Neil McFarlane built his career on expanding TriMet. But he has become the face of cutbacks. 

TriMet's general manager since 2010, McFarlane has been locked in a bitter struggle with the regional transit agency's employee union over a benefits package he says is ravaging TriMet's finances.

Last summer, citing a $12 million budget shortfall, he presided over fare hikes and the elimination of the Free Rail Zone. 

Union leaders say the financial crisis is the fault of new expenses McFarlane approved. As TriMet's director of capital projects, he spearheaded extensions of the red, yellow and green MAX light-rail lines. He's now overseeing the $1.4 billion orange line to Milwaukie.

On Feb. 13, McFarlane, 60, will use his annual "State of TriMet" address to explain why the agency needs to push the reset button on its union contract.

McFarlane sat down with WW to discuss TriMet's financial morass, the fairness of fare enforcement, and when buses will run 24 hours. 

WW: When was the last time you rode on a TriMet bus?

Neil McFarlane: This morning. I was headed from home in Southwest Portland to my office. [Line] 43.

How often do you ride it?

Almost every day. We see a very busy system overall. I wouldn't say that line 43 is average. It's one of our lower-performing rides, and it actually got its service cut last year. So there's no special favors for the line ridden by the general manager.

Do you have to pay?

I don't have to pay. One of the bennies of being a TriMet employee is you get a pass. I want people at TriMet to use the system. 

Do the bus drivers know who you are?

Generally, they do. And if they don't, I usually introduce myself. I generally get a very positive reception from the bus operators. 

TriMet has argued its financial problems are made worse by health benefits in the union contract.

Entirely because of the health benefits. [It] is a rich plan for active employees, but that same plan is promised in the union contract to anybody who retires at TriMet.

A union member can retire at age 55 with 10 years of service, retain that benefit for the rest of their life—and their spouse and their surviving spouse or, in some cases, dependents for 16 years after the death of the actual member of the union.

So it's a huge benefit that stretches on forever and ever. The length is one problem. The richness is the other problem.

Last summer, TriMet painted a fairly dire budget picture but is now doing better than projected. Can we expect restoration of service cuts?

No matter what level of growth these various revenue sources have, [union] benefits will overwhelm our ability to provide service. The good news as we approach the next budget year is, we are not in the situation where we have to drastically raise fares or decrease service.

The most common complaint we hear about TriMet is the $175 fine for riding without a $2.50 ticket. Is that fair?

When you freeload on TriMet, you are stealing service. It's a crime. We have stepped up the enforcement. That has been important to send a message that it is important for customers to pay the fare. It's still just $2.50, so let's put it in perspective.

Have you been to a fare-enforcement sting outside Blazers or Timbers games? 

I have, and generally we've been pretty successful in reducing the number of people that are stung, if you will. This was something that I've seen occur in other cities, like Minneapolis at Twins games. It's standard operating procedure in a lot of other cities.

What's the biggest lie that gets told about TriMet?

That somehow we don't want to grow service, we don't want to restore service.

But what I can't do is change the math. And a lot of people want to ignore the math about the cost of our union contract. 

Any hope of getting 24-hour transit?

I wouldn't suspect that it would be during my tenure as general manager. TriMet had an owl service years and years ago, and it was always very lightly used. What we are seeing is earlier morning buses. We are getting almost 21 to 22 hours of service [a day] on the TriMet system.

You've seen backlash to Milwaukie light rail from the new Clackamas County Commission. What have you told them?

Our response is that we are contractually committed to completing a project with the federal government. The county is contractually committed to us to help pay for their share. The project is under way. It's 35 percent done. It's on time. It's on budget. It's doing well.