(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 second interview in a two-part series on TriMet’s newest board members.)
It was an unusual move, especially for the board’s president. But Van Beveren, the owner of an iconic Hillsboro cafe who’d spent five years on the unpaid transit board, was understandably disappointed by the call.
"I decided that I didn’t really want to continue, given the vote of no confidence from the governor’s office," Van Beveren recalled in an interview Tuesday. "So I submitted my resignation."
Later, Van Beveren said, he learned who the governor had recruited to replace him. And then it all made more sense.
Warner, Van Beveren’s successor, is former director of the Portland Development Commission, Oregon Department of Transportation, and Washington County‘s Department of Land Use and Transportation. He’d also worked for Metro, the City of Hillsboro and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Warner is, in many ways, just the sort of man that has tended to run Portland since the 1970s, when he arrived in town: smart, connected and opinionated, with a deep civic pride and a faith in pluralist debate – but also, as Warner told Portland Afoot in an interview last month, a strong streak of skepticism about local democracy.
"I was delighted," Van Beveren said of Warner Tuesday. "He’s done a great job wherever he’s been. I think he’s the right guy."
Six months into Warner’s term, I asked the new TriMet board president about his philosophy of public transit, his goals for the agency and his thoughts about TriMet’s governance. Questions and answers are edited for brevity.
What’s your personal history with public transit?
I moved to Portland in January of 1974. That was the time of odd/even gas rationing because of the arab oil embargo. The only way for me to get to work, frankly, was to get the bus. It was a necessity then, and everybody was riding the bus at that time.
What got you interested in transit professionally?
I looked at it, No. 1, as a way to get to work. A lot of people depend on it to get to work. I also view transit as an economic opportunity, a development opportunity.
When I was in Washington County, there was an opportunity to redevelop the (Westside MAX) corridor and make it more dense. The "white whale" – that’s what we used to jokingly call it. I saw more and more companies making siting decisions based on transit service around the sites that they were looking at. Because frankly they don’t want to spend money building lots of parking. And most of the workers that they were trying to recruit really enjoy transit and the urban lifestyle.
What do you want to achieve by the time you leave the board?
Frankly, I want to see TriMet be successful and get over these issues. No. 1, we need to figure out the plan for our financing, to get on track to a sustainable budget. It took us 30 years to get here where we are today, so it’s not something that’s going to happen next year or five years from now. [But] we need to have a plan to get where we want to go.
We need to talk a bit more about the economic future, but we also need to let folks know where we’re going as an agency. People don’t know where we’re going. How does the bus system fit into an overall plan.
What’s your take on OPAL, the transit riders’ advocacy group?
I really welcome folks like OPAL being at the table, being engaged, which is really nice to see. We need not only them but we need business groups; we need others. We need to hear from all of them, to hear all sides of every issue.
I didn’t enjoy some of the tactics at the very end of the deliberations, but I respect their opinion. Those are the stakeholders we need to engage in a different way in the future. While we didn’t agree with them, I hope they agree that we listened to them. The budget is better because of their input.
OPAL is talking about campaigning to elect the board instead of having it appointed by the governor.
I think the system works very well. I’m a firm believer in Oregon’s board/commission system. I’ve worked for both elected agencies and appointed boards, and in terms of the appointed boards, I just have been blown away by the quality and the expertise of the people who are interested to be in those positions.
The governor clearly has the ability to put on the board whoever he believes best fits the needs of the organization. I think he’s done a great job.
The reason the boards and commissions are set in this state was to frankly shield the boards and operations in this state from the political pressures. If TriMet was an elected board, there could be a lot of interests excited to fund the campaigns of folks looking to push their agenda on TriMet. Look at the union, people who want to have contracts to build and construct. You have a volunteer board, you don’t have that political pressure.
See also yesterday’s interview with new TriMet board member Travis Stovall.