Category Archives: From the GM

Bringing back 15-minute Frequent Service

Frequent ServiceNext March, buses on 10 of our popular Frequent Service lines will come more frequently during the day. Thanks to an improving budget outlook, we are happy to begin restoring 15-minute service—which had been cut over the last few years due to the recession—starting with mid-day hours on weekdays.

Effective Sunday, March 2, 2014, we’re bringing back 15-minute service during the day on the following lines: 

  • 6-Martin Luther King Jr Blvd
  • 8-Jackson Park/NE 15th
  • 9-Powell Blvd
  • 12-Barbur/Sandy Blvd
  • 14-Hawthorne
  • 15-Belmont/NW 23rd
  • 33-McLoughlin
  • 54-Beaverton/Hillsdale Hwy/56-Scholls Ferry Rd
  • 57-TV Hwy/Forest Grove
  • 75-Cesar Chavez/Lombard

We’re also adding more buses on Line 4-Fessenden/Division during weekday evenings and all day on Saturdays.

For riders, this means less waiting, shorter travel times and better connections. Plus, when buses come more often, you have more flexibility in your schedule (and a better chance of getting a seat!). Many of our mid-day riders depend solely on transit to get around, so we know that better frequency makes a big difference. 

Before the recession, “Frequent Service” meant that buses and MAX came every 15 minutes or better throughout the day, every day. We had to temporarily reduce frequency on these and other lines due to budget shortfalls. Today, we are in a position to begin restoring service, due to increased revenue from advertising, and lower health insurance costs for non-union employees.

Restoring Frequent Service has been a top priority for me, and improving mid-day service is just the first step. It will probably take a few years to get back to 15-minute frequency all day, every day—meaning evenings and weekends, too—but that’s our goal.

Stay tuned for more details about the service improvements coming up in March and the restoration of 15-minute Frequent Service. Be sure to sign up for email updates for the line(s) you ride to get the latest service updates.  

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Testing an electric bus on the streets of Portland!

This bus was in Portland off the advances that have been made in electric bus technology

This bus from BYD North America was in Portland to show off the latest advances in electric bus technology

Yesterday, I got a glimpse of what the future could bring for transit—electric buses! I was on board during a test drive of a bus manufactured by BYD North America.

They brought the bus to Portland to show off the advances that have been made in electric bus technology.

Electric bus interior

Electric bus interior

The bus we tested was built to specifications for a different market—not the North American. But for the most part—all the parts are the same—but the differences in the doors and seating arrangements could easily be tailored to the North American market.

That’s what BYD is doing for LA MTA and Long Beach Transit who have put in orders for a bus similar to what I rode on this morning.

So is this the future for TriMet? I can’t say just yet—but we will be looking to LA and Long Beach’s experience with them. I would love to see the range extended a bit (though now they would work for 60% of our bus assignments).

BYD North America talks about the latest advances in electric bus technology

BYD North America talks about the latest advances in electric bus technology

Price, battery life and maintenance savings will be key issues for us. In the mean time, we’re looking at what’s out on the market.

We’re currently testing four hybrids to see how well they perform in our rainy weather and hilly topography.

We’re also looking at expanding our hybrid fleet with what we’re calling “super-hybrids” during our next bus procurement in the weeks ahead.

Electric bus manufactured by BYD North America

Electric bus manufactured by BYD North America

TriMet led the way in applying NASCAR technology to our buses which has since become an industry standard.

Now, as we continue to renew our bus fleet, I want TriMet to take this opportunity to see what other cutting edge technologies are out there to both improve the performance of our bus fleet but to also to improve the ride for our customers.

 

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Meeting with transit riders at Portland-based startup Elemental Technologies

General Manager Neil McFarlane meets with employees at Elemental Technologies

General Manager Neil McFarlane talks transit with employees of Portland-based startup Elemental Technologies. Nearly half of Elemental’s 95 local employees ride buses and trains.

Neil McFarlane is TriMet’s General Manager.

Recently, I had the opportunity meet with employees from a terrific Portland-based startup called Elemental Technologies. Elemental is a leading supplier of video solutions for multi-screen content delivery.

The company is growing rapidly with offices across the United States and in the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Singapore and Brazil. CEO Sam Blackman was recently featured on GeekWire (honored as their “2012 Startup CEO of the Year”). He also spoke about the many benefits of low-car commuting at the Portland Employers Bike Summit in May.

Nearly half of Elemental’s 95 local employees use transit. Many others bike to work. Their downtown office features their video processing technology in an array of video screens in their lobby, where a customized app displays real-time bus and MAX arrivals.

