Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence.

I guess they didn’t read “Empower, Trust, Stand Behind

The mud slinging from the top continued last Friday in full force at the City Club of Portland. General Manager Neil McFarlane spoke along with David Knowles of CH2M Hill (a construction/engineering firm) on “Moving Forward While Cutting Back”. It’s interesting that TriMet is partnering with CH2M Hill on this, as it highlights how the focus at TriMet these days seems to be geared more toward development and less toward transit. Not to downplay the importance of development (yes I realize there wouldn’t be any rail at all without it), but I don’t like development at the expense of existing service. The backgrounds of the board members (Bruce Warner – Director of Portland Development Commission; Tiffany Sweitzer – President of Hoyt Street Properties, recent appointee Craig Prosser is a longtime advocate of MAX to Tigard, etc) gives support to the idea that TriMet is currently more interested in development than maintenance of existing service and operations, and I don’t think I can agree with that stance if that is the direction we’re heading.

Neil spoke first, channeling Charles Dickens to describe “A Tale of Two TriMets”, praising high levels of ridership, fare enforcement and safety, and then moving on to the darker side… He stated that the union contract is “strangling” TriMet, again claiming that TriMet union employees have the most generous healthcare benefits in the country. I have yet to see *anyone* do a total compensation comparison – wages AND benefits – of TriMet union employees with similar transit agencies. Simply looking at benefits is not adequate as TriMet wages are lower than many other agencies. The highest paid drivers in this country are MBTA with an hourly rate of $30.18, Seattle Metro drivers make $28.47/hr, San Francisco drivers make $29.52, Chicago drivers make $28.64, Santa Clara pays drivers $28.86 – all of which are above TriMet’s pay. I have no idea if we’re comparable because I don’t know what their benefits are. No one is doing that comparison, but TriMet and the local media just keep trotting out that benefits for union employees are averaging “a $22,000/year Blue Cross bill.”

The problem with that figure is that not all union employees even HAVE Blue Cross (many use Kaiser, which is about 2/3rds the cost of Blue Cross). And even of those that have Blue Cross, the annual charges are substantially less if they’re not getting any sort of family or spouse coverage, which is the only thing close to that $22k amount.

As for what percentage of union employees have Kaiser, what percentage have Blue Cross, how many are getting single coverage, how many are getting spouse, how many are getting family (and then for those latter categories, how many of those are minirunners who have always had to pay to cover spouse and family)? Who knows? The situation is far too nuanced to be able to say that each union employee is costing $22k/year in benefits.

I guess maybe throwing out big numbers makes a better sound byte than actually detailing what the union benefits are.

While we’re on the subject of sound bytes:

Excerpt from Neil’s City Club speech.

Well lucky for you Neil, operators tend to die young, so those “rich health care benefits” often aren’t paid out all that long.

For those of you wondering what was going on with all the emergency vehicles at Rose Quarter two Sundays ago? That was the medical response for bus operator Dale Arlt, who passed away while on layover there. He was 51.

I think it’s in extremely poor taste for Neil to make a comment like “until death do us part” about the union given that an operator died on the job not even a week before.

I DO NOT KEEP BRINGING UP OPERATOR DEATHS FOR GORE SHOCK VALUE. I keep bringing this up because this is really happening, and no one outside of operations circles seems to care.  I am sick of seeing people saying things like how the union “needs some skin in the game otherwise they’ll be seeing doctors for frivolous reasons.” (as if eight dead coworkers over the last few years isn’t enough skin in the game…)

Not one local media outlet has run any sort of coverage on the chronic negative health effects that frontline transit workers in an effort to explain why the benefits are the way they are. However, you can infer some of the acute negative health effects from recent headlines: Man threatens MAX operator with knife, woman spits on bus driver (not a repeat from last time), man tries to choke bus driver, etc.

The simple truth is that frontline transit workers are in an extremely unhealthy job. There are stories out there that describe it. There’s research on how transit operators are at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal problems, digestive diseases, cancer, and other illnesses given the nature and the scheduling of the work. And yes, bus operators either know this before they start or figure it out in a hurry (before anyone comes sailing in here with “No one is holding a gun to your head making you drive a bus/train for TriMet!”) and so the union has negotiated health care benefits while sacrificing raises because of these risks.

