Voices 2013: Al Margulies

The TriMet watchdog says riders should demand more from the agency.

Al Margulies
Intro Hales Parrish margulies Bueno Fred Wilker

Margulies—one of the most outspoken of the transit agency's public watchdogs—was a TriMet driver until he retired in May after 15 years behind the wheel.

In 2006 he launched a blog, "Rantings of a TriMet Bus Driver." He retired, he says, because he got sick of the transit-agency brass cracking down on him for posting unflattering information on his blog.

He's since inserted "Former" into the title of his blog, where he keeps tab on an agency that last year cut service, raised fares and battled with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 over benefits. In posts and on Twitter, Margulies rails against TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane—"Neil's bullshit" is a typical headline—and publishes executives' salaries.

Margulies, 58, talked to us about how TriMet must change, where the union needs to back down, and how fare inspections are like gillnetters on the Columbia River.

What's the nicest thing you can say about TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane?
I haven't seen him do anything good. The system is a wreck. Buses don't show up. The riders are pissed. His gestapo tactics of fare collection. Fare machines don't work, so people can't even buy the fares. It's insulting, really. No business could survive that model. But they're a monopoly.

What's the first thing he should do to fix TriMet?
He needs to talk about capital projects expansion. He needs to talk about bond debt. He can't just focus on one of three problems and say, "This is the problem."

And he needs to be realistic about his expectations of union employees. He can't just bulldoze his way through here—which is what he's trying to do.

What's one thing the union should concede in contract bargaining?
They're going to have to concede some of the work rules. A driver will [finish] a run—and if you don't have eight hours between the next run, you can do something called a "pass-up," where you say, "I'm not going to run that run." TriMet wants the pass-up to be gone; I can understand that.

[TriMet] can't continue funding all of our health insurance—especially in the light of their continuing expansion.

You have to remember, a lot of [TriMet's] problem is brought on by themselves. They kept expanding, expanding, expanding. McFarlane added huge levels of bureaucracy at the top levels of management. Whole new departments.

What do you think of the way TriMet is enforcing fares?
The fines are not commensurate with the violation. A fine for riding without a $2.50 ticket should be 10 times the ticket: $25. It shouldn't be $175 for one poor person. It's predatory. They set up these situations at a [Trail Blazers] game where they gate off the whole area [at light-rail stops]. I consider it like gill-net fishing for the public. Hunting season is open for TriMet.

What should riders ask TriMet to do in 2013?
TriMet won the first round of [union contract] arbitration—and they've claimed that there's no savings. The riders need to start saying, "Bring back some of this service. We've had enough of these cuts and these fare increases."

The riders suffer the worst—worse than any of the drivers, worse than any of the management. They have to pay more for less.

I don't see the management taking home a salary cut. There's a big, long list of six-figure executives over there. 

Cut everywhere else but service. Cut the marketing department. Cut the communications department. Cut the capital projects department.

Marketing needs to go. It's a monopoly: You don't need to be running ads. People are going to ride it because they don't have a choice.

You often say TriMet lies to the public. What's one of the bigger whoppers?
It's that the union is the biggest reason why there's service cuts and fare increases. They haven't stopped hiring—their hiring just goes on and on and on. Administrative jobs. There are still promotions. I see no slowdown.

Their attempts to constantly distort the reality of TriMet—it's pretty significant. Say a bus breaks down. There's no alert. Look at how they use Twitter. You don't really see any live alerts. They try to keep the service-disruption news to a minimum. They don't want that out.

Any advice for a bus driver just starting out?
Patience is the virtue here. People are bad off out there. Do it with some heart, you know?

Lots of people are working there who have never made more than $10, $12 an hour in their life, and all of a sudden they're making $25, and they want to pile on the overtime. 

And the more you work, the harder it is to keep a positive outlook. You start getting hard after a while.

And that's a shame when that happens, 'cause they don't feel people's pain anymore. It's disturbing to have to watch, actually. It's one of two things: You either hired the wrong people, or this job made them mean. 

WWeek 2015

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.