Needless to say, the Elemental crew had lots of questions that I think might be on the minds of other riders. Here’s are some highlights from our discussion.

What is TriMet’s process for assessing the efficiency of bus stop spacing?

Bus stop spacing is a question I hear quite a bit. Honestly, we’ve used a variety of processes over the years and we’re revisiting this topic again. Currently, our policy and planning group is working with the community to develop a policy that can be applied region-wide. How far apart should stops be? What are the accessibility needs of riders in the area around each stop? From there, we will begin to review our system line-by-line.

Any plans for digital signage or advertising on trains or at stops?

At this point, the City of Portland prohibits electronic advertising displays in the public right-of-way so as to not distract auto drivers. We may want to revisit this with them. Recently, we received a proposal from a local news station to have a crawl at the bottom of our screens, similar to what CNN does.

Any consideration of removing MAX stops, particularly in Downtown Portland?

No question, the trip should be faster through Downtown. There really are two issues for us: one, each stop has a constituency that moved their business or office there to be near a MAX stop. For example, the Skidmore station was one that seemed viable for a potential closure, but it is located near the new offices for the University of Oregon and Mercy Corps. The second issue is cost. These stations have a lot of hard-wired safety features that would be really expensive to remove.

Any plans to add Wi-Fi to MAX trains?

We’d love to find a solution where we can add Wi-Fi cost-effectively to our bus and rail fleet, but currently it is cost prohibitive. WES has it because it was required for maintenance on the cars, and we chose to also make it available to WES riders. That’s not the case with the rest of our fleet. One solution we’ve explored is looking for a sponsor to help cover the cost of adding wireless service to our vehicles, but that has not panned out yet.

Is TriMet considering changes to the Line 96-Tualatin/I-5 with the move of the 1,000-person Stream Global Services call center from Beaverton to Wilsonville?

Wilsonville is outside our service district. By law, we cannot provide service outside our area without an agreement with the other jurisdiction to compensate us. That said, TriMet’s WES Commuter Rail service opened in 2009 in partnership with Washington County and Wilsonville to provide service to the transit center in the city. WES, which operates only during morning and evening commute hours, was designed specifically around employment centers. The local SMART bus system provides shuttle service from WES to local employers in the area.

Is TriMet considering moving away from the honor system for paying your fare on buses and trains?

We are working to provide riders with tools to make it easier to purchase their fares. We are currently beta-testing a mobile ticketing app, where riders can buy tickets on their smart phones. Plans call for us to move to an electronic fare system in about four years. Last year, we simplified the fare system, eliminating zones, with that in mind.

Will TriMet ever revisit distance-based fares with newer fare technology?

One of the benefits of our region’s Urban Growth Boundary is that our transit trips are generally shorter compared to other cities. We also have heard from riders that the distance-based fares (zones) were confusing. When we look to implement an electronic fare system it would be far more complicated and costly to create mechanisms for tapping on and off, with a distance-based system. What if someone forgets to tap on? How do you deal with it when they exit the vehicle? Our plan is to keep it simple.

What’s the financial impact of eliminating the Rail Free Zone?

Overall, I think we have seen an increase in fare revenue and a decrease in riders on our rail system. What we know thus far, a lot of riders parked near the Rail Free Zone and walked to a station. In the last six months, I’ve heard a lot of feedback from riders who work downtown and miss the lunchtime option of hopping on a bus or train to run errands at lunch to get to a meeting downtown. Eliminating the free zone was a very difficult decision for our board—it was loved by riders. We came to a point where we needed to decide who we were subsidizing—free rides for people during their lunch hour downtown or service for those who needed it most. Transit equity was more important.

Why do you sometimes have 1-car trains on the system instead of the normal 2-car trains?

This situation should be pretty rare, but when it does happen it likely means the car is in the shop for maintenance. We are going through a major overhaul of our Type 2 cars, which are now 20 years old. This is their midlife update, where all their parts are being replaced.

Can you add your current location option to your bus app?

TriMet doesn’t actually own any smartphone apps per se (but we do have a mobile website that provides a “use your current location” option, at m.trimet.org). Years ago we made our data available to developer community so they would innovate and create apps of their own. You may be referring to one of these third-party apps, which are featured online in our App Center. Today, there are more than 50 applications available to riders. Also, Google has a great transit option in Google Maps, which also provides the location option.

I love the Poetry in Motion on your system. Are there plans to keep it?

We would love to participate in Poetry in Motion again. We rely on sponsorships to produce the signs and keep the program going. For example, we had a printing sponsor who produced the last set of signs inside buses. We are always on the lookout for potential sponsors for the program.

