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TriMet fumbles on civil rights; reform needed

The recent Secretary of State’s audit of TriMet confirms what everyone already knows: the agency is in desperate need of reform.

Worker morale is at an all-time low, and public trust in the agency is broken. What the audit left out is TriMet’s mishandling of transit equity and civil rights issues, which threaten to undermine our region’s livability.

We all know how essential affordable, frequent and accessible transit is to our region — access to jobs and services; cleaner air and less carbon emissions; decreased congestion and increased safety. TriMet once helped make Portland a great place to live, regardless of your background or privilege.

But years of fare hikes and service cuts, the result of poor management and a “see-no-evil” culture, have finally caught up to us. Ridership is down, bucking a national trend, along with on-time performance, down a whopping 22 percent. Off-peak service is awful and prices are too high. Riders know a bum deal when they see one.

TriMet has gotten away from its core business of providing transit service and has instead become a regional development engine, shrouded in a culture of secrecy, increasingly out of touch with the public.

Bus riders first prioritized the need to extend transfer times for cash or ticket riders back in November 2010. Transit is a lifeline to opportunity for the vast majority of cash/ticket riders, who are low-income. Others might choose to leave their cars at home and use transit with more time to get around. Extending transfers helps restore value to runaway fare prices and increases ridership and farebox revenue.

After two years of exhaustive study, the agency realized that everyone benefits when you provide targeted relief to those who need it the most. On Jan. 22, the board was set to pass Ordinance 332 and extend transfers to 2.5 hours. But then politics and hubris got in the way.

Until recently, TriMet had generally met the letter of the law on civil rights compliance, if not the spirit. The agency has massaged “transit equity” into a public relations buzzword; another “advisory committee” with no authority was created to keep up appearances. But last year the agency fell well short of the mark, failing to keep up with changes to federal Civil Rights guidelines and with the region’s changing demographics.

Last July, TriMet quietly reversed its 1994 decision to provide weekend bus riders with longer transfers due to insufficient service, cutting an hour off the time, without adding any service. TriMet then whitewashed a civil rights report to the Federal Transit Administration, submitting it before allowing its “advisory committee” or board of directors to even read it first. And let’s not forget the secret raises for management in the FY13 budget while raising fares and cutting service on riders.

The recent executive decision to indefinitely table Ordinance 332 because of “uncertainty” around civil rights compliance is a new low, reeking of retaliation for OPAL’s attempt to enforce federal requirements. Two years of solid analysis is sufficient to resolve this issue. TriMet is holding all of us hostage by continuing to punish low-income riders who have been squeezed the most and desperately need relief.

Riders have lots of great ideas, but TriMet’s disdain for authentic engagement has exhausted any remaining goodwill. The audit’s recommendations are a start, but serious reform is needed.

Riders urge the TriMet board to extend transfer times so we can get back to the real business of increasing access to opportunity for all.

Jonathan Ostar is the executive director of OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, Portland.



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