Wheels of Change 

How a Group of Transit Riders Forced TriMet to Open Up

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AFTER MONTHS of debate, TriMet's board is finally ready to approve a budget that fills a daunting $12 million gap. Not that it didn't need some help. The board is expected to vote on the budget as soon as Wednesday, June 13, and whatever spending plan it approves will have been shaped in no small part by Organizing People Activating Leaders (OPAL), a public transit riders advocacy group.

Since presenting their own budget plan to TriMet in April, OPAL members have sat down privately with board members and have attended every single board meeting to share concerns. Already, OPAL has pushed TriMet to take back its threat to do away with round-trip bus transfers and bump fares beyond the 40-cent hike it's sticking with.

This isn't OPAL's first ride. For nearly three years, the organization has stood up for equal rights in a transit-dependent community—slowly pushing TriMet to open itself to community ideas. And it has no plans to back down.

The Mercury recently caught up with OPAL's director, Jon Ostar.

MERCURY: Regardless of whether TriMet accepts your proposed budget, do you think OPAL's made a significant impact on TriMet?

JON OSTAR: It's no question that in the two-and-a-half years that we've been doing work, we've seen real tangible changes.

What kind of changes?

When we first started showing up at board meetings, the board would not accept testimony from the public until after the executive decision was made on an issue. Which is pointless. We called that out as a blatantly exclusive practice. How can the public influence the outcome of a decision if they can't be heard? Initially, it was tough. But they realized that this made them unaccountable as a board, and took a stand. We've come far, and yet we want to keep pushing.

So working with the TriMet board is still challenging?

They're listening more than they used to. We've definitely closed the chapter on what you can call the old days of the board, where members had no desire to work with us and weren't as transparent. But we still have to jump through hoops to get information and speak to the right person.

How do you feel the board handled the most recent budget deliberations?

It dawned on us, in this period, that the TriMet board should give staff options, rather than suggest only one budget plan. That's why we presented our budget plan to the board. It's a valuable lesson that this kind of deliberation is always necessary.

Do you think that a couple years back, before OPAL became involved, TriMet would have handled this recent budget process differently?

Yes. They've now realized that they are not a private entity, but a public service, even though they hate to admit it. Whatever the outcome is, the public's involvement this time around calls for future accountability over process. It's no longer what they want, but what we, as a community, need. That's worthwhile.

Do you see OPAL changing the way the public views this process also?

We've helped, I think. The public knows when they smell a rat. If TriMet doesn't pass the smell test, people now know they can speak up and actually be heard.

It looks like OPAL has played a big role in this transition.

I want to be careful not to overstate the level of change. It's romantic to think about sweeping change, but the reality of it is that it takes some time. It's so incremental and subtle, but its there. Hopefully we've helped push that change along and have encouraged people to push alongside us.

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