When will TriMet be able to restore (and increase) service?

A message from Neil McFarlane, TriMet General Manager

TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlaneDear riders,

Many of you have asked when TriMet is going to be able to restore the service that was cut over the last few years. I know first-hand that buses and trains are crowded, and for some of us, it’s a long wait for the next one.

On Wednesday, I made a presentation to our Board of Directors about the state of TriMet’s budget and what we can expect in the years ahead. I wanted to share with you what I told them.

First, the good news: We don’t anticipate any more service cuts or fare increases—except for a scheduled LIFT paratransit fare increase—in the next fiscal year (through June 2014).

That’s assuming that the Oregon Employment Relations Board upholds our latest labor contract with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 (ATU), which the union has challenged. I’m optimistic, but be aware that it could mean additional service cuts if the ATU prevails.

The bad news: An even bigger budget crisis is on the horizon. Looking out a few years, we are projecting a $15-17 million budget shortfall in 2017, increasing annually to $195-$200 million in 2030. The main reason is the rising cost of health care benefits for our union employees and retirees. Retiree benefits, for example, are growing at compound annual rates of 15-18 percent per year.

In fact, without a change to our labor contract, employee health care costs will consume nearly half of TriMet’s operating revenue from payroll taxes by 2020.

Our job is to keep the Portland area moving. TriMet and the ATU have a responsibility to bring these costs under control so that we can restore—and eventually grow—transit service to meet the rising demand.

Of course, that’s not sustainable. The more we pay in health care, the less service we can provide. Plain and simple, it’s about the math.

And we only have a brief window of time before riders will feel the effects. So, how can we fix this?

As we begin negotiations for a new labor contract, we have proposed solutions to the ATU leadership that will help rein in these costs. Our proposal would bring health care costs down while maintaining a fair and competitive benefit package that is more in line with that of other public employees.

To be clear, I believe our hard-working employees deserve quality health care. We’re simply proposing that ATU employees receive the same level of health care benefits that I and other non-union staff receive—which, while not as rich as the union’s current plan, is still a very good benefit package by any measure.

As I’ve said before, TriMet is a transit agency, not a health care provider. Our job is to keep the Portland area moving. TriMet and the ATU have a responsibility to bring these costs under control so that we can restore—and eventually grow—transit service to meet the rising demand. It will take some time to get there, but, working together, I’m confident that we will get there.

Thank you for your continued support, and thanks for riding.

Neil McFarlane's signature

RELATED: Read Neil McFarlane’s “Hot Seat” interview with Willamette Week, February 13, 2013 

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About Neil McFarlane, TriMet General Manager

As the General Manager of TriMet, I'm responsible for running the agency. I've been here at TriMet since 1991, when I started as project control director for the Westside light rail project. When I'm not at work, I enjoy spending time with my family and riding the bus and MAX. Maybe I'll see you during my commute.