TriMet considers raising fares, cutting service, dropping free rail to balance budget

by Melanie Davis
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Neil McFarlane and Martín González
Richard Jones El Hispanic News Portland, OR — TriMet may soon ask you to drop a few more coins into the box to pay for your rides to work and back. In addition to that pocket change, some fairly serious numbers are under discussion at TriMet — the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon. It’s time to balance the budget for fiscal year 2013, which runs from July 2012 through June 2013. TriMet’s FY2012 budget weighed in at $444 million, or about $200 per person in the three-county area. The FY2013 budget, with several issues awaiting arbitration, may not be set in stone until next autumn. Early estimates suggest that FY2013 expenses, if not altered, will fall short by about $17 million. Although the completion of a FY2013 budget is due by July, it appears that assorted delays will prevent it from appearing on time. Several big-ticket items are now underway. The Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Bridge, estimated at $134 million, has begun to take shape between the Marquam Bridge and the Ross Island Bridge. The bill for the new bridge is just a small portion of the estimated $1.49 billion for extending the MAX line to Milwaukie. Federal, state, and county governments will cover about 95 percent of the bill for the bridge and tracks, TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane said. “When we’re done,†he said, “we will operate more efficiently.†Light rail, he pointed out, is more efficient than diesel burning buses. In addition to buses, TriMet operates the MAX (Metropolitan Area Express), the light rail cars that provide service to Hillsboro, Beaverton, Portland, Gresham, and the Clackamas Town Center. MAX service to Milwaukie should begin zipping down the tracks by 2015. Currently, MAX cars run every 15 minutes during rush hours, with slower schedules during early morning, mid-day, and evening periods. The LIFT program provides door-to-door service for the handicapped. So far, so good. But despite the reassuring sounds of buses and MAX light rail cars on city streets, all is not roses in TriMet land. Plans to balance the budget While a projected deficit of $17 million may seem insignificant in an annual budget approaching a half billion dollars, $17 million is still $17 million. And the question of whose TriMet benefits will get cut has raised volleys of charges and countercharges between the non-union management and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 (ATU). McFarlane and ATU President Jonathon Hunt have very different ideas about erasing the estimated $17 million shortfall. McFarlane said one problem was that the economy did not grow as fast as estimated, thus shrinking taxes. Income over the last four years, he said, has fallen by $60 million. About half of TriMet’s income derives from local business taxes. Another problem, he said, comes from raising union worker’s earnings and health benefits. “Their salaries cannot grow faster than our income,†he reasoned. McFarlane selected three possibilities to bring the budget into balance. The first is to raise fares, the second to reduce services, and the third to make union members pay for part of their health care programs. McFarlane said that the average medical care cost for a union employee comes to $21,836 per year, whereas for a non-union worker the average medical care cost is $11,174. Union employees, he said, need to pay part of their health care program. ATU’s portion of the TriMet budget is steadily growing, he said. A TriMet information sheet stated, “The current trend in the cost of benefits for union employees is unsustainable, and we are at an impasse in negotiations with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757.†Randy Stedman, director of labor relations and human resources, called the union healthcare plan a “Cadillac insurance plan.†He said it cost the insured only $5 per visit. Moreover, Stedman said, “It covers [the workers’] families for 16 years after the worker dies.†Hunt sees the situation from a very different perspective. Delivering a rousing six-minute analysis at the TriMet Board of Directors meeting in January, Hunt said that non-union supervisors had caused budgetary problems. “What TriMet is keeping from the public is the fact that they could cut their projected budget shortfalls by more than half and they could do it today,†Hunt charged. “TriMet could save over $7 million according to an independent auditor report by dumping a private contractor and performing the services in-house. These contractors are getting fat at taxpayers expenses and TriMet stands by and lets them get away with it.†Hunt went on to charge that TriMet carried too many non-union supervisors on the payroll. “Another area where TriMet could immediately save tax payers around $5 million [is] to revert back to 2006 numbers of management positions at TriMet,†Hunt said. “It is estimated that the new non-union positions at TriMet have grown by more than 128 since 2006, while the numbers of unionized jobs that they supervise have remained fairly consistent during the same period.