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By Helen Silvis of The Skanner News
Published: 10 February 2012

Johnell Bell, at left, and Neil McFarlane outside of the North Portland Library on N. Killingsworth Street

TriMet has a plan to cut $17 million from its budget, through raising fares, eliminating fareless square, and requiring new tickets for return journeys, no matter how short the trip. The plan includes changes to the LIFT service and fewer MAX and bus trips.  More than two dozen routes would lose some service.

General Manager, Neil McFarlane says to cover its projected budget shortfall, the agency must cut costs. But TriMet will change its plan, depending on what riders say. The proposals must be finalized by April. So now is the time to let TriMet know what you think.

"Every one of our proposals ends up changing dramatically depending on what we hear from our customers," McFarlane told The Skanner News. "A lot of the changes are at a very micro level. That's why it is really important that people look at this and give us feedback."

About 80 people turned out to an open budget hearing, Feb. 9, at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization in East Portland, to offer their views. The meeting was just one in a series of Budget Hearings that McFarlane hopes will bring riders out to express their views on the budget.

Johnell Bell, TriMet's director of equity and diversity said the proposal to make all tickets one-way only provoked most concern at the meeting. Currently 4.5 percent of rides are round trips using a transfer. Those riders would need to buy two tickets.

"A lot of folks certainly support the elimination of the free rail zone," Bell said. "And there is general support of the flat fare, specifically the all-day pass."

Under the proposal, adults would pay $2:50 for a single ticket and $5 to travel all day. Youth would pay $1:65 for a single ticket and $3:30 for a day pass. The honored citizen rate would be $1 single and $2 all-day. Monthly passes would cost $100 for adults, $30 for youth and $26 for honored citizens.

McFarlane says the fare increases are needed to avoid further reductions to services, which have been cut for the last four years. An online survey completed by 4,800 people supported fare increases and was strongly against service cuts.

"I was surprised about the resistance to cutting any more services and how uniform that was," said McFarlane. "I think there is a sense that after the last four years of service cuts we have cut through the fat and now we are into muscle and possibly hitting bone."

Still, some service reductions are part of the proposed mix. TriMet is looking at consolidating routes in Northwest and Northeast Portland and in Beaverton. Some riders who can now complete their trip on one bus could have to transfer. It's also looking at cutting some trips on 26 bus lines, including cutting Saturday service on three lines. The agency also is proposing cutting some MAX line train trips during low ridership hours.

To comment you can find full details of the proposed cuts and service changes online or attend one of the upcoming Budget Hearings:
Monday, Feb. 13, from 4:30–6:30 p.m.
Multnomah County East County Health Center, Sharron Kelly A & B
600 NE 8th St.
Gresham, OR

Wednesday, Feb. 15, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.
Portland Building, Room C
1120 SW 5th Ave.
Portland, OR

Thursday, Feb. 16 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.
Clackamas Town Center, Community Room, Lower Level
12000 SE 82nd Ave.
Clackamas, OR

More Budget Hearings are scheduled for March. Check the TriMet website or the Skanner News calendar.

Why the $17 Million shortfall?
Why is the agency facing the $17 million shortfall? TriMet's budget woes are in part due to the recession, which has reduced agency revenue from payroll taxes, and other state sources. Facing a $60 million shortfall, TriMet already has made deep cuts. Management wages have been frozen for the last four years. The agency reduced its workforce by 200 people. Federal stimulus money of $14 million cushioned the blow. This year, however, federal funding is projected to drop by $4 million.
Yet, according to McFarlane, the biggest factor is the rising cost of employee healthcare benefits. Negotiated through a contract with the Transportation workers union, ATU, the average cost for employee healthcare is now $21,836 and rising. Employees who work at TriMet for 10 years or more, continue to receive healthcare benefits after retirement.
Union advocates say the benefits are part of their pay package and were fairly negotiated. Management says the benefits, which provide services with few or no co-pays, are unrealistic in today's healthcare market. The management healthcare plan, which does have co-pays for visits and medication, costs an average of $11,754 per employee.
McFarlane points to data that shows if the trend continues, healthcare costs are projected to make up 42 percent of the agency budget in 5 years.
Jonathan Hunt, President of ATU 757, the Union representing TriMet employees, said in a statement to the agency's board that TriMet could save millions if it stopped contracting out services for elderly and disabled citizens. Citing a 2008 audit by accountants Lauka & Associates he says,
"TriMet could save over 7 million dollars a year … by dumping the private contractors and performing the service in-house.
"Based on 2004/05 fiscal year budget numbers, the most recent full year budget figures provided by TriMet at the time, the audit revealed that TriMet would save nearly 7 million taxpayer dollars annually, if they brought paratransit service in-house.
One can confirm the current estimated savings based on current TriMet budget numbers, by applying the same contract increases given by TriMet to contractors over the last six years."
Hunt also urged cutting management jobs, which he says have grown by more than 100.
With a contract that expired 28 months ago, TriMet and the union are currently in arbitration over healthcare benefits. A decision is due in mid-March, but the union has asked for another extension. McFarlane says TriMet will argue against the extension.

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