Fairview mayor hopes transit agency will follow through on service improvements in East County

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: CARI HACHMANN - Neil McFarlane, TriMet general manager, presents plan to enhance transit services in East County at meeting in Fairview.Fairview city officials are hoping TriMet will follow through with its promise to improve bus and transit service in the near future for East County cities.

Neil McFarlane, TriMet general manager, was invited to speak at Mayor Mike Weatherby’s Business Roundtable gathering on Thursday, Jan. 23.

A little over a week ago, John Charles, president of Cascade Policy Institute, a public policy research organization in Oregon, approached the Fairview City Council with a study it conducted that encourages cities and counties to consider leaving TriMet due to what it calls “financial mismanagement.”

“TriMet predicts that additional service cuts will be required by 2017 and every year thereafter to balance the budget, which essentially would shut down the agency by 2025,” Charles wrote on Cascade’s website.

Charles said six cities, including the city of Sandy, have withdrawn from TriMet to set up their own transit systems. The unincorporated community of Boring also withdrew from TriMet, citing high expense for local businesses, but poor scheduling of buses, which led to an almost nonexistent ridership.

“Local jurisdictions might be hoping for the best, but they should plan for the worst,” Charles said. “Leaving TriMet is an option that needs to be on the table.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, McFarlane said TriMet suffered major setbacks when the economy tanked in 2008, causing the mass transit agency — funded by payroll taxes — to lose millions in revenue.

Drops in revenue led to service reductions and fare increases over the last few years, he said. The agency has been in negotiations with labor unions since September to try and work out an agreeable contract.

McFarlane said TriMet fell behind on basic system maintenance during the recession and are now playing catch up.

“We are beginning to invest in new service,” he said.

He said TriMet will begin restoring bus services and replace old buses (90 of them in 2014). He said “Our light rail system is beginning to age,” and it needs to be maintained and rehabilitated. Over the next few years, McFarlane said TriMet plans to improve safety and security at transit stations from lighting to camera surveillance systems. It has also adopted a new app for people to purchase transit tickets on their smartphones.

As for East County, TriMet has proposed the “Eastside Service Enhancement Plan,” to address an increasing demand for transportation services in Gresham, Troutdale, Wood Village and Fairview.

McFarlane said TriMet probably hasn’t done a comprehensive look at development and service access in the area.

“We know things have changed dramatically,” he said, “We have to catch up.”

As part of the service enhancement plan, TriMet said it will work with communities in the area to understand what kind of transit improvements are needed out here.

However, McFarlane said, “Cost challenges remain.”

Depending on what services are needed, TriMet plans to implement no-cost and lower-cost enhancements to meet short-term needs.

TriMet said it doesn’t expect to be able to afford any big changes until the economy rebounds and its cost structure, especially health care, is more sustainable.

After the meeting, Fairview Council President Lisa Barton Mullins said, “I think we are very much lacking in TriMet services in not only Fairview, but the entire East County.”

Barton Mullins said she hopes McFarlane keeps his promise that TriMet will spend more time, energy and money toward bringing services up to acceptable levels for the three cities.

Two priorities for Fairview, she said, are improvements to the Halsey Street corridor and extending bus services south of Sandy Boulevard on 223rd Avenue to the cities’ growing industrial area.

“Mayor Weatherby has been working for several years to get TriMet to expand service in this area,” Barton Mullins said. “I felt like after today’s meeting, this area will be looked into.”

Reflecting on TriMet’s presentation, Fairview Mayor Mike Weatherby said it didn’t sound like McFarlane committed to any specific transit improvement project nor could he recall any sort of time frame.

But he was optimistic that McFarlane was “committed to looking closely and evaluating some of the real needs out here.”

The mayor said he plans to “keep up with the pressure” on TriMet to improve service in Fairview and East County.

The crux of the matter is, he said, “Is TriMet has to follow through with their promises.”

In response to Fairview leaving TriMet and creating its own transit system, McFarlane said he’s open to the consideration, but it wouldn’t be easy.

He questioned whether a small, independent system would be best for people who need to move throughout the region.

“The challenge in the three cities is about 85 percent of employees live outside of the area,” he said, “which demonstrates that regional connections are quite viable to get employees here and visa-versa.”

Mayor Weatherby echoed McFarlane’s concern that such a transition would be difficult.

“I dont think individual cities could develop a transit system with the components TriMet has,” Weatherby said. “But I think to keep believing that, TriMet has to come through on their commitment.”

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