TriMet to riders: OK, maybe we didn’t need that fare hike after all

IMG_3912None of the external threats that Portland’s transit agency blamed for its budget trouble this spring has actually appeared.

In today’s Mercury, a smart piece by reporter Sarah Mirk gets this fact, which the OPAL transit riders’ union has been bird-dogging for months, on the record:

Late this spring, TriMet’s board approved $12 million in cuts and revenue-raising measures, based on a handful of assumptions: 1) Its payroll tax revenue would come in $3 million lower than needed, 2) $4 million would be lost because of anticipated cuts to federal transit funding, and 3) TriMet’s impasse with its union over lush healthcare benefits could eat up $5-10 million. But then, over the summer, the union fight was resolved in TriMet’s favor, and the feds passed a transportation bill without a $4 million cut (though the money hasn’t been distributed yet). As for the payroll tax, for the past two years TriMet underestimated the amount of money that would come in from the tax—low-balling the number by $7.7 million in 2011 and an additional $15.8 million in 2012.

TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch says TriMet is sticking with its budget cuts for the time being, in part because that $4 million from the feds probably won’t come down the pipeline until spring at the earliest. "As we see the economy bounce up and down, we are closely monitoring the revenues," Fetsch says via email. If the agency winds up with extra cash, it will go to meeting ongoing obligations like fuel costs, and rising benefit and retirement costs. "Then when there are sustainable funds available, we would look to restore service," notes Fetsch.

Shorter version: Portland’s transit agency shouted that it was the victim of forces beyond its control, so fares would have to leap to historic highs. Then everything turned out swimmingly for TriMet. Then, even as OPAL was pointing this out, TriMet proceeded to raise fares anyway.

To be fair, TriMet used some of its extra cash to soften its fare hikes’ impact on the poorest by creating a discounted-fare program for social service agencies. And there is no question that TriMet remains in deep long-term trouble and needs to be socking away money as fast as it can.

inadequate savingsBut here’s the problem with that: TriMet isn’t socking away money as fast as it can, and shows little inclination to do so. The agency’s 2013 budget puts less than $1 million into savings for future retiree medical costs (p. 55, line 3). TriMet needs to be saving tens of millions to even have a prayer of keeping up.

If decisions about TriMet’s windfalls were being made in full public scrutiny, there might be public pressure for the agency to stash more cash. Or maybe there wouldn’t. But riders would have a sense of what, exactly, their huge fare hike is paying for.

Instead – not unlike the national Republican party, which is calling for domestic austerity and then promising to spend the savings on tax cuts instead – TriMet seems happy to talk about austerity one day and ignore it the next.

(Note about the pie chart above: In the absence of newer figures, the rough illustration of TriMet’s 2013 obligations is actually a 2011 estimate lifted from this 2011 audit document and does not reflect savings from TriMet’s new contract, which cut both current and future retiree medical benefits. TriMet leaders have said these savings reduce the size of the future retiree medical benefit deficit, but not drastically. It’s safe to say that TriMet is undersaving by tens of millions each year.)

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