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TriMet, activists spar over service cuts

TriMet is pushing back against accusations that its recent service cuts violate an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce air pollution.

On June 2, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon issued a press release charging that TriMet was violating a federal requirement that the agency increase transit ridership 1 percent a year on average over the previous five years.

"As of July 1, 2013, the Portland metro area has cut transit service so much that it is violating federal laws," reads the release from OPAL, an advocacy organization.

But three days later, TriMet and Metro issued a joint press release saying federal standards have not been violated. Metro, the regional government, is in charge of transportation planning in the Portland metropolitan area.

"The Portland region is fully in compliance with [federal] Clean Air Act requirements and has been since 1996. A recent news release from OPAL incorrectly claimed the region is currently out of compliance due to transit service cuts during the recession," the joint release said.

The controversy is just one of several contentious issues related to TriMet financial situation. The agency says it has been forced to reduce service and increase fare because of recession-related revenue shortfalls and unsustainable union medical benefits. Union leaders says TriMet is spending too much money on management and expensive rail projects. The two sides have yet to begin negotiations on the next contract. And the 2013 Oregon Legislature recently passed a bill calling for the Secretary of State to conduct the first-ever performance audit of TriMet. It is supposed to be completed by January 2014.

Although TriMet denies OPAL's accusation, it admits the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Metro are proposing to change how the region calculates its compliance with the federal Clean Air Act requirements for transit service.

"The proposed change would continue to call for 1 percent annual transit service expansions, but look at a longer timeframe than the current rolling five-year window," the TriMet release said.

According to the release, although TriMet is currently in compliance with the requirements, it will fall out of compliance in the future because of recent service cuts without a change in the calculations. The issue was discussed by Metro's Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation in June.

"Moving to a long-term view does not impact the required transit growth rate, but allows the region to remain in compliance," the TriMet release said.

In its release, OPAL denounced the proposed change, saying it "undermines the intent of the Clean Air Act, and avoids regional commitments to increase actual transit service hours."

The DEQ will hold public hearings on the proposed change later this summer before submitting it the DEQ.

The region is in the last four years of a Carbon Monoxide Maintenance Plan required by the EPA due to carbon monoxide emissions that exceeded limits during the period from 1978 to 1995. According to TriMet, since 1996, the region has not come close to violating the limits and has demonstrated compliance for the past 15 years.

The maintenance plan must continue until 2017. Because of service cuts implemented in 2011, TriMet now says it will violate the plan before 2017 without a change in how compliance is calculated.