Link to Owner Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr.



Budget, light rail, union issues on table, but big shift unlikely

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Crews demolish a warehouse along Highway 99E to make way for a new 7.3-mile MAX line from downtown Portland to Milwaukie. The Orange Line expects to open in 2015.   TriMet’s domination of news coverage during the past few weeks has focused on labor problems, budget issues, safety concerns, governance and challenges to the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail project.

Despite increased scrutiny, little has changed with the regional transit agency — and little change is likely in the foreseeable future. Here’s a rundown of the most recent developments for those keeping score.

Labor contract: Members of Amalgamated Transit Union 757 are still working under the management contract imposed last year by the arbitrator. The state Employment Relations Board has not yet ruled on the challenge to the ruling filed by TriMet’s largest union.

Bargaining sessions: Bargaining still has not started on the next contract between TriMet and ATU 757. Multnomah County Circuit Judge Leslie Roberts says she cannot decide whether state law requires the sessions to be open to the public, as ATU 757 contends. She ordered both sides to submit more briefs in the ongoing proceedings.

Next budget: No significant opposition has surfaced to the $485 million operating budget proposed by TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane for next year. This is a sharp contrast to McFarlane’s last budget, which was opposed by ATU 757 and rider advocates. Unlike last year’s budget, the new budget does not propose any fare hikes or service reductions, however. McFarlane says none will be required next year, even if ATU 757 wins its ERB appeal. The board of directors is scheduled to adopt it on May 22.

Safety: State inspectors found no safety problems at TriMet following a series of checks triggered by a door staying open on a speeding MAX train in February. Oregon Department of Transportation officials inspected portions of the MAX line and older trains following the incident and accusations by ATU 757 officials that the incident was just the tip of the iceberg. Inspectors concluded the door stuck open because of a corroded electrical switch. All such switches are being inspected and relocated to reduce future corrosion.

Governance: The 2013 Legislature is scheduled to hold a hearing on a bill to increase the size and geographic representation on April 15. It is not expected to make it out of committee, however. The bill would require governments within TriMet’s boundaries to appoint members to the expanded board. Responses indicate they are not interested until TriMet solves its financial problems.

MAX project challenges: The Clackamas County Commission has put two measures related to the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail project on the May 21 special election ballot. Both concern properties in the county that TriMet needs to complete the project. Neither will have any legal impact on the project, however. The ballot titles say measures are advisory. McFarlane says the votes won't delay the project. TriMet has filed suit against the county to comply with its legal obligations. In the meantime, work is well under way on the project in the county, including areas of Milwaukie and along Southeast McLoughlin Boulevard.

Long-term future: With so much unresolved, it's only logical that TriMet's long-term future is cloudy. According to McFarlane, if the Employment Relations Board reverses the arbitrator's ruling on the current contract with ATU 757, the agency will have to raise fares and cuts services again as early as September 2014. If TriMet wins the ruling, McFarlane says fare increases and service cuts could be necessary by 2017 unless ATU 757 members agree to pay more of their health benefits, beginning with the next contract. Union officials disagree that their members need to make such sacrifices, but have not yet offered an alternative proposal.

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