(Six months ago, two appointments by Gov. John Kitzhaber shook up TriMet’s seven-member board of directors in ways that Portland transit watchers are still trying to understand. This post is the first interview in a two-part series on TriMet’s newest board members.)
When Travis Stovall joined TriMet’s board early this year, it was maybe the clearest sign yet that the agency’s political winds were shifting against organized labor.
Stovall replaced Lynn Lehrbach, a professional Teamsters organizer and the only member of TriMet’s board who regularly voiced public dissent at TriMet decisions, after the governor declined to renominate Lehrbach.
But Stovall, who says his own politics "lean to the left" but are tempered by a passion for "economic development," has become an interesting figure in his own right during his first six months on the board. He’s talkative and socially adept, with a quick smile and a head full of numbers.
Self-employed as a small business consultant since 2006, Stovall’s small firm helps businesses with sales between $5 million and $20 million get off the ground once they launch or avoid bankruptcy once they fall into trouble. He also works as executive director of the East Metro Economic Alliance, a group that facilitates and champions industrial and business-park development in the Gresham area.
I sat down with Stovall in late spring to talk about how he makes decisions, what he hopes to accomplish and how he thinks about public transit. Questions and answers edited for brevity.
Why on earth did you want to join TriMet’s board?
(Smiles; he’s been asked this many times.) I am a proponent of responsible economic development – accesses to funding for schools, parks, the arts. That’s what gets me excited. Where can we apply the correct pressure that’s going to give us the biggest broadest benefit?
For east county specifically – and I’m not myopic in my perspective – I look at the number of people who don’t embrace the MAX and don’t embrace the bus and TriMet in general. We’ve got a tremendous asset here that can draw the folks that are going to support this community into the future. How do we attract the young 20-somethings and young 30-somethings who don’t necessarily have the ideal of living on 5 acres in the country?
What’s your history of riding transit?
I live in Gresham, right on the MAX – 30 yards. I live there because of that access. I can be on it and to the airport in 30 minutes.
I grew up in Kansas City. Didn’t ride public transit there. It wasn’t really accessible. Back in 1996, I was in Vancouver, BC. I had not ridden either city bus or light rail. I rode their light rail. I was very impressed.
Can you talk more about your background?
Both of my parents worked two jobs every day. We only saw them on the weekends, but they were phenomenal people. Most people probably think Travis comes from the suburbs. I came from the inner city. Nine o’clock in the morning, gunshots ring out. My parents never even blink. I say, ‘Were those gunshots?’ And my mother says, ‘Yep.’ Our house got broken into; we had a metal door.
I’m not a trust fund baby. Everybody’s story is different, and everybody’s story has some type of struggle in it. We need to appreciate that across the board. There have been some hard days with me walking out in the rain without a car to get where I got.
How would you describe your own politics?
It’s this balanced approach. At the end of the day, I lean to the left, but ultimately I also understand that responsible economic development is what lets us ensure that.
For TriMet to survive financially, it seems to me that it needs one or all of these three things: cheaper benefits for workers, less transit service and/or higher taxes. Would you agree?
That is a hot-button issue and it’s one that is going to take some time to wrap my mind around. … We’re steward for the public good, or the public asset. So it’s the public that should benefit, not just individual organizations, institutions or people.
We’re going to have to push each of these items. The sad thing is, it’s going to be political. You start talking taxes, you’re going to have people who really raise ire.
Where do you come down on the great debate between better buses and better trains?
I can give you an uninformed answer; I’m a finance guy by training. At a certain ridership, the fixed route is better than a bus route. It’s going to be a ridership question. It’s going to be an efficiency question. Portland has what it has not because it always built for today. But it’s building for tomorrow and the year after. Somebody will complain to me about the emptiness of the train on the west side. But then they’ll come to me and complain about how packed the Gresham train is.
At the end of the day, we’ve got to make decisions with the amount of data that we have. It doesn’t matter how good you are. You will make a bad decision at some point or another. It’s how quickly you respond to that mistake and will make the decision that fixes it.
What advice do you have for people who want your vote?
I’m not very easily persuaded, in the sense that a few comments is going to do something. The decision at the most elementary level is going to be data-driven. If somebody wants additional service, we start with the data. If there’s something that’s really conclusive at the quantitative level, then it’s really difficult to move it to the qualitative.
There is no need to bring some grandiose presentation to the degree that you’re coming at us angry and all of those things. … That doesn’t really get us anywhere.
There are command decisions and there are consensus decisions. Both have to be made. There will be consensus decisions that we can make, and there will be command decisions that we have to make. What we’re called to do is know the difference. We still, at the end of the day, have to make a decision.
In four or eight years, what do you want to have accomplished on the TriMet board?
I haven’t even thought about that, really. I guess personally, it’s just the satisfaction of being part of an organization that’s dealing with challenges. In four to eight years from now, looking back and saying I was part of what just occurred here.
What about TriMet itself – where do you see it in eight years?
In eight years, TriMet will be considered a world-class public transit system. That takes into consideration fares, service, cleanliness, politeness, safety across the board.
Check back Tuesday for an interview with TriMet board president Bruce Warner.