Portlanders hear constantly that their regional public transportation system is one of the nation’s best.
“If it were a fighter, we’d say it punches above its weight,” U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a leading mass-transit advocate in Congress, told WW earlier this year.
We at WW tend to think that’s true.
But a combination of factors conspired to make 2010 a memorable year for the transit agency for all the wrong reasons.
If 2010 had been a fight, TriMet would have lost via TKO.
In fact, the past 12 months have been so brutal for TriMet, the agency operating our tri-county transportation system gets our 2010 Rogue of the Year. And thanks to its help driving TriMet there, Amalgamated Transit Union 757, which represents about 2,000 TriMet employees, gets co-billing. After months of contentious (and so far unsuccessful) contract talks, the union still doesn’t seem to recognize that its members enjoy some of the most generous benefits around.
Take a trip with us over the past 12 months.
On Jan. 3, TriMet ended 35 years of free bus service downtown by restricting Fareless Square to light rail and streetcars only.
In March, The Oregonian showed that TriMet’s 1-year-old, $160 million Westside Express Service, a commuter rail line, had fallen far short of its ridership projections. (Although, more recently, the numbers have shown improvement.)
On April 24, bus driver Sandi Day struck and killed two pedestrians in Old Town and injured three others. TriMet fired Day. The union appealed, and the incident is now the subject of three separate $10 million lawsuits.
In September, another TriMet bus driver made national news after a passenger videotaped him allegedly reading a Kindle while driving. In October, an audit showed the price tag on TriMet’s post-employment benefits package had risen 29 percent since 2008. Then, on Election Day, local voters rejected a $125 million bond for the transit service.
The lousy economy didn’t help TriMet. With unemployment stuck above 10 percent, payroll taxes that contribute the most money to TriMet’s operating budget have stagnated. TriMet has slashed routes, cut back on the frequency of its service and raised fares by a nickel starting Sept. 1.
It’s not as though new general manager Neil McFarlane, who replaced Fred Hansen in July, hasn’t tried to punch back. He convened a safety task force. He announced new wage freezes for union employees and healthcare cost-sharing measures, too. The transit union responded with an unfair labor practice complaint, further delaying a contract settlement.
TriMet had some successes, supporters say.
“Despite all the grief they’ve caught for this and that, 2010 was the year TriMet finally approved a MAX line to inner Southeast Portland,” says Michael Andersen, editor and publisher of Portland Afoot newsletter. “Ten years from now, nobody’s going to remember much else.”
Yet longtime TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch, a consummate professional who can put a positive light on most anything, acknowledged in a September interview with WW that TriMet had endured many negative headlines. Jon Hunt, ATU president, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
“It’s been a challenging couple of years,” Fetsch said more recently. “When times were good we had very little push back.”
Tough economic times have brought greater focus to TriMet’s weaknesses, she said.
“We can’t wait to add service back,” Fetsch said. “We look forward to 2011.”
So do we.
RECENT ROGUES OF THE YEAR:
2009: Mayor Sam Adams
2008: Republican Party of Oregon
2007: Multnomah County Sheriff Bernie Giusto
2006: City Council candidate Emilie Boyles