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How to reform TriMet? 10 interesting ideas from a transit riders’ union

opal meetingPortland’s leading transit advocacy group is looking for its next big thing.

Six weeks after pulling out all the stops for a mass testimony against TriMet’s historic fare hikes, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon met Tuesday night to brainstorm new ways to strengthen their two-year-old Bus Riders Unite program, which lost its case to reduce the fare hike but successfully turned back a TriMet proposal to forbid round trips on a single transfer.

“I hear a lot of concerns about ‘What are we going to do now?’” OPAL organizer Mychaela Fesser told the crowd of 35 that packed the group’s Southeast Division office. “We’re not done yet. We’re still here. We’re not going anywhere.”

That’s why much of the meeting consisted of a brainstorm by OPAL’s staff and volunteers of interesting concepts for reforming TriMet’s board. A few:

  • Require the board to include at least one transit-dependent member.
  • Require the board to include at least one member of the TriMet workers’ union.
  • Elect the board directly.
  • Pay TriMet board members a salary, so board membership would be viable for people who can’t easily get off work midday.
  • Because the board only meets during normal working hours, demonstrate at TriMet board members’ homes during off-work hours.

OPAL’s basic problem, activist Cameron Johnson said, is that TriMet board members don’t currently see the group as a potential threat.

“We need to make them sweat a little,” said Johnson, who was celebrating his 18th birthday by attending the meeting. (Johnson didn’t, for his part, speak in favor of visiting board members’ homes.)

In the wake of last week’s arbitration defeat for TriMet’s workers, there was substantial support for the union among OPAL’s staff and, to a lesser but notable extent, OPAL’s members.

“TriMet is trying to pit the bus drivers against the bus riders,” said outgoing OPAL communications director Khanh Pham. “Actually, TriMet is spending millions of dollars in other places, and they’re not prioritizing the needs of bus riders. All of us deserve good health care. We’re not here to deny anybody health care.”

OPAL also brainstormed an interesting list of ideas for a “week of action” in August, against the fare hikes:

  • A public transit flash mob that would play music on buses or (even more amusingly) show up to wash a bus in protest of the fact that TriMet buses are now only cleaned once a year.
  • A fare strike in which riders would refuse to pay fare, or full fare, for a day, or would try to stuff the farebox by paying entirely in coins. (This option, Pham said, “would require a lot of work with the ATU.”)
  • Street theater to draw attention to the fare hikes.
  • A night of public transit pub trivia.
  • A bus driver appreciation day in which OPAL would recognize its solidarity with drivers by giving awards for the “funniest bus driver” or “sweetest bus driver.”

The night ended with assembling volunteers for an “action committee” to put some of the ideas in practice – with the ultimate goal of getting OPAL more members, more supporters and a louder voice in TriMet’s next big decision.

“We want to use this as an opportunity to get people who are pissed about the fare increases,” said Pham. “We need to be visible.”

Disclosure: I’m personally a dues-paying member of OPAL, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance and Willamette Pedestrian Coalition. It’s important for me to support their general goals of excellent transit, biking and walking. I don’t endorse or participate directly in their policy activities, activism or internal debates.

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