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State committee, others call for safety measures from TriMet
by: SARAH TOOR, The Northeast 82nd Avenue MAX stop sits below street level between Interstate 84 and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, making it harder for police to watch and patrol than stations that are part 
of the sidewalk right next to the street.

TriMet is being pushed to take more steps to end freeloading, rude behavior, crime and violence on its MAX light-rail system - including installing boarding turnstiles on station platforms and ending the free rides in the Fareless Square area that includes downtown and the Lloyd District.

State Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Rick Metsger this week directed the regional transit agency to submit a comprehensive safety plan to the 2008 session of the Oregon Legislature, scheduled to begin Feb. 4.

'We need to find some real solutions and stop sweeping this under the rug,' Metsger said during a joint hearing on TriMet safety issues by the House and Senate transportation committees Tuesday.

Among other things, he and other committee members questioned why it is so easy for MAX riders to evade fares.

TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen agrees that more can be done to collect fares. He promises to discuss the issues at a series of safety summits scheduled to begin in Hillsboro on Nov. 30.

Hansen called for the summits after 71-year-old Laurie Lee Chilcote was beaten by a 15-year-old suspected gang member at a Gresham MAX station Nov. 3.

But Hansen notes that it may not be desirable - or even possible - to make sure that everyone pays before boarding MAX. According to Hansen, the regional rail system originally was designed as a unique experiment to encourage easy access.

'Especially in Portland, the platforms are also sidewalks, and it's just not practical to put turnstiles on them,' Hansen told the Portland Tribune after a TriMet board of directors meeting on safety issues Wednesday.

Hansen also said eliminating Fareless Square might hurt the economy in the Lloyd District by discouraging downtown shoppers from traveling there. Limiting the free-ride hours might be more reasonable, Hansen said.

'We'll discuss this at the safety summits, and if people think it's a good idea we'll consider it,' he added.

Metsger said he expects real action from TriMet, however. He warns the Legislature might not give the agency any more state money if it is not satisfied with the plan it receives next year.

The 2007 session gave TriMet $250 million toward the new light-rail line planned between Portland and Milwaukie. Some transit advocates are looking for the state to help TriMet pay for the growing demand by senior citizens for specialized transportation.

For Metsger, the issue is personal. He represents portions of Gresham, where Chilcote was injured. And, as Metsger said at the Tuesday meeting, he is afraid to ride MAX at night.

'I just don't feel safe riding MAX when it's dark,' he said.

Problems ignored, union says

Concerns about safety on MAX have been building behind the scenes for years, despite the fact that the line is patrolled by the Transit Police Division, a 36-member unit of the Portland Police Bureau funded by TriMet and including members of many law enforcement agencies in the tricounty region.

The Hillsboro Police Department has declined to assign any of its officers to the Transit Police Division that patrols the line because they might work outside the city limits.

Beaverton Police Chief David Bishop has long felt that the police division puts too much emphasis on the east side of the line. And on Nov. 2, Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis ordered city police to began patrolling the line within the week.

The decision was driven by statistics showing that a large percentage of all crimes in Gresham are committed within a quarter-mile of the MAX line.

Officials with the union representing rank-and-file TriMet workers say the agency has ignored fare evasion and crime problems for years.

'A lot of the hooliganism and thuggery that goes on in the back of a train is never actually reported to anybody, but it causes a great deal of angst to those people who have to endure it,' said Jim Fowler, a member of the executive board of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 757, which represents fare inspectors, drivers and train operators.

The assault on Chilcote brought all these issues into the open, however. Appearing before the transportation committees Tuesday, Hansen admitted that TriMet has safety problems.

'Every potential passenger needs to feel safe to ride the system, and we are not there,' Hansen said.

System's grown since '80s

During the hearing, Hansen said that the basic design of the MAX system contributes to the problems. As Hansen told the committees, the first MAX line from Portland to Gresham was designed in the 1980s to be different from every other transit system in the country.

The stations were designed to be easily accessible instead of being isolated or underground. As a result, there are no gates or turnstiles that passengers must pass through after buying tickets.

'The stations were designed to be part of the city, to be part of the streetscape,' Hansen said.

According to Hansen, although the design worked well at first, it has fallen victim to the region's growing population.

'Around 55,000 people a day ride MAX now. That's a mobile city, really, and brings along all the problems of a city,' Hansen said.

In addition, Hansen told the committee that some of the east-side stations are poorly designed. He cited the Northeast 42nd and 82nd avenue stations as being built below street level, making them hard to patrol because they are out of sight.

'We would not build them like that today,' he said.

And Fareless Square creates enforcement problems, Hansen said. The free-ride zone that stretches from downtown to the Lloyd District makes it easy for riders to board without buying a ticket and then remain on the trains after they leave Fareless Square.

'It's much harder to collect fares then,' Hansen said of the riders who get on Fareless Square and travel outside its boundaries.

All stations being inspected

Following the attack on Chilcote, Hansen took several steps to increase security along the MAX line. Among other things, he directed the agency to increase the number of private Wackenhut security guards it uses, from 21 to 36.

He also ordered that all 64 MAX stations be inspected for safety improvements. Brighter lights and new closed-circuit TV cameras already have been added to several east-side stations. Shrubs have been trimmed at some locations to increase visibility.

Increasing law enforcement activities along the line will require the participation of every city and county MAX passes through, however. Although most already participate in the transit police, it only patrols along the line, not the surrounding areas where Bemis, the Gresham mayor, argues many MAX riders are committing crimes.

To solve those problems, Hansen hopes to create new partnerships with the cities and counties along the line at the safety summit that begins Nov. 30.

Ironically, two days before the attack on Chilcote, Bishop asked Hansen to join him in just such a partnership.

In a Nov. 1 letter to Hansen, the Beaverton police chief called for creating an Interagency Westside TriMet Police Division of the transit police to patrol the line west of the Vista Ridge tunnels.

According to the letter, Bishop already has the support of the Washington County sheriff's office, the Milwaukie Police Department, the Hillsboro Police Department, the Tigard Police Department and the Clackamas County sheriff's office for the idea.

How this division or any new partnerships would be funded remains to be seen. In his letter, Bishop said TriMet should pay for it. But the agency's patrol budget for the transit police and Wackenhut guards already is set for next year at $7.4 million. No funds have yet been identified to pay for any significant increases.

The transit union's Fowler also thinks TriMet needs to hire dozens more fare inspectors. He doubts the effectiveness of the Wackenhut security guards, noting their authority is limited.

'They seem to think Wackenhut is effective, but the thing is how can they be effective if they can't write citations, they can't exclude anybody, and they can't even check a fare,' said Fowler, who represents fare inspectors in the transit unit board. 'The way they're going now, it might take them 80 or 90 (more fare inspectors) to gain and maintain control.'

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