Transportation Tension 

Budget Woes Strain Mayor's Relationship with TriMet

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LAST FALL, TRIMET announced a budget tweak that seriously irked Mayor Sam Adams: Its YouthPass program would be getting the shaft. The program—offering free rides to all Portland Public high schoolers since 2009—was so important to Adams that, after months of fruitless discussions with the transit agency, he took a strident, if symbolic, step: He put all city payments to TriMet on hold.

"I need time strategically to review our relationship," he wrote in an October 26 email to the city's chief administrative officer that included the request.

While the order didn't affect major projects (the first installation of the city's $30 million contribution to the Milwaukie light rail line doesn't start until this fall), it sent a clear message about the depths of Adams' frustration. Shortly after, TriMet agreed to spend $375,000 to extend the program through the end of the current school year.

Emails obtained by the Mercury reveal a relationship between the city and the transit agency that's been, at times, more tense than either has previously acknowledged. And now, with TriMet looking to pass another tough budget that cuts the youth passes, an additional standoff could be looming.

In a move first reported by the Mercury ["Applying the Brakes," News, April 19], Adams announced on April 11 that his office and the Portland Bureau of Transportation have been in quiet negotiations with TriMet about restoring the YouthPass program for the 2012-2013 school year as well as planned cuts to the agency's "free rail zone" downtown.

Historically, the city has been a major source of funding for TriMet, pitching in to cover everything from streetcar maintenance to transit police salaries. Last year's contributions added up to $1.5 million. But according to interviews with the mayor's office about the contents of the emails, Adams began to feel that, as a dedicated partner with the transit agency, he deserved TriMet's financial support on a project he was clearly passionate about.

The $3.5 million YouthPass program had to scramble last fall after it lost a major source of its annual funding: $2.55 million from a state Business Energy Tax Credit. That money's still missing, and Adams' office says it's still not sure where cash for the student pass program will come from. But the mayor is still hoping that TriMet can dig up a considerable amount.

Following Adams' payment hold order, Catherine Ciarlo, Adams' top transportation adviser, asked the city's chief financial officer, Rich Goward, for a breakdown of the city's TriMet spending. Ciarlo reviewed invoices but found that the city wasn't actually scheduled to make any payments. "Everything was so intertwined, it didn't make sense," says Ciarlo.

More recent emails show the mayor's office and the city's financial staff still trying to investigate the financial feasibility of the YouthPass program. One message in particular discussed inviting additional school districts to help shoulder the financial burden. The emails, as well as interviews with Adams' staffers, also reveal that the mayor would be willing to trade another of his publicly stated priorities—preserving the free rail zone—to maintain the youth passes.

But fiddling with TriMet's already tight budget may be tricky. "We know the mayor's very passionate about this," says TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch. "But we're facing a major budget shortfall."

TriMet, which had to close a $12 million deficit, will approve its 2012-2013 budget on June 27—meaning the mayor's office has little time to negotiate. But "it's still on the table," says Fetsch, who wasn't aware that the city had briefly suspended its payments.

In September, the city's first payment to TriMet's Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Project is due. Because more money would be at stake—meaning it wouldn't just be a quiet warning—that could lower the odds that Adams orders another payment suspension. Ciarlo, looking at Adams' commitment to the YouthPass program and his past actions, said it's hard to tell what the next few weeks of discussions will hold.

Says Ciarlo: "It's our priority to work something out."

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