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TriMet: Orange Line may require another $20 million from future operations

grapes of wrath?For the TriMet riders of tomorrow, things keep looking bleaker.

For months, TriMet officials have been saying they’re willing to take $40 million (plus interest) out of their future operating budgets to build the new MAX Orange Line to southeast Portland and Milwaukie.

On Thursday, TriMet rail maestro Dan Blocher said the agency staff is now likely to ask its board for permission to borrow up to $60 million, probably at the Dec. 22 board meeting.

How much is $60 million? Using the last available costs, that’d be enough to reverse TriMet’s last, deepest round of service cuts on all its frequent service bus lines for about 11 years. It’s also about 4 percent of the Orange Line’s total cost.

Blocher said the agency still hopes to borrow only $40 million from its future. But the Orange Line Blocher was hired to build is still short $35 million, and Blocher said a “worst-case scenario” might require another $20 million sacrifice from the agency’s future operations.

If TriMet weren’t already in other trouble, this might not be a big deal. But TriMet’s failure to set aside any money for retiree medical benefits means that service levels are likely to be under siege for a generation. The more money TriMet sets aside today for new rails, the worse things are likely to be for those of us who have to wait for the trains and buses of tomorrow.

How could TriMet riders still come out ahead? If other agencies would step up to help pay for the Orange Line, as the City of Portland and Metro already have … and also if voters approve Measure 26-119, which would renew an existing property tax and free up $50 million for future operations.

(Hat tip here to the Cascade Policy Institute’s John Charles, the professional anti-tax advocate who I disagree with on many issues but who does admirable work as a watchdog of TriMet’s budget problems. He staffed today’s board retreat and filled me in on some of what I’d missed, which I confirmed with Blocher.)

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