All posts by 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.

Rider Q & A at our first “Coffee with Neil”

Neil McFarlane is TriMet’s General Manager.

Dear riders,

One of the most enjoyable parts of being the General Manager of TriMet is engaging directly with riders. Last Friday, I had coffee with 14 riders and we had a terrific 60-minute discussion on a wide variety of topics. I had a ball answering real questions from our riders—I would argue the most knowledgeable and committed transit riders on the planet!

coffee-with-neil
Last Friday, TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane answered questions from riders at the first in a series of “Coffee with Neil” events around the metro area.

By the way, you will see me—and my colleagues—out in the community more moving forward. We know you are frustrated with the level of service, overcrowded buses and trains, and the negative conversation about TriMet in the news. We know you want the facts and want to talk with us directly, and we agree.

Friday morning we touched on a variety of topics—here’s a brief recap:

  • Service reductions over the last three years: Understandably, riders are frustrated and want more service, not less. While we’re not in a financial position to significantly add service, we are investing $1.6 million more this year to reduce overcrowding, extending Line 94 all day and looking to add service to one key route in Washington County to help workers get to jobs. While this alone won’t satisfy the growing demand for transit in our region, it’s what we can afford to do for riders right now.
  • This year’s budget: There is some good news in our budget this year: no service cuts and no fare increases (assuming that our latest labor contract proposal is upheld). We are also accelerating our new bus purchases—70 more buses are coming this year—and continuing our “Access Transit” fare programs for low-income riders. We are hiring more bus operators to accommodate the new Hours of Service policy we agreed upon with the ATU (our labor union), and we will be increasing MAX vehicle and track maintenance, plus improving lighting and other amenities along the MAX system.
  • Pay raises for non-union staff: It was clear that what riders heard in the news was not the full story. These raises went to our 440 non-union employees, most not in management roles. The vast majority of these employees had their salaries frozen for 3 ½ years, and they have been paying more for their health care coverage. I made this decision to be fair to these hard-working public servants who play a critical role keeping our agency and our transit system running. While we informed our Board of Directors and community groups of this decision at the time, we certainly can and will be more transparent about changes such as these in the future.
  • TriMet’s health care costs: With an aging workforce and health care for life for retirees and their dependents, our health care costs remain a structural long-term challenge for the agency. We need to tackle this issue for the future of TriMet and transit service in our region. In order for us to make a case for new revenue, we need to get our house in order. I am confident the region will invest in us if they know the resources are going to new service, and not health care costs.
  • New bus purchases: Our bus fleet is too old. We purchased 55 new buses in fall 2012 and we’ll be replacing 70 more in 2013 and about 40 more each year after that. By 2017, we will have replaced all of the remaining high-floor buses in the fleet (those with steps at the door).
  • Washington County service: Riders are frustrated by the level of service within the county and some of the challenges of bus service on roads where the traffic is too fast and there is a lack of sidewalks and safe crossings. We are continuing to work with our partners to improve access to transit service and we’re seeing progress throughout the region.
  • Reducing stop spacing: Riders continue to express concerns about the number of stops along bus routes slowing down the service. We, of course, need to balance this desire with accessibility concerns of our riders who are seniors and have disabilities. One rider recommended created conditional ADA stops that would only be available to riders with special needs. This is certainly worth exploring.
  • TransitTracker system: Riders are frustrated with the quality of the audio on our TransitTracker by Phone system. I am pleased to report that this system is being upgraded—likely sometime later this year—and we expect the automated voice will be easier to understand.
  • East Portland bus service: One student shared his frustration with the lack of north-south service between 122nd and 185th in East Portland. This is a legitimate concern and a challenge for our riders, many of whom have moved east for more affordable housing. This summer we are starting a planning process to revise service for East Portland, which may help with these kinds of service gaps.
  • The shortcomings of  the Type 4 MAX cars: The Type 4 cars are too cold! We also discussed that some of the seating is too tight for riders. Both of these issues will be fixed in the next generation of MAX cars, which will enter service in 2014 and 2015. We also are working to resolve the temperature control system of the newer rail cars.
  • Interlining the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Line with the Yellow and Green lines: We are still developing the service plan, but, yes, the future Orange Line will be interlined with some Yellow and Green line trains. (Interlining means using the same vehicle and/or operator on multiple routes.)
  • Metro’s work on a BRT line along Powell-Division: Metro is launching a planning process to explore a new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line along Powell-Division. It’s certainly a corridor where there is a tremendous need and demand for more service. It’s a very promising opportunity to improve service on the Eastside.