But no, instead all that you’re going to see out there about “TriMet” and “health benefits” and “union” are inflated figures and commentary about how the union is being out-of-line. You won’t see, for example, what sort of non-union retiree benefits are being paid out. I’ll share what I’ve been able to find.

TriMet pays $4.5 million annually to the retirement trust of non-union employees hired before 2003 (source)

Not sure what the setup is for non-union employees hired after 2003, but if union retiree benefits are so “rich” and therefore on the table for cuts, shouldn’t these sort of non-union ones be as well? $4.5 million a year could restore a lot of service…

How the executives fare (pun mildly intended)

Al M did a public records request to see what the pension payments are for former GM Fred Hansen, former general counsel Brian Playfair, and former executive director of communications Carolyn Young. After 10 years of service, Hansen is pulling in a comfortable $15k/month from TriMet and Brian Playfair (unsure of how long he was at TriMet) is getting $11k. No bus driver gets a pension like those, I assure you, no matter how long he or she worked at TriMet. And these are the only executives that Al requested, so other retired executive directors and former GMs’ pensions are unknown. But it’s a pretty good starting place to guess what Neil McFarlane can expect to receive after retirement from 20+ years of service.

Have you seen that part in the news? Are these also being listed as the “rich benefits” that are a threat to TriMet’s future sustainability? Nope – all you’ll hear about the financial issues dragging TriMet down are union health and retiree costs, with upper management blaming the union for the delay in the contract being negotiated.

Now Hiring: Executive Director of Blame Diversion

Let me tell you something about doing something wrong as a rail operator. If/when you screw up (getting an ATS trip from speeding – even marginally – or going through a red signal, opening your doors on the wrong side, etc), you take responsibility for your actions. You call it in and report what you did. A supervisor will most likely do a fit check on you and you’ll have to write a report of the incident; depending on the severity of what you did, the data from your train might be downloaded, and you could face discipline, especially if you’ve got multiple rule violations within the last year or so. But you take responsibility for what you did because the rules are there for a reason and we all play by them.

Now compare that to board member Tiffany “it’s a goofy code” Sweitzer, who knew that her company Hoyt Street Properties wasn’t allowed to pave a parking lot in the Pearl District, but did so anyway and charged people $100/space for three years. This illegal parking lot generated about $100,000 for her company. She does not dispute or deny this, instead justifying it when questioned by Portland Afoot editor Michael Andersen by saying that she was providing a service to the community. Does this have any bearing on her ability to serve on the TriMet Board? I don’t know, but that sort of flaunting of established laws isn’t particularly indicative of a willingness to play by the rules or to take responsibility when you do something wrong.

Neither is the ongoing negotiation. The Employment Relations Board has ruled against TriMet TWICE now for not following collective bargaining law – once for making changes to the proposed contract away from the bargaining table and once for suspending cost of living adjustments. This is not the union’s fault, and this is not the union executing any sort of “legal maneuvering” or having a “stranglehold” on TriMet. TriMet does not seem to be interested in playing by these rules and following terms of a contract which is why the ERB has ruled in favor of the union twice. Yet TriMet has all but outright threatened to sue Clackamas County for the $25 million they’re supposed to contribute to the PMLR project if voters pass a measure preventing the county from spending the money, because as Neil said in his KGW interview that they were bound by an agreement that must be upheld.

Why is only one side of the table playing by the rules here?

Why do only some agreements need to be honored?

Then David Knowles Said Something

You know, I almost don’t even want to dignify Knowles’s speech with a response, but I feel somewhat compelled to, at least the parts of it that aren’t outright pandering to Capital Projects.

Yeah, a funny thing about this: Portland Transport had a great discussion on the topic of Honored Citizen fares already, and there was an interesting link in there that Knowles should have perhaps familiarized himself with. Assuming TriMet wants to continue to benefit from receiving FTA grants (and we’ll assume that TriMet does in fact want to continue receiving FTA grants), it’s actually a requirement that seniors and people with disabilities get a fare discount of 50% during off-peak hours. Since we don’t have any difference between peak fares and off-peak fares, our HC discount applies at all hours. Sure I suppose we can drop that, but something tells me that’s not worth losing FTA grant eligibility.

How much do you care about our public services, David? Funny, I thought you just said TriMet is not a social service agency. How invested are you? Which bus routes do you regularly commute on? Or is public transportation is just something that other people are supposed to take? And hang on a second, what’s this “we”, kemosabe? Since when is CH2M Hill pulling the strings at TriMet?