 

Congratulations to Sam and his team on their continued success. I look forward to seeing members of the Elemental team on our buses and trains!

There’s more to the wages story…

As I have talked with riders across the region over the past five months, the topic of TriMet’s non-union (administrative employee) wages continues to bubble up. My employee compensation decision was made on the basis of equity and fairness. While I could have been more forthcoming, I am fully committed to the transparency the public expects moving forward.

But there’s more to TriMet’s salary story.

Controlling costs. Reading headlines isn’t enough. Riders and taxpayers should know that TriMet held down non-union employee compensation by freezing salaries for 3 ½ years. We also reduced non-union health care benefits, required employees to contribute more to their monthly premiums, and reformed their retirement compensation. Over the past two recessions, we cut roughly 200 positions, including 11% of our administrative staff. These changes, which amounted to cuts in compensation for our administrative employees, helped us control costs during the recession and avoid more severe cuts to service.

During that same time, union wages increased 3% per year. There are 2,109 union employees and only 427 non-union employees.

Further, non-union employees hold a variety of roles at TriMet, from computer programmers to engineers. There are 49 general fund employees that make over $100,000 – fewer now than seven years ago when adjusted for inflation. See chart

Many of them could make a lot more money if they worked in the private sector or moved to another wealthier transit agency. Instead, they choose to serve the people in the TriMet district.

Skyrocketing health care costs vs. transit service. While some may be fixated on our wages, our focus is on our rising health care costs. In 2003, TriMet required non-union employees to share in the cost of these benefits. This group now participates in an 80/20 co-insurance plan that has saved the agency millions. We are offering the same fair health care benefit to our ATU union employees. The savings from this modest change will allow TriMet to put bus service back on the street now and into the future.

TriMet is not in PERS. In fact, in 2004 TriMet moved new non-union employees into a defined contribution plan (similar to a 401-K) which is also saving the agency resources that can be dedicated to more transit service.

Let’s get more transit service! So, while headlines and interviews are focused on the wages of a few employees, I am focused on fixing TriMet’s long-term cost structure. Let’s start talking about restoring Frequent Service and then adding more bus routes. It’s what riders ask for every day and I am firmly committed to making this happen.

Our riders, taxpayers and this region deserve nothing less.

Neil McFarlane
TriMet General Manager

Q&A about TriMet salaries

Q:. Who set’s the salary for TriMet’s General Manager?
A: TriMet’s Board of Director’s sets the salary. TriMet’s General Manager makes $221,450, which is below the average of other transit districts according to the American Public Transportation Association (a national trade organization). The average GM salary for agencies with more than 2,500 employees is $263,310 (TriMet has 2,536 employees.) See comparison chart

Q: Why are there so many people working on the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Transit Project making over $100,000?
A: The $1.49 billion Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Transit Project has 128 full-time non-union positions—of those positions, 21 earn over $100,000. They bring construction and engineering experience and their salaries are funded by project funds and not TriMet’s General Fund. PMLR project funds (federal, state, and regional) can only be used for the project.

Q: How can TriMet afford a Deputy General Manager position?
A: The Deputy Manager position is funded by the elimination of one position and other savings within the agency, so it’s a net zero impact on TriMet’s budget.

Q: There’s a lot of buzz around TriMet’s salaries. How does TriMet stack up compared to its peers?
A: Key performance indicators show how TriMet outperforms its peers.
View the full report.

TriMet delivers more service. Bus, MAX and WES service on the street is 25% higher than the peer group average, which includes SF Muni (vehicle revenue hours)

TriMet has higher ridership. Boarding rides per capita are 25% higher than the peer group average

TriMet’s expenses per ride are lower. Operating expenses per boarding ride are 23% lower than the peer group average

TriMet’s overall administrative costs are lower. Administrative expenses per total operating expense are 1% lower than the peer average

TriMet delivers more service with less administration. General administration employees per 1 million boarding rides is 38% lower than the peer group average

Thank you for your patience

MAX on Steel BridgeRiders, thank you so much for your patience.

Yesterday was a challenging day. Most of the light rail system and the streetcar lines were shut down during the morning commute after a “surge arrester” on the Steel Bridge shorted out and overloaded downtown substations.

We deployed bus shuttles to bridge the service disruption, but many riders arrived late to their destinations. This is not how your commute is supposed to be, particularly on a Monday morning. We all know that Mondays are tough enough and I can’t thank you enough for your patience through it all. Dependable and reliable service is what you should expect from us.

