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Agency hopes to tailor service in areas where county is growing most

People who live and work in Washington County have a special reason to want TriMet to overcome its budget problems.

The regional transit agency has not significantly realigned its service in the county in nearly 20 years. But TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane admits residential and employment centers have greatly changed within the county over the past two decades, meaning TriMet is not adequately serving many residents and TRIBUNE PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - An Intel shuttle bus picks up employees at the Orenco Station Max stop. TriMet is calling for additional shuttles between transit stops and work sites in its Westside Service Enhancement Plan.

“The last time TriMet reviewed its service in Washington County was in 1994 or 1995, before the westside MAX line opened. There are pretty dramatically different residential and employment centers in the county now,” McFarlane explained.

Knowing this, TriMet has launched the “Westside Service Enhancement Plan,” a comprehensive review of its service in the county. Working with local governments, community organizations, employers and business organizations, it has identified serious gaps in the service provided by the current bus and rail routes. The study has also identified where expanded service or new service will be needed to meet the demands of future growth.

Further, the study includes a number of preliminary recommendations for filling those gaps. They include more frequent and express service along certain routes, creating new routes to serve new and future residential and employment centers and helping to provide so-called “last-mile” options between transit stops, homes and work sites.

Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce President Deanna Palm praised TriMet’s work on the review to date.

“It’s a good plan. It looks great on paper,” says Palm.

There’s just one problem — money. McFarlane pointed out that TriMet cannot implement much of the plan at this time. In fact, the regional transit agency has been cutting service since 2009 to help balance its budget. The TriMet board of directors had to close a $12 million funding shortfall in the current budget. The $485 million operating budget McFarlane proposed on March 13 basically holds the line, with no significant service increases or decreases.

A major financial issue is the cost of health care benefits for TriMet’s employees. According to McFarlane, TriMet cannot continue paying its union employees what he calls “the most generous health care benefits in the country.” His proposed budget calls for the members and spouses of Amalgamated Transit Union 757 to pay more of their health care costs, a demand strongly opposed by the union. ATU 757 officials want TriMet to cut management salaries and stop new rail projects instead.

Although McFarlane said there are some small realignments TriMet can make within Washington County with its existing revenues, big changes cannot occur until the agency overcomes its long-term funding problems.

“We need partners to address current and future needs, and one of them is our union,” said McFarlane.

Twenty years ago, TriMet focused its bus service in Washington County on moving people from suburban communities into Portland. The major lines were east and west alignments connecting cities such as Forest Grove, Cornelius, Hillsboro and Beaverton to downtown Portland. The westside MAX line that opened in 1998 reflected this service model. Officially known as the Blue Line, it runs from downtown to near the Hillsboro Civic Center, passing through the Oregon Zoo and Beaverton, with 32 stations along the way.

However, much has changed in Washington County over the past two decades. Hillsboro and Beaverton have become large employment centers, thanks to the growth of companies such as Intel and Nike. Some employment and housing developments have sprung up along the Blue Line, including the Hillsboro Civic Center, which is helping to spark a revival in the city’s historic downtown, and Orenco Station, which has become a national model for transit oriented development. Even The Round near the Beaverton Transit Center, which has struggled financial for years, is showing signs of life thanks to the city’s commitment.

Despite the benefits of the transit facilities, much of the growth in Washington County has occurred away from the Blue Line. For example, housing has exploded in the Bethany area north of U.S. 20, far from the MAX line. A little farther to the north, enrollment has increased 50 percent at Portland Community College’s Rock Creek campus. Nevertheless, the area is only served by two bus lines that have not changed much over the past 20 years.

And much of the future growth in Washington County is expected to take place away from the Blue Line or concentrated bus service. For example, development is already under way in the North Bethany area, where bus service is infrequent. The city is planning for large mixed-use development in the Amber Glen area, where the new Kaiser Permanente hospital is scheduled to open. In addition, a large mixed-use development is being planned for an unincorporated area south of the Tualatin Valley Highway known as South Hillsboro. The city expects to annex the area once planning is complete.

TriMet knows it must change and increase service to meet the needs of new and future growth centers. One approach recommended in the plan is the addition of more north-south routes to better serve the growing number of people who live and work in the county.

This is now a more realistic option than ever before. Washington County and local governments, including Hillsboro, have invested heavily in a number of north-south connections in recent years. For example, additional lanes and other improvements have turned Brookwood Avenue/Parkway and most of Cornelius Pass Road into major transportation corridors.

McFarlane said TriMet recognizes the changes that have occurred in Washington County and have worked to help accommodate them over the years. Improvements have included more frequent service on the TV Highway and creation of the Westside Express, TriMet’s first commuter rail line, which links Beaverton and Wilsonville. TriMet is also planning to reroute Line 47 later this year to provide better service from Intel’s Ronler Acres campus in Hillsboro through the heart of the Bethany area to PCC’s Rock Creek campus.

Yet McFarlane knows major changes will require new revenue, which TriMet cannot expect to receive until the public believes the agency’s budget problems are under control.

“It is incumbent on us to prove we are providing the best possible return on the dollar,” McFarlane said.

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