached him about the position, Warner knew TriMet was facing an unprecedented series of challenges, ranging from the labor dispute to potential reductions in future federal transit support.

“I’m a longtime TriMet rider and have had a chance to work with the agency on a number of valuable projects,” Warner says. “I think transit is crucial to the livability of the region, but TriMet has a lot to do to rebuild its relationship with the community, and I want to help that happen.”

In person, Warner hardly seems like the kind of person used to negotiating with elected officials, running large bureaucracies, and brokering multimillion-dollar deals. Trim and fit, with graying hair and a thick mustache, he looks more like a favorite uncle at a family gathering. He has a relaxed personality and is even dismissive of his extensive background.

“I guess I can’t hold a job,” Warner jokes about his résumé.

Even Hansen doesn’t bad-mouth Warner.

“I haven’t had that many dealings with him, so I really don’t have anything to say about him,” Hansen says.

But those who have worked with Warner say he has a quick mind and a deep understanding of how to accomplish even the most complicated public projects. Before the TriMet board adopted the agency’s 2013-14 budget on May 22, one critic in the audience jumped up and accused Warner of not knowing what was in it.

“I do, too. I’ve been doing public budgeting for years,” he calmly replied.

The board unanimously approved the $485 million budget a few minutes later.

Bringing credibility

A registered professional civil engineer, Warner received his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at the University of Washington in 1972 and took on graduate work in sanitary engineering there the next year. He moved to Portland in 1974 to work as a project manager of federally required wastewater management and water quality studies, designing and managing various projects throughout Oregon and Washington.

Warner was first introduced to Hillsboro in 1979 when he went to work for the city, first in the Building Department and later in the Public Works Department. He then became deputy director and later director of Washington County’s Land Use and Transportation Department in 1984, a position he held until 1993.

The period between 1979 and 1993 was a time of great change for Hillsboro and Washington County. It included the construction and opening of TriMet’s westside light-rail line, the second MAX line in the region after the Portland-to- Gresham one. In both jobs, Warner saw how residents and businesses learned to use the new westside light-rail line, including the early stages of construction at Orenco Station and Intel’s Ronler Acres campus.

In 1993, Warner became regional manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation in charge of Washington, Multnomah, Clackamas, Hood River and Columbia counties. He administered an annual budget of $140 million, oversaw 660 employees and acted as ODOT’s liaison to the Legislature and U.S. Congress for highway and light-rail projects.

Warner moved to Metro in 1997. At that time, the regional government was beginning to play a larger role in planning and funding transportation projects, including future light-rail lines. He became chief executive officer in 1998, a position he held until 2001, when he was named the director of the Oregon Department of Transportation, where he worked with the state Transportation Commission, administered a nearly $4 billion annual budget and oversaw around 4,800 employees.

In 2005, Warner became the executive director of the Portland Development Commission. He was appointed during a time of turmoil for the city’s urban renewal agency. Its former director, Don Mazziotti, had resigned under pressure caused by suspected spending irregularities. Warner’s reassuring manner helped calm the waters and restore the agency’s credibility with the City Council. The job also gave Warner an understanding of how TriMet’s bus and rail system connect to the Portland Streetcar.

“Bruce really understands how the regional transit system works. And he brings a lot of credibility to TriMet because he’s been involved in the state and region for so long,” McFarlane says.

Then in 2011, Warner returned to Hillsboro for an eight-month stint as the interim city manager. He helped develop the 2012-13 budget, hire a new fire chief and recruit and hire a permanent city manager.

Warner thought he left public service in 2011 to form a consulting firm, the Warner Group LLC. Clients include Hillsboro and developers in South Hillsboro, where the city is planning a new community that will need transit connections to the city’s employment centers. He and his wife moved to Orenco Station in early 2012, drawn by its transit connections.

“Hillsboro is a city that needs transit to grow, and I enjoy walking to the MAX station when I need to take it,” says Warner, who supports TriMet’s Westside Enhancement Plan, which calls for increasing service throughout Washington County.

TriMet’s backbone

Warner has ended up riding the MAX line more than he expected. Around the time of his move, he was appointed chairman of the TriMet board.

By early 2012, TriMet was deep in the throes of multiple crises. The Great Recession had cut into the regional payroll tax that funds approximately half its operations. Internal projections showed union health benefit cost increases would seriously reduce future revenues. Many voters and some would-be politicians in Clackamas County were rebelling against the Portland-Milwaukie line, which already had started construction. And activists claiming to represent riders were accusing the agency of sacrificing vital bus service to keep rail projects on track.

“TriMet has never been in the position it was in — and is still in,” Warner says.

After becoming board chairman, Warner set out to do what he thought was right for TriMet. During the first few months, he oversaw the adoption of the budget, which includes unpopular service cuts and fare increases. Free downtown Portland service and the historic multiple fare zones were both eliminated. Some lines were trimmed or eliminated. Most riders saw their fares increase.

Warner also embraced management’s insistence on reducing union health care costs. After years of stalled contract talks, an arbitrator imposed management’s last contract offer on the union last year. The union has appealed the decision to the state Employment Relations Board. Warner supports management’s decision to push for more union benefit concessions even before the appeal is resolved.

Warner also has squared off with the Clackamas County Commission because of the Portland-Milwaukie rail line. When the commissioners proposed placing two measures concerning previous agreements with TriMet on the May 21 special election ballot, Warner signed a letter to newly elected Chairman John Ludlow warning such a move would lead to court action. When the commission placed them on the ballot anyway, Warner approved TriMet taking the county to state court to enforce the existing agreements. The lawsuit will test the meaning of the measure county voters approved on May 21 to not continue funding the project.

Despite the hard lines he has taken, Warner says he is hopeful TriMet can resolve its problems. He is looking forward to bargaining beginning on the next labor agreement, saying he believes management and the union can find a “win-win” approach to the health care cost issue. Warner also says he agrees that Clackamas County residents are entitled to vote on rail projects, just not ones where agreements and contracts already have been signed.

And Warner says he agrees with rider advocates that bus service is TriMet’s core mission and that it deserves more attention going forward. He notes the agency soon will complete buying around 200 new buses, raising the average age to industry standards.

“Bus service is clearly the backbone of TriMet,” Warner says.

Warner also believes that rail projects will likely play a smaller role in TriMet’s future, in large part because of the federal government’s reducing commitment to them. Warner says the Portland-to-Vancouver line already is fully funded with federal dollars if the Washington Legislature approves its share of the Columbia River Crossing project. But that could be the last one for a long while.

“It’s time TriMet consider bus rapid transit and other options we haven’t studied that much for the future,” Warner says.

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