TriMet's board meeting this morning dropped a bombshell: The public transit agency looks like it will have a $12-17 million budget hole this coming year, instead of a balanced budget like they'd hoped. The finance issues going on with TriMet are super complicated, so to get the skinny, I called up Michael Andersen, who writes and edits Portland "low-car newsmagazine" Portland Afoot (which is great and you should subscribe!).

MERCURY: So this means big cuts, right? What is TriMet looking at cutting?
MICHAEL ANDERSEN: I think it's almost certainly going to involve service cuts. TriMet's basically got to choose whether to eliminate routes completely or cut service across the board. When you make service worse across the system, you make it worse for people who are trying to build it into their life. There might also be mid-year fare increases. And there's a continuing fight about LIFT services, they might reduce the area for where they do LIFT pick up.

Are there any ideas for revenue or ways to not cut service across the board?
Board Member Steve Clark specifically said that ending the operation of WES should be on the table. Right now, TriMet loses $18 per ride on WES, versus on the Green Line, they lose 92 cents per ride. I'm also writing about this guy's idea for a three percent tax hike on hotel rooms, which could generate $13 million in additional revenue for transit. Tourists are people who come to the city, benefit from the service, but don't pay any payroll tax. Another idea is there's about 3,000 parking spots in TriMet Park & Ride lots that are full every day. If TriMet charged each of those people $1 every day to park, they'd have $800,000 a year from that.

Is there any way TriMet can stop funding big capital projects and put that money toward service instead?
Most of the money for capital projects has to be spent on capital projects. However, starting in 2015, TriMet is going to be taking more money out of the general fund to pay off bonds for the Milwaukie Light Rail project. Its agreed to put itself more deeply in debt with money it doesn't have. If they wanted to stop that, they could, but that would mean not building a rail line they already have a bridge for. So for the most part, no.

Break down for me what's causing the budget shortfall.
TriMet identified three forces. Obviously there's a lot going on but here's what they identify as the variables: Slower wage growth than they were hoping for, higher costs of the union contract, and the allocation of less federal operating funds than in previous transportation bills.

The union issues here are confusing. What's going on with their contract fight?
There are two things moving at the same time. First, the union is fighting with TirMet over their current contract, which is what has the drivers pissed off right now. This year, TriMet director Neil McFarlane reversed past practices and froze drivers' wages and froze the level of their health care benefits at its 2010 rate. The other moving part is that TriMet and the union are in negotiations over the new contract and according to the union, TriMet brought a bunch of new stuff to the table all of a sudden without going through the proper process. A judge found that to be correct and, as a result, the final offer TriMet was able to make to the union wound up having to be more pro-union than they had wanted it to be.

What sort of things is the contract fight over?
It's a list of about 15 things, mostly relating to healthcare and retirement benefits. The thing that TriMet has to worry about most in the future is retiree medical cost. That's off the charts for any public agency in Oregon, I think. The management has decided to go after that in part because they haven't saved any money for the increasing medical costs. TriMet's broke, but they're going to become broker.

How do TriMet's benefits compare to other public agencies'?
It's really, really good. And that's part of the reason the agency can retain good bus drivers.

But it's also part of the reason why they're broke.
Yup. For example, TriMet's current deductible for unionized employees is $0 for the individual, compared to $1500 for the Lane Transit District in Eugene, $300 for employees at Multnomah County, $250 at Washington County.

That's all for now! If you have more questions about this morning's meeting, Michael lives on Twitter at @PortlandAfoot.