Edited March 1: Thanks to Jason McHuff for pointing this out – the City Club Forums are held in the Governor Hotel, not the actual City Club of Portland. But the rest of the point is still applicable – Look at all the bus/rail stops surrounding that location. How many attendees do you suppose actually took our wonderful transit system there? I wonder if Knowles did, given how much he cares.

And then regarding the binding arbitration law that prevents a strike/lockout for transit workers:

Wow, really? That’s our new barometer for judging the importance of transit service, that “nobody is going to die” if we don’t have it?  Well sheesh, nobody is going to die if the new light rail bridge isn’t built. N0body is going to die if PMLR is put on hold until TriMet is in the black. Nobody is going to die if TriMet stops subsidizing the Portland Streetcar. Nobody is going to die if we start charging WES fares closer to its operating expenses…

(also, you do know that the 15 runs by a hospital and a medical center, right? Just checking.)

I keep rereading this section, but sadly that does not help it make any more sense. See, the status quo would be to retain the union contract as it stands (that’s sort of what “maintaining the status quo” means). The union’s status quo means that you have the same benefits and retirement eligibility regardless of when you were hired. It was actually TriMet’s final offer (i.e. the one that the ERB ruled to be out of bounds) that would have made that small group of union employees – those who retire before April 2012 would have the same benefits as active employees, but those who retire after would have only three years maximum of retiree benefits; there would be different benefit eligibility for employees hired before April 2012 and after, etc.  Yeah, it’s not the union who is creating separate classes of employees; it’s TriMet doing that.

Divide and Conquer

I don’t like the how this whole ordeal is pitting riders against the union by TriMet painting their own mismanagement of money and inability to follow collective bargaining laws to be the union’s fault and the reason why service will be cut and fares increased. If service is cut or fares increased, that’s voted in by the TriMet Board – NOT by the union. A few posts ago, I mentioned how the people who vote to approve service cuts & fare increases are pretty much completely shielded from the results of those decisions, and that’s still true. It’s the bus drivers getting assaulted over fare disputes, not upper management or the board.

At the December board meeting, retired driver Alan Eisenberg gave this brilliant commentary – the linked point in the video is when Eisenberg asks the room at large to raise their hand if they took public transportation to the board meeting. Not one of the board members moves (oh, how I would have loved to seen the results of the same question being asked at the City Club of Portland meeting). See, in my opinion, that sheds a lot of light on what’s wrong with the structure here. The board, who ultimately votes to put both fare increases and service cuts into effect, does not use the service the way the riders in the district do. Need to save $17 million? Well then, cut ALL the runs and raise fares by a dollar! Who cares? What difference does it make to the board? They won’t be the ones standing out in the rain for 45 minutes at night waiting for a connecting bus while their transfer expires.

Only one of the 7 board members is required to actually ride TriMet (source)

In fact, as shown in the requirements to serve on the TriMet board, only one of them has to actually be a regular user (my understanding is that Consuelo Saragoza is currently the one member who fills that requirement). No definition of “regular user” is provided, so I don’t know how often she rides or which routes. But here’s how “those who depend on [transit] the most” on the budget choice tool was defined:

Depends on transit the most = rides at least once per year?

Even if her ridership is more than once a year, I personally think it would be beneficial if all of the board members were regular riders of the routes in the districts they represent.

Shouldn’t they all have, as they say, “some skin in the game?”

To be fair, former board member Lehrbach consistently showed resistance to raising fares and cutting service, but the rest do not, and the fact that they drive to the board meetings (conveniently located in the Portland Building right on the transit mall downtown) speaks volumes as to why. More’s the pity that Lehrbach was not reappointed to the board as he seemed to primarily be the member to advocate for the union and for the riders as well.

And despite claims that TriMet is “absolutely transparent” (see page 3), the budget committee advising Neil McFarlane did so through closed meetings, the proceedings of which were not available for public attendance and the records of which were not available for public record. The committee itself seemed to be made up of local business executive directors & other leadership levels. Yes, I am about to make an assumption here, but typically people at those levels in organizations are not people who will be riding a bus on a weekend or at night to get to work, so I’m concerned that this committee may not see the value in preserving service for those who do need it. Why no riders (or operators) on this committee? Why so secret? How much of a vested interest did this committee have in preserving service with affordable fares?

