A legislatively mandated performance audit of TriMet is bound to find problems with the regional transit agency.

That’s because a comprehensive audit of any organization as complex as TriMet is almost certain to uncover inefficiencies, management missteps, work force concerns and instances of customer dissatisfaction. Residents of this region should not be surprised, after the audit results are released in a few months, to discover there is room for improvement at TriMet. The question they should be asking, though, is whether TriMet has strategies in place to address the issues that emerge.

This top-to-bottom audit of TriMet was ordered by the Legislature, on a near-unanimous vote, toward the end of the 2013 legislative session. Freshman Rep. Chris Gorsek, D-Troutdale, sponsored House Bill 3316 because of his concerns about TriMet’s service and practices. Gorsek earlier in the session had unsuccessfully sought to change the way the TriMet board is selected. (It will remain appointed by the governor.)

The performance audit will be conducted by the secretary of state’s Audits Division — led by Gary Blackmer, the former city of Portland auditor — and is supposed to cover operations, finances, governing structure and the openness or transparency of TriMet’s decisions. Although the requirement for this audit was born of politics, the audit itself should not be viewed as a political tool to either protect or eviscerate TriMet and its management or employees.

TriMet already is a ripe target for critics of all political persuasions. It has been locked in a very public battle with the union representing transit workers over issues such as health care costs. It has been criticized in other quarters for investing too heavily in light rail at the expense of bus service. Suburban residents complain of insufficient transit service in their communities. Safety on the system is an ongoing concern.

Perhaps the secretary of state’s audit can be constructive in helping to identify not only problems, but also possible ways to address them. TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane says he hopes that is exactly what comes from the audit. McFarlane, who says the agency welcomes this audit along with other outside audits that already occur, also hopes to see a validation of TriMet’s financial forecasts. Those projections have led to the current showdown with the union over the sustainability of an extraordinarily generous health care plan.

Beyond financial matters, we believe auditors also can increase public understanding by making it clear that TriMet alone is not responsible for many of the controversies surrounding it.

TriMet delivers this region’s transit service, but a host of other decision-makers help determine how the agency spends its money and when and where it expands. The Metro regional government does the long-range transit planning. The federal and state transportation departments provide or influence the money for system expansions. Cities and counties within the TriMet service area have a hand in everything from transit safety to long-term planning.

To take one example, Metro is examining the Southwest corridor to make a recommendation on whether light rail or bus rapid transit should serve the Tigard area. Whichever option Metro chooses will be based on input it has received from the community, as well as information about operating costs and capital funding. Yet, when that recommendation ultimately is implemented by TriMet, it will be the transit agency — not the other parties involved to date — that will come under public scrutiny for its actions.

Any audit of TriMet must take this larger context into consideration. TriMet deserves some of the criticism it receives, but, in the end, most of the agency’s major decisions are influenced by outside forces. One of the problems TriMet faces is the ongoing disagreement among Portland-area residents about what the region’s transit future should be. That disagreement will never go away, which means TriMet will remain a focal point of controversy — audit or not.

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