Debt on the Tracks 

Could TriMet Have Avoided Some of Its Budget Cuts?

TRIMET'S LOOMING budget cuts—now a predicted $12 million—have sparked rider complaints, equality debates, elaborate (and, at times, extreme) solutions, and general frustration. But as TriMet scrambles to create an end-all plan, some skeptics ask: Could some of these cuts have been avoided?

Transit advocates think so. TriMet, they say—looking for the last $11.4 million for a planned light-rail line to Milwaukie—cut a questionable deal with the state that might be bleeding millions from what ought to be the agency's main priority: bus service.

"This is an injustice," says Jon Ostar, executive director of Organizing People Activating Leaders (OPAL), an environmental advocacy group with a recent focus on transit rights, calling TriMet's budget numbers "speculative" at best. "It's clear that TriMet is turning to the public to subsidize the projects they spent all of their money on."

To Ostar, the Portland-Milwaukie light-rail line is the top project in question. Last year, state officials confirm, TriMet asked the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to fill the line's funding gap by pouring in a share of federal grant money over the next 10 years. ODOT, recently given $100 million in "flexible" federal funds for non-highway projects, agreed. But the deal, strongly opposed by local transit advocates, came with a catch: TriMet agreed to give up any future requests for that grant money.

When TriMet released its budget in February, the agency showed a $4 million reduction in the federal funds it normally counts on.

"Here we are a year later and they're saying that the federal grants aren't coming through," says Ostar. "But they agreed on this! It shows how little they care about the bus system and how much they are willing to risk on the light rail."

But Mary Fetsch, a TriMet spokeswoman, argues that reduction is based on estimated federal cuts unrelated to ODOT's flexible funds. She also said it's possible that more money might appear. "It's only prudent to be prepared to make this cut," says Fetsch. "It's so up in the air right now that we have to plan for anything."

Fetsch said that an unresolved transit union contract and benefit costs for non-union employees are even bigger contributors to TriMet's shortfall.

Ostar, however, says the ODOT grant money could have been used to offset any other federal cuts. He also complained that TriMet has yet to refine its revenue figures, even as it's cutting bus service. "They made a rough guess of future transportation funding cuts five months ago and have refused to make adjustments," says Ostar. "Is it stubbornness? Who knows."

Patrick Cooney, an ODOT spokesman, confirmed that TriMet may not apply for any more "flexible" funding, but noted that other transportation agencies in the area still can.

Michael Andersen, editor of transit magazine Portland Afoot, says he's concerned TriMet's short term-focused ODOT deal could be the start of a bad habit. "Now that TriMet knows ODOT can help them out in a pinch, there will always be this temptation to just squeeze out a little bit more," Andersen says. "It could be a tactical failure."

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