TriMet: First priority is service, regardless of budget crisis

By Neil McFarlane, Contributing Columnist

Your Feb. 17 edition had both an editorial and a guest column on TriMet budget issues, and I want to set the record straight.

We all agree that TriMet provides a vital service to our riders and to the region, especially to low-income people and communities of color. It’s the most important thing we do. And when we face budget challenges, service cuts are the last place we look to fill any shortfall.

We’re facing a budget shortfall of up to $17 million for several reasons.

The biggest cost driver is the unresolved contract with the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), in the range of $5 million to $10 million. The current contract expired more than two years ago, and the benefits under the existing contract are likely among the richest in the country.

The union proposal continues the status quo of the expired contract, which includes a $5 co-pay, employees paying no deductibles, premiums or co-insurance. Plus, the same level of health care benefits continue for life after age 55 with just 10 years of service. An employee with Blue Cross coverage costs $22,000 per year, nearly twice the industry average and twice that of non-union TriMet employees.

With no change, TriMet becomes a health care agency instead of a transit agency.

It took two parties over 30 years to reach this point, and we need the ATU to come to the table and begin to negotiate a trajectory to long-term sustainable benefits.

Our employees are among the best in the industry. This isn’t about blame.

It’s about the math.

The benefits need to realign for us to restore service and keep fares affordable for our entire community.

A transparent budget

State law requires a balanced budget, and we cannot borrow to fill shortfalls. Our $400-plus million operating budget lists all revenue sources and expenses for every program and employee at TriMet. We are transparent, in compliance with all state budgeting requirements and our forecasts incorporate estimates by independent experts.

Contrary to your editorial and claims by OPAL, our economic growth assumptions are sound and based on forecasts by independent economists and actual tax receipt data.

Due to the Great Recession, we’ve reduced our budget by $60 million, eliminated 200 jobs and laid people off, frozen administrative salaries now for the fourth year and required non-union employees to pay more for their benefits. With the primary source of revenues from employer-paid payroll taxes, less revenue means less money for transit. It’s prudent budgeting to realign our costs with revenues, so we’re estimating about $3 million less in revenues.

Federal funds

Transit agencies across the country are preparing for a potential loss in federal operating assistance, and TriMet is no different. Anyone watching the machinations in Congress knows this is a real possibility. OPAL is wrong and irresponsible in stating we shouldn’t plan for a potential reduction of $4 million in federal operating funds because we receive large amounts of federal capital construction funds. Capital funds can only be spent on our light rail construction projects, not for operations. So we have to plan wisely for a potential loss.

We have few options to either reduce costs or raise revenue. We are having internal layoffs and program cuts, in addition to proposing service cuts or fare increases. None of these are what we want to do, but we face a serious budget crisis and must take prudent steps to resolve it.

As we resolve these budget uncertainties — the union contract, federal operating funding levels and payroll tax revenues — our first priority is to restore service.

Meeting the transportation needs of our entire region, especially those who are low-income or communities of color, is our mission. Transit plays a critical role in moving us to energy independence and reducing carbon emissions. Realigning our cost structure for long-term sustainability will allow us to expand service to meet the growing transit needs of our riders.

2 responses to “TriMet: First priority is service, regardless of budget crisis

  1. Stop blaming workers for your failures at the management level. No more cuts, no more hikes, no more scapegoating unions!

  2. I percieved such underlying tones of snark in this response that it’s difficult to take their points seriously….

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