by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Training Supervisor Greg McGrew compares an old TriMet bus to one of the new buses, which has no steps to the seating area.

TriMet board President Bruce Warner is also head of The Warner Group LLC, which is involved in transportation, land-use and management consulting.

Throughout my professional career, I've worked closely with TriMet as it expanded its transit system and service. Without a doubt, it's one of the most critical public services in this region.

It's also a leader. TriMet outperforms any other U.S. transit system its size. The Portland-metro area is the 24th largest in the United States, but transit ridership per capita is seventh. More people ride transit here than in Dallas, Denver and San Diego, as well as many others.

But what TriMet has in common with nearly every transit agency across the country is that the Great Recession has required service cuts and fare increases to deal with significant budget deficits.

Just last week, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority announced a 23 percent fare increase along with service cuts that include eliminating weekend service to some communities.

The choices are never easy, and I commend TriMet for working to limit the impact to riders. During the recession, the agency has cut $60 million, eliminated more than 200 positions, frozen administrative wages for four years and required non-union employees to pay more for health care.

The last place they've looked to close the gap is through service cuts and fare increases.

TriMet is facing another budget shortfall of $12 million to $17 million due to the slow jobs recovery, potential cuts in federal operating funds and a labor contract that has the richest health care benefits in the country.

The board has adopted a sound policy to rein in these benefit costs. The policy requires TriMet's health care and post-employment benefits to be in line with a sustainable forecast of future TriMet revenue. General Manager Neil McFarlane is right to take on this issue. It's never easy, but it's necessary for the future of the agency and the entire region.

The union leadership continues to offer the status quo in the expired contract, which is virtually free health care for life at age 55 with just 10 years of service. TriMet must bring its union employee benefits in line with fiscal reality and the market. Without changes, the agency is on track to becoming a health care provider rather than a transit provider. That is simply unacceptable.

Reaching out to riders

As service cuts and fare increases are on the table again, TriMet has spent the past six months gathering input from the community. Staff met with more than 1,100 people at three dozen community meetings and other venues, including riding affected bus lines to solicit feedback. Combined with online feedback, the agency will top nearly 13,000 comments from the public.

That's impressive, and the feedback has already changed the initial service and fare proposal.

Flat fare and Free Rail Zone

TriMet is proposing to make its fare system more efficient. Moving to a flat fare and eliminating zones better matches how riders use the system and prepares the agency to move to electronic fares in the future. Allowing riders to take a round trip on the $2.50 flat fare if travel can be completed within two hours was a change based on community feedback.

Eliminating the Free Rail Zone would save about $3 million annually and improve the safety and security of the system. The Portland Streetcar is also proposing to begin charging fares in this zone. Overall feedback on this proposal was quite positive.

Looking to the future

In my roles as head of the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Portland Development Commission, I worked closely with TriMet on local funding for the expanding rail system. MAX is efficient, influences development and helps create vibrant communities. The latest project -- the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line -- continues that model. The project is already creating jobs when we most need them. When it opens in 2015, it will connect people to jobs, schools, housing and community services.

We have some tough choices ahead, but TriMet has the right leadership and commitment to realign its cost structure and plan for the future to respond to the growing demand for transit service.

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