Our operators, field operations and customer service teams stepped up to minimize the disruption. I received a heartwarming call from a rider who is visually impaired. He wanted to recognize all of the TriMet supervisors and security personnel who assisted him when the system went down. He was thankful for those individuals who helped escort him from the MAX to his bus connection.

Our rail maintenance crews and engineers from the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Transit Project restored nearly all service except the segment over the Steel Bridge by 8:45 a.m. Service over the bridge was restored at 7 p.m.

We know that preventive maintenance is the key. We are learning a great deal from this incident and will look at how we can prevent something like this from happening in the future.

Reliability is also why I’ve accelerated bus replacement in the coming three budgets. Our bus fleet is too old and as a result has become less reliable for riders. Another 70 new buses are arriving this summer, 60 next year and another 60 the following year. By 2016, the average age of our fleet will be the industry recommended standard of eight years.

Additionally, TriMet will receive well-timed federal State of Good Repair funds this summer to support maintenance of our region’s first rail line, the Eastside MAX Blue Line, which opened in 1986. This is part of a larger effort we call “Renew the Blue,” which included a new station at Gresham’s Civic Drive and a rebuilt station in Rockwood, among other upgrades.

These investments should improve reliability for riders moving forward. In the meantime, we greatly appreciate your patience.

Pour another cup

This morning I visited the offices of Basic Rights Oregon in Downtown Portland to talk with some of the riders who work there and at Western States Center, another non-profit organization down the hall. Everybody in the room is involved in important work in the community, especially related to the needs of LGBT residents.

BRO Coffee 1 (2)

TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane met with riders at Basic Rights Oregon and Western States Center on May 2.

This group of riders expressed many of the same concerns I hear all over our region about service cuts, ticket vending machines and the financing of the new Portland-Milwaukie MAX. I explained that although we are only able to provide a very limited number of service increases and improvements this year, our ultimate goal is to increase service significantly.  But first, TriMet needs to decrease its health care costs to create a sustainable budget.  Another piece of good news I shared is that by July 1, we will have replaced more than half of our oldest ticket machines.  It’s not a cure-all, but we think this will translate into a better customer experience.  Finally, I explained that the financing of the new MAX makes up less than 5% of the TriMet budget.

One rider asked if TriMet offers cultural competency training to its employees. I was pleased to report a new development: I have set aside funding for the next fiscal year to give a pivotal group of over 100 of our frontline employees – the ones with the most contact with customers and operators – training that will strengthen their understanding of the diverse communities they serve each day.

One rider, who recently moved to Portland from Chicago, asked about our [outdated] fare system (it was said more nicely than that)! Thankfully, I had my smartphone handy and could show the group TriMet’s new mobile ticketing app, which a small group of riders will be beta testing very soon. And that’s just the first step: We’re also moving toward a fully electronic fare collection system, which could be in place by 2017-18.

Once again, it was a great to get out and meet our riders one-on-one. Thanks to everyone who joined me for coffee this sunny May morning!

Extended transfer times?

Meeting with OPAL

Last night, General Manager Neil McFarlane, Board Member Travis Stovall and Executive Director of Finance Dave Auxier met with OPAL and Bus Riders Unite at their office in Southeast Portland.

This spring, I am spending more time in the community meeting with riders at coffees and visits to transit centers.

Last night, Board Member Travis Stovall, Executive Director of Finance Dave Auxier and I had the pleasure of meeting with members of OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon and Bus Riders Unite at their office in Southeast Portland.

We had a good discussion about OPAL’s Campaign for a Fair Transfer, which is a proposal to extend the transfer time from two to three hours and provides for a free return trip for riders using the system after 7 p.m.

We heard directly from OPAL members about how extending the transfer times would help offset the impact of fare increases and service cuts, particularly for riders who are transit-dependent. No question, riders throughout the region are experiencing longer wait times, more crowded buses and missed connections.

Wherever I go in region, riders ask for more service, particularly to get access to jobs. Rightly so, transit play a critical role in our local economy. We are committed to increasing service, which is why we have focused on getting our cost structure under control, particularly our employee health care costs.

In the meantime, TriMet will provide OPAL and the public with an updated estimate on what it would cost to implement a 3-hour transfer and a free return trip after 7 p.m. We committed to providing that analysis, based on newer trend data, by the end of June. We requested the opportunity to hold a workshop with OPAL and Bus Riders Unite members to review the proposal in detail in July. We’ll also share the analysis with the TriMet Board of Directors.

Any recommendations to the TriMet Board would happen later this summer.