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Audit may put TriMet on a safer route

No scathing comments or findings are found in a state Audits Division review of TriMet, but the 52-page document released last week serves to focus awareness on a few enormous challenges confronting the transit agency.

Some critics of TriMet had expected the audit by the secretary of state’s office — at the insistence of the 2013 Legislature — to have a bombshell or two. Instead, what they mostly received was confirmation that TriMet is in a financial knot due to the looming expense of more than $1 billion in unfunded liabilities for employee health care and retirement benefits.

These unfunded liabilities have been at the heart of recent contract disputes between TriMet and the union representing its workers. Those disputes also happen to be contributing to another phenomenon described by the audit: TriMet’s less-than-ideal relationship with its workforce.

Neither of these issues is news. TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane has been sounding the alarm about the health care liability for many months, and the dysfunctional relationship between management and union workers has made headlines for quite some time. That doesn’t mean, though, that the audit lacks valuable insight into the situation.

One serious concern brought highlighted by auditors deserves immediate action on the part of TriMet, and that’s the matter of rail maintenance. TriMet’s record for completing preventive track maintenance has declined significantly in the past decade, with only 53 percent of the work being finished on time in 2013.

TriMet has assured auditors that it is training people to do this maintenance and that its performance will improve. That’s encouraging, but this particular problem — because it poses potential safety hazards — must be revisited throughout the coming months to ensure TriMet is following through on its promise.

State auditors also make a number of specific recommendations for improving communication among TriMet managers and employees. These include a suggestion that administrators hold formal meetings with the union outside of contract negotiations, and that they study how transit agencies in other cities have been able to better engage frontline employees.

The audit also spells out steps TriMet should take to improve safety and accountability, including working with the union on hours of service and other safety-related policies.

Many of the audit’s recommendations were in line with actions already being taken by TriMet. Even when that wasn’t the case, TriMet officials indicated in their response to the audit that they agreed with the recommendations and would implement them.

One goal of the audit was to review TriMet’s governing structure. However, auditors made no recommendation to change the practice of having the governor appoint TriMet board members.

TriMet has been the subject of controversy in the Portland area in recent years. It has expanded its light-rail system, but has also been forced for economic reasons to curtail frequency of service and to raise fare prices. The agency’s ongoing labor strife has become a very public concern, and a few tragic accidents have riveted attention on the issue of safety.

Yet, with all that potential material for auditors to delve into, auditors’ main conclusion was that TriMet’s biggest problems are the ones already front and center in the public eye: labor relations and the need for TriMet’s management and union to find a way to contain health care costs before they devour the agency’s budget.

Those problems are not easily resolved, but they demand the attention of everyone who cares about the future of Portland-area transit service.




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