†Eliminating non-union contractors and eliminating some supervisors, he said, “would alone save almost $12 million of tax payer money.†“Fare increases for this population of users is not necessary,†Hunt concluded. McFarlane claimed that management had, indeed, bit the bullet. For over four years, he said, there had been no pay raises for management. New drivers, he said, receive about $24 per hour after finishing training. According to a GovDocs report released in August, 2010, some 200 TriMet workers, both union and non-union, drew more than $100,000 or more in salary and benefits. Fred Hansen, then TriMet’s general manager, drew a salary of $247,071.70 plus $14,562.48 in other benefits, making a total of $261,634.18. In a search for means to cut expenses, McFarlane said 12 people outside TriMet had examined the books and had found “no low-hanging fruit†to trim from the budget. The structure of TriMet Getting a grasp on TriMet’s structure is almost as difficult as figuring out the plot a Wagnerian opera. Born in 1969, TriMet covers Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties. The operation runs about 650 buses and 105 MAX light rail cars. Some 269 LIFT vehicles furnish door-to-door services for people with disabilities. Where did TriMet’s FY2012 $440 million operating fund come from? Financing for TriMet comes from varied sources. Clackamas County, Metro, Milwaukie, Multnomah County, Oregon City, the Oregon Department of Transportation, Portland, and the Portland Development Commission contribute to the TriMet’s income. According to a TriMet position paper, “About half of our funding for operating buses and trains come from a payroll tax paid by area businesses.†The organization’s website shows that payroll taxes come to about $220 million per year, with riders paying about $100 million. Another report states, “TriMet receives $40 to $45 million in federal funds for annual preventive maintenance.†McFarlane estimated that this will drop by $4 million in FY2013. Grants from various sources provide about $10 million. Advertising posters on buses and light rail cars generate a few million dollars more. McFarlane has some tough decisions to make about his bus and MAX. As a public operation, TriMet is asking for feedback from its riders about schedules, possible elimination of some lines, and changes in fares. The riders get their say Open meetings scheduled over the next three weeks will allow the public to comment on fare changes and route adjustments. McFarlane said he did not want to eliminate any bus service. The services could include either fewer buses on some routes or eliminating some routes altogether. “That depends on realistic labor costs,†he noted. TriMet’s proposed changes call for new fares from riders to pick up $12.2 million of the anticipated $17 million short fall. The most notable of the proposed changes will be the elimination of the Free Rail Zone. Currently, riders can ride MAX lines from downtown Portland to the Lloyd Center District and back for free. Charging fees from this short leg could generate about $2.7 million. Trying to separate free zone riders from freeloaders poses a problem for TriMet inspectors. “With the end of the free zone,†McFarlane said, “we will be able to step up enforcement.†The plan calls for eliminating the current three service zones and charging a flat fare for all rides. The current two hour pass — $2.40 for adults and $1.50 for youth — allows unlimited travel in any combination of directions within two hours. This program may be replaced with a one-way two-hour fare. The suggested new fares will rise to $2.50 for adults and $1.65 for youth. A round-trip day pass with unlimited rides would remain at $5 for all riders. Fares for Honored Citizens — riders 65 or older — would remain at $1 for a one-way ticket. Eliminating the Free Zone and restructuring fare rates would generate an estimated $12.2 million. That, Hunt noted, would mostly affect fixed-income riders. Newly arrived non-English speakers have some difficulty understanding how the system works. TriMet multicultural programs facilitator Martín González observed, “They don’t know what to pay, so they pay the most.†Aware of the growing number of non-English speakers, the TriMet website now has information available in Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, Chinese, and Korean. At a public session at the Beaverton Library, riders packed the conference room to get information and give their opinions. Future hearings are set for March 19 in Clackamas Town center, March 20 in the Beaverton Library conference room, March 21 at the Portland Building auditorium, March 22 at the Multnomah County East County Health Center, and March 27 at the Multnomah County Library North Portland Branch in the second floor meeting room. All are 4:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m., except for the March 27 hearing, which is 5:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m. For more details visit