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July 11th, 2012 AARON MESH | News Stories
 

Gimme Shelter

Adams’ play to restore TriMet’s YouthPass for city students leaves the region’s leaders steaming.

news2_trimet_3836ILLUSTRATION: Jon Sperry
Mayor Sam Adams doesn’t usually attend Metro’s Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation—the board of elected officials and bureaucrats that sets regional transit priorities.

But when he’s there, he makes an impression.

“We frequently have tense meetings when the mayor shows up,” says Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury. “He’s very vocal, and doesn’t like it when people disagree with him.”

Adams is expected to attend Thursday’s JPACT meeting. He can expect an even frostier reception than usual.

The mayor waited until after TriMet approved its already controversial 2013 budget before leveling a threat at the transit agency: Restore the YouthPass program—free bus and MAX rides for all high-school students in Portland Public Schools—or the city would pay for it by jacking up annual fees on TriMet’s bus shelters by $2 million. (The agency now pays $24,380.)

The passes were among the many services slashed by TriMet to cover a projected $12 million shortfall. Higher bus-shelter fees charged by Portland, TriMet says, would mean even deeper cuts.

That’s left leaders of other local governments worried that Adams is endangering regional service for a perk enjoyed only by Portland students.

“It’s an equity issue,” Washington County board chairman Andy Duyck tells WW. “We have our problems as well. Why should their problems be solved at our expense?”

Adams says TriMet left him no choice. He says he and Neil MacFarlane, TriMet’s general manager, had a “handshake agreement” that the transit agency wouldn’t do away with the YouthPass. Adams says he traded his support for doing away with the downtown Free Rail Zone in exchange for that agreement.

The mayor says he wasn’t paying attention to the details of the TriMet budget until after it was approved because he assumed the YouthPass would be protected.

“This is not my style of politics,” Adams says. “A handshake agreement with TriMet, in the past I could take it to the bank. I did not expect to play hardball.”

MacFarlane says through a spokeswoman that he made the handshake deal but warned Adams the TriMet board might not approve it. The board didn’t. Adams and the agency are now negotiating a compromise deal.

“It is an interesting position the mayor has gotten himself into,” Kafoury says. “Not only has he alienated Washington County, but there’s also the other school districts that don’t have this program.”

On June 27, the day after Adams issued his threat to hike TriMet shelter fees, Duyck says he called TriMet boss MacFarlane to ask that Portland—not other jurisdictions—bear the brunt of any cuts forced by Adams’ move.

Duyck tells WW that MacFarlane was sympathetic but made no promises. 

“I can get along with a lot of people,” Duyck says, “but Sam has no respect for anyone else. Here he is again, asking for something special for Portland. That’s typical Sam Adams.”

Clackamas County board chairwoman Charlotte Lehan hasn’t talked to TriMet about protection from service cuts in an adjusted budget. But she agrees with Duyck’s concerns about the potential for more TriMet service cuts. 

“Clackamas County shouldn’t be subsidizing Portland Public Schools,” she says. 

Adams says critics forget Portland took a hit when TriMet ended the Free Rail Zone. And he notes Portland Public Schools is Oregon’s only district without school buses for high-school students.

“In terms of the Washington County chair’s demand that Portland pay for changes to Portland service, we did that,” Adams says. “We more than did that.”

In the early days of his term, Adams fashioned himself as an “education mayor,” emphasizing schools even though they don’t fall under City Hall’s purview. When asked, Adams insists this stand isn’t part of an effort to leave a legacy on education as he leaves office after this year.

“That’s a stupid question,” Adams says. “This isn’t about legacy. I always work on what the city needs. Sometimes it’s glamorous. Sometimes it’s not. It’s usually controversial.” 

 
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