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TriMet's Plan B

The $125 Million Levy Failed. So Now What?

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WELL, THAT DIDN'T WORK.

Despite TriMet's months-long campaign about the necessity of putting extra money into new buses, disability LIFT service, and bus stop repairs, 54 percent of Portland-area voters rejected TriMet's $125 million bond measure last week. Without that money—and in the middle of a protracted fight with its union—what's TriMet's plan B?

"We don't have a plan B at this point," says TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch, succinctly. Some of the projects TriMet would have funded with the levy money are going by the wayside, while on other fronts it looks like TriMet will just have to tighten its belt.

First: Say goodbye to fixes at 300 bus stops all around the region. Many stops on TriMet lines are just poles stuck in the mud or gravel—no shelters, benches, or even sidewalks. Without sidewalks, some disabled riders can't get in and out of buses, but those improvements were never part of TriMet's non-levy budget, so they're getting cut.

The other major project the levy would have funded—replacing old buses—has been pushed off. Without money to replace 150 aging buses right now, Fetsch says, TriMet is planning to save up and buy 80 in 2012 and 80 more in 2014. Same for the LIFT buses that pick up disabled people at their homes. "We'll just keep them a little longer, and will be replacing them a little later," says Fetsch.

Those replacements will now be paid for, in part, by taking on more debt—paying about $1.2 million more a year. TriMet, which has a $417 million operating budget, spends $16 million every year to pay back money it has borrowed.

Critics point out a few areas where TriMet could potentially cut, including salaries. Oregon Capitol News, a journalism project of conservative local think-tank the Cascade Policy Institute, released an online database of TriMet salaries this week, with numbers showing that the agency's general manager makes $247,071 plus $14,562 in benefits, while full-time bus drivers make $46,000 to $100,000. Fetsch noted that TriMet froze salaries for three years: "We've cut everything we can at this point."

The failure of the levy might give TriMet some leverage in negotiating with its operators' union, which has been working without a contract since November 2009 and filed an unfair labor complaint when discussions reached an impasse this July. With talks stalled, TriMet has frozen cost-of-living wage increases and refused to cover increasing health care costs until talks resume, sparking union picketing.

Another option for cutting costs could be to put a planned light rail extension to Milwaukie on hold. After federal funds for the project fell short, TriMet is scrambling to fill a $35 million budget gap in the project.

"I'm not ready to say they shouldn't build the light rail line," says Michael Andersen, who runs local alternative transit news service Portland Afoot and regularly attends TriMet board meetings. "They should at least discuss delaying it until their budget is back on track."

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