March 21, 2013  10:40 AM

Councilors express little interest in TriMet takeover bill

Note: This story has been updated to include information about a revised version of House Bill 3316.


A bill that would initiate a Metro takeover of TriMet was met with skepticism from Metro councilors Tuesday, as some wondered whether House Bill 3316 would actually address perceived problems with TriMet.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Chris Gorsek (D-Troutdale), mandates that Metro would take over TriMet. A proposed amended version would change TriMet's board to have 11 members – two appointees each from Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties, with two more coming from Portland and two from the Metro Council. One board member would be appointed by the governor.

Read the proposed amendments

Neither concept gained much traction from the council Tuesday.

"This is a solution … that doesn't solve the problem," said Metro Council President Tom Hughes. "Give us TriMet's situation and no other tools to fix it, and we would wind up in the same position that the TriMet board is in."

TriMet has been plagued by a financial crunch for years, cutting service and raising fares as it grapples with increasing capital costs and a union contract that TriMet leadership says is too generous.

Many community advocates have expressed frustration with TriMet's current leadership, which consists of a seven-member board appointed by the governor.

"The current TriMet board is just not responsive enough to the needs of transit riders in general, but specifically people who are transit-dependent," said Jonathan Ostar, director of a social justice advocacy group called OPAL, in a July interview.

See also: Who should map out TriMet's future? (July 2, 2012)

Gorsek, the bill's sponsor, wrote in 2011 that TriMet's board is too insulated from public opinion and not responsive to local governments.

But Councilor Kathryn Harrington, at Tuesday's work session, asked if the proposed new governance structure would speak to the actual issues TriMet riders want addressed.

"Is it that someone wants to see that there is a change in TriMet service in different areas?" she asked. Or, is it the insular feeling of the board that some say comes with gubernatorial appointments?

Councilor Sam Chase said he didn't like the concept either, but would like to see some checks to ensure there is some local say in TriMet board appointments.

"What if we end up with somebody (as governor) from another part of the state, that really does not have a lot of interest in this region?" Chase said. "How do we develop and grow?"

One tool to address that, said Councilor Bob Stacey, is the clause in state law that says Metro can take over TriMet if the regional government desires to run the region's transit system. He recalled a time when Gov. Vic Atiyeh threatened to stack the TriMet board with anti-transit nominees.

"Then the executive of Metro (Rick Gustafson) announced he was going to bring an ordinance forward to trigger a takeover of Metro, and Gov. Atiyeh reconsidered this anti-transit slate of nominees, and everything was fine," Stacey said. "There will probably never be a circumstance like that again. But it illustrated for me that it's nice to have a rough check on the appointing authority, rather than taking it away from the governor entirely."

As for the idea of spreading out appointments around the region's governments, as proposed in the bill's second draft, Stacey warned that could lead to politics on the TriMet board.

"I think at any given time, one county commission or another might react somewhat parochially to the opportunity to appoint a slate of members to the TriMet board," Stacey said. "So could the Metro Council. We could see ourselves being put in a position of making counter-appointments to offset imbalance."

Gorsek's bill is scheduled for a hearing on April 15.

Metro News editor Nick Christensen can be reached at nick.christensen@oregonmetro.gov or 503-813-7583. Follow Metro on Twitter @oregonmetro.

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