I really enjoyed meeting riders and answering their questions at our first “coffee talk.” This is just the beginning, and I look forward to continuing the conversation with riders all over the region.

If you’re interested in joining Neil at a future “Coffee with Neil” event, please send us an email.

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.

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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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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.

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Mobile ticketing is the first step toward electronic fare collection

Mobile ticket screenshots
With TriMet’s new mobile ticketing app, iPhone and Android users will be able to buy and use fares instantly on their phone.

by Neil McFarlane, TriMet General Manager

By now, you’ve probably heard that we’re working on a convenient new mobile ticketing option for our riders using smartphones. As early as summer 2013, iPhone and Android users will be able to purchase and use TriMet tickets and passes using a free app on their phone.

This is one of the top requests from our riders, and for good reason. These days, about half of us own a smartphone, and more people are using them to make purchases when they’re on the go. Mobile ticketing means you no longer have to keep track of paper tickets, count exact change or wait in line at a ticket machine.

The app lets you register your debit/credit card, buy and show your fare at the touch of a button, and store fares for future use.

We’re always looking for ways to improve the “transit experience,” and I know that simple conveniences like mobile ticketing make a big difference for our riders. The best part is, we’re able to provide this innovative service with no capital costs or investments in equipment.

TriMet is among a handful of transit agencies in the nation to pilot mobile ticketing on smartphones. It’s also exciting to be working with a local firm on this endeavor. The app is powered by GlobeSherpa, a Portland-based software company that specializes in mobile ticketing and payments.

But this is just the beginning. The mobile ticketing app will bring us one step closer to a state-of-the-art electronic fare collection system that will eventually provide all riders—not just those with smartphones—with easy and convenient ways to pay their fare.

It’s too soon to say what that might look like, but right now we’re exploring all the options, including smartcards, debit/credit cards, smartphones with near-field communication, and mobile ticketing. We’re hoping to deploy a pilot of the new electronic fare collection system along with the opening of the Portland-Milwaukie MAX line in 2015.

For the latest news on the mobile ticketing app and the other mobile services we offer (such as the 50+ transit apps in the TriMet App Center), I encourage you to sign up to receive updates by email. Later this fall, we’ll be asking riders to help us test the new app.

Needless to say, I’m excited about this new service and I’m confident that riders will find it to be a useful, easy-to-use tool. As always, we’ll be looking for your feedback and suggestions, and other ways we can make your transit experience better. Thank you for riding!

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.

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Twitter town hall follow-up: How did it go?

Twitter logo

Neil McFarlane is TriMet’s general manager.

You may have heard I hosted our first-ever Twitter town hall on the topic of TriMet’s budget last Thursday. Anyone could participate by posting a question and tagging the tweet with #askneil. Over the course of an hour, I answered a variety of questions about our budget. Not being an active twitterer (tweeter?) , it was quite an experience for me. Of course, I had help—I definitely can’t type that fast!

Overall, I think it was a success. We had about 30 people asking questions, and I answered 35 questions. That’s not a huge turnout, but I think it was a useful forum. We’re already talking about how we might use a Twitter chat, or something like it, to discuss other topics of interest to riders. For the rest of you who aren’t on Twitter, or if you weren’t following along last Thursday, here’s an archive of the questions I was able to answer within the hour:

Read the tweets: TriMet Twitter Town Hall January 12, 2012

Of course, Twitter is just one of many tools we use to reach out and get people involved. We also built an interactive web survey and discussion guide, and we’re holding open houses and meeting with business leaders and community groups to get feedback about our budget options. All of this helps to guide our decisions throughout the process, and keep everyone informed along the way.

Speaking of the web survey, I want to extend a big “thank you” to everyone who has provided feedback so far. As of today, nearly 4,800 of you have weighed in!

This overwhelming response is a reminder that not only do riders and residents care deeply about transit in our region, they are eager to participate in the decision-making process and make their voices heard. I am truly impressed by the level of participation so far, and, naturally, I share your passion.

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to visit the website now and take a few minutes to read about the issues and submit your feedback. The survey closes today at 5 p.m. Keep in mind, the survey isn’t your only opportunity to weigh in… We’ll prepare an official proposal that you can react to in a few weeks. You can stay in the loop by signing up for email updates about TriMet’s budget process.

Most of all, thank you for riding TriMet! I’ll see you on board.

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.