Where am I going with this?

You know, I don’t even know. I started MAX FAQs nearly 2 years ago as my own way of doing rail outreach, talking about signals and switches and how fast the trains go and all the little details that make the system work. It’s been a neat way to interact with the people out there who think that this topic is interesting, because it’s something that most people won’t ever see unless they become rail operators too.

And honestly, I’d rather be blogging about the technical parts of the system like I usually do. But I can’t sit by and just silently watch as the union and frontline workers who deliver a valuable public service are repeatedly attacked and blamed for TriMet’s mismanagement of finances and inability (unwillingness?) to comply with collective bargaining laws. Losing several million on diesel hedge funds? Going $34 million over budget for WES, which continues to lose money by taking in far less per rider than it costs? Heck, even TriMet’s government affairs staff not noticing that TriMet no longer gets any money from fare citations – NONE of these financial losses are the union’s fault or responsibility.

There might be a stranglehold on TriMet’s financial situation all right, but it sure isn’t ATU doing it.

“Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.” Charles Dickens

8 responses to “Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence.

  1. We need to decouple health care from employment and make it something that doesn’t need to be bargained over. Ignoring that transit operator jobs can be unusually unhealthy, it should not be a cost of having employees as people need it regardless. We generally don’t make employers deal with an employee’s education, and they shouldn’t have to be directly burdened with the health care either.

    This is my idea of what should happen:

  2. Some other (minor) things:
    -David Knowles is listed as also chairing the Transportation Committee of the Portland Business Alliance. But I don’t know which hat he wore at the forum.

    -The forums are held at The Governor Hotel, not City Club. But still a pretty transit-friendly location.

    -Some of the other cities mentioned have higher costs of living so the money doesn’t necessarily go farther. It would be interesting to compare starting wages (and conditions)

    -I do think fare discounts should be separated out as it’s true that a ride still costs the same (actually, it can cost more if a person needs a lift or ramp, extra time to board and extra space on the vehicle) and it would make fare recovery look better. However, they should still be paid for, and the payroll tax has always paid for them.

  3. “TriMet is not a social service agency”

    1. Organized efforts to advance human welfare; social work.
    2. Services, such as free school lunches, provided by a government for its disadvantaged citizens. Often used in the plural.

    I would argue that TriMet is very much a social service agency – it’s mission is to advance human welfare by providing transportation options to citizens, often to disadvantaged citizens but is open to any citizen.
    TriMet’s own mission statement even includes the phrase “while ensuring transit equity and environmental justice”, a clear reference back to its social service function.

    What TriMet should not be is a development agency, where construction takes precedence over operations. TriMet should be investigated for its real estate deals and its involvement with a number of developments – currently the new PSU student housing building has TriMet involvement and it’s not clear why TriMet is involved. From ORS 267.010, the very law that authorizes TriMet’s existence:
    “(3) “Mass transit system” or “transit system” means the property, equipment and improvements of whatever nature owned, used, constructed, maintained, controlled or operated to provide mass transportation for passengers or to provide for the movement of people, including park-and-ride stations, transfer stations, parking lots, malls and skyways, provided that nothing contained herein shall limit the power of a city to exercise its general powers over or provide such stations, lots, malls or skyways.” Nothing here says anything about TriMet being authorized by the State of Oregon to engage in development or any other function aside from those involved in the transit system.

    Of course, this is the same TriMet whose former General Manager was “on the clock” for TriMet and earning a salary and even had his travel expenses to Australia paid for by TriMet…despite not having any official duty involving travel to Australia. ORS 267.140(9) reads: “A general manager of a district shall…Devote the entire working time of the general manager to the business of the district”

  4. You have to get this to media…infact your calling is definately media

  5. I agree with Anna, submit this as an op ed in the Oregonian. Not very likely they will print it, but I feel it should at least be tried. This is a very informative piece.

  6. Dean Magnusson

    I found this piece very informative. I’m glad I had the opportunity to review this side of the story, as opposed to just the one that our highly esteemed GM of Trimet would rather we heard only his version of the Tale of Two Cities. I may be considered a dunce to many….but even I realize that the GM had left out much information. You sort of filled in those blank spots. There are more to be filled in, I’m sure. I’d be looking forward to more of what you have to share.

    Dean Magnusson

  7. keephoustonhouston

    So, basically, what you’re saying is… TriMet is acting like a State DOT?

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