Neil McFarlane is TriMet’s General Manager.
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!
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.