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Twitter chat with Neil McFarlane January 12

Neil McFarlane is TriMet’s general manager.

TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane
TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane

On Thursday, January 12, at 6 p.m., I will be hosting a live town-hall-style chat on Twitter, to help answer your questions about TriMet’s budget issues and how they might affect you. You can participate by using the #askneil hashtag.

Learn more about TriMet’s Twitter Chat with Neil January 12, 2012

Back in October, I first posted about the budget shortfall we’re expecting in the next fiscal year—the result of a stagnant economy, cuts in federal funding, and the unsustainable costs of benefits for union employees.

At this point we’re still looking at a gap between $12 million and $17 million, which means we’ll have some tough choices to make in the coming months.

In mid-December, we began a new conversation with the community about TriMet’s budget challenges. We launched an interactive website (trimet.org/choices) to help educate riders and the public about how our budget works and let people weigh in with a “what would you do?” exercise. It spells out options for raising revenue and cutting costs in three areas: fares, service and internal efficiencies. If you haven’t already done so, I invite you to learn about the issues and share your feedback today.

This Twitter chat is one part of a broad community outreach effort that includes the online resources I mentioned above, open houses and a series of meetings with business leaders, community groups and other stakeholders.

I wish this conversation was a more positive one, given that demand for transit service is at an all-time high and transportation plays such a critical part in making our region a great place to live. But I want to make sure you know the facts about our financial situation, what our options are, and how you might be affected. Please join me January 12!

Learn more about TriMet’s Twitter Chat with Neil January 12, 2012

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.

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Budget shortfall expected due to stagnant economy, federal funding and labor contract

Neil McFarlane is TriMet’s General Manager.

Yesterday, I briefed TriMet’s Board of Directors on the outlook for our upcoming budget. I told the Board that we are in a time I am calling the “new normal.” A time when fiscal uncertainty has created the perfect storm, leaving us to face a $12 million to $17 million budget gap in Fiscal Year 2013 (our budget year that starts July 1, 2012).

Why? Three main reasons:

1. A stagnant economy—With employment in the region growing ever so slowly, our incoming revenue from employer payroll taxes (which make up over 50 percent of our budget) grows slowly too. While we didn’t have wild expectations, we were hoping to see that grow 4 to 5 percent next year. Reality has forced us to reduce our projected revenues by $3 million for next year.

2. Federal formula funds—There is a great deal of uncertainty over federal formula funds, which make up about $42 million in revenue to us. Who knows what will happen, but “automatic” reductions could go into effect and we estimate  it could have about a $4 million impact on our budget.

3. The ATU (union) contract—The recent Employment Relations Board (ERB) decision removed from TriMet’s final offer certain provisions, so some cost reductions we were hoping to see will have to wait for a future negotiation. This could mean between $5 million and $10 million in our FY13 budget.

All this said, TriMet continues to be a service our community needs and wants. We face increasing requests for more and better service. The hard reality is that we cannot afford to expand existing service levels, and I’m awfully afraid our service levels will diminish.

As a rider, I know how important it is to preserve service but it is hard to see how some cuts can be avoided. These are not easy choices. That is why everything needs to be on the table: fares, service, internal efficiencies, and current fare discounts. We will need to examine our activities and investments carefully, and make sure we are confident about the value of every dollar we spend.

These are not easy choices. That is why everything needs to be on the table: fares, service, internal efficiencies, and current fare discounts.”

To give us added time to address these issues and make those tough choices, I have created a Budget Task Force that will begin to meet in November. Given our best budget assumptions, these key business and community members will be tasked with providing me suggestions on how to appropriately balance our budget. We’re starting this process earlier than normal, which will give us more time for input from taxpayers, riders, and other stakeholders. The budget itself will come together during the first half of 2012.

This certainly isn’t the news I was hoping to share, but it is important that I share with both employees and riders what is ahead.

Here’s a link to our news release about TriMet’s budget outlook and some more background detail in the presentation I gave to the Board yesterday (PDF).

I welcome your suggestions and comments as we look for ways to close our budget gap. We will begin a formal public involvement process shortly, but in the meantime, there are several ways you can weigh in:

Phone: 503-238-RIDE (7433), option #5
Emailcomments@trimet.org
Mail: TriMet 2013 Budget, 4012 SE 17th Ave., Portland, OR 97202
Fax: 503-962-6451
TTY: 503-962-5811

WEIGH IN ON FACEBOOK: Thinking creatively, what ideas do you have that could help TriMet close its budget gap?

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.

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