That’s the shockingly dire warning TriMet executives have chosen for the launch of the agency’s budget season, according to a slideshow fragment circulated to stakeholders this week.
Using language TriMet managers had mostly avoided over the previous four years of cuts, the slideshow refers to a slow-motion "service crisis" for the agency created by costs that are expected to grow far faster than revenues through 2030.
TriMet also released a document showing the assumptions behind those projections. General Manager Neil McFarlane said Wednesday that they include a 70 percent cut to administrative costs, but no further tax increases.
"Before anybody wants to invest more money in TriMet, we want to be able to demonstrate that we can invest that money dollar for dollar in restored service," McFarlane said. "We can’t demonstrate this yet."
McFarlane said restoring any lost transit service will be impossible unless union workers’ health care plan is reduced to the same benefit level as the management plan, plus reduced medical coverage in retirement.
Even if that happens, he said, TriMet wouldn’t be able to improve service without new revenue. Nor could it devote any existing revenue to future rail lines after the Orange Line to Milwaukie.
"All we can hope for is the current service," McFarlane said.
TriMet: Benefits must fall again
Three of the seven circulated slides focus on the cost of TriMet’s medical benefits for its future retirees, a huge and growing expense that the agency has spent the last decade failing to save money for.
The dramatic rhetoric is the latest step in a long, slow about-face by the agency, which as recently as 2010 was willing to borrow $60 million from its future operating budgets to cover its share of the new Orange Line. (Fortunately, the agency only expects to need $52 million of that.) After years of warnings by activists from the political right, left and center, TriMet executives now speak frequently about their catastrophically imbalanced long-term budget.
General Manager Neil McFarlane presented the figures as part of a one-hour "state of TriMet" report to his bosses, the agency’s state-appointed board, during Wednesday’s 9 a.m. TriMet board briefing at the ODOT offices in Old Town.
TriMet isn’t thinking creatively, riders’ group and union say
TriMet workers’ union has been amping up its own rhetoric, too, with a new website presenting its side of the argument and a comprehensive critique of TriMet management published Monday on one operator’s blog.
But unlike management, the union has yet to acknowledge the size of Portland’s coming transit crunch – or to propose any solutions big enough to solve it.
In an interview Wednesday, ATU Local 757 President Bruce Hansen said the union plans to focus on publicizing instances of smaller, though significant, waste. "I’m not saying that we can come up with $40 million," Hansen said.
Hansen questioned whether TriMet can truly predict future medical costs with the certainty it claims.
"What we showed last year was that their underlying budget assumptions were false," Ostar said. "We want to be sure that the budget projections aren’t being exaggerated in order to soften or justify the public or constituents to draconian cuts."
Ostar and Hansen both said TriMet is showing what Ostar called a "lack of creativity" by not looking for holistic ways to make transit service more efficient and popular.
"When you’re driving your bus down the road, you have to see the big picture," said Hansen, a former bus operator. "You can’t get tunnel vision. It sometimes seems like TriMet gets tunnel vision about this stuff."