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TriMet's Harsh Cuts Are Part of a National Transit Problem

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BRACE YOURSELF: TriMet unveiled its proposed $17 million budget cuts last Wednesday, February 8, and it ain't pretty.

The proposed cuts (see box below) slice service in several ways, but the most controversial are a 19 percent fare hike and a policy change to make tickets good only one way, rather than round-trip. That switch would make TriMet $3 million more a year, but also cost $1.25 million to implement the necessary new transfer-printing technology on buses.

"I'm really concerned," says Mara Gross, policy director for Coalition for a Livable Future. "This will have a huge impact on people who use transit service the most, especially if this is the new normal."

Much of the budget crisis stems from low payroll tax revenues (thanks, recession) and the rising cost of health care benefits (TriMet spends roughly $17,000 on health care for every union employee every year). TriMet is not currently looking at any legislative fixes to the mess, instead just doing less with its shrinking pot of money.

Portland's local public transit crisis is part of a national trend. Fifty-one percent of transit agencies across the country cut service or increased fares (or both) last year. And 83 percent saw state funding decrease or flatline, according to the American Public Transit Association.

This week, two versions of the federal transportation bill go to a vote in the House and Senate. The Republican-written House version has caused an uproar over its harsh calls to end all federal bike and pedestrian spending and nix dedicated federal funding for transit projects. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, also a Republican, called it "the worst transportation bill I've ever seen during 35 years of public service."

"The House bill is unequivocally horrible," says Chris Rall, the Oregon organizer for nonprofit Transportation for America, noting that it's the first time a transportation bill has been penned entirely by one party. "Every single transportation bill before this, since Eisenhower, has been created by both sides."

TriMet received $42 million in federal funds last year, but is banking on getting $4 million less this year.

TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch stresses that the agency is projecting cuts ranging from $12-17 million, mostly based on the result of a union negotiation that was delayed until May.

"We have to go with our worst-case scenario moving forward," says Fetsch. However, if TriMet winds up not cutting as deeply as expected, Fetsch says, "Service is our highest priority."

Jon Ostar, director of public transit riders advocacy group OPAL PDX, says TriMet is using the political situation to over-cut: "The federal money issue is just conjecture; it's changing by the minute. They're using the uncertainty in Washington, DC, and their dispute with the union to make these changes they've been wanting to make for a long time."

But Ostar also believes TriMet's entire cuts proposal is based on "flawed analysis." For the past two years, Ostar notes, TriMet's number crunchers have underestimated the amount of money the agency would get from state taxes. In the 2011 fiscal year, TriMet underestimated receipts by $7.7 million and in the current fiscal year, has underestimated receipts by $3.6 million.

"It's irresponsible to make substantial changes to the entire fare structure," Ostar says, "based on economic forecasting that doesn't pencil out."

TRIMET QUICK CUTS:

• Raise the cheapest fare to $2.50 and eliminate round-trip fares

• Reduce MAX frequency to every 20 minutes, except during rush hour

• Sell ads on TriMet TransitTracker

• Kill the Free Rail Zone

• Cut or reduce service on 14 bus lines

• Stop TriMet subsidy of free passes for Portland students

• Slash Portland Streetcar funding by $400,000

• Downsize LIFT service available for people with disabilities

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