So TriMet is adopting a new five-year business plan. In the interest of public transparency, let’s share some highlights. First up: the company’s self-identified strengths vs. weaknesses.
Safety is a “cultural value”
We start with some classic blame-shifting. TriMet’s endemic safety issues are apparently the fault of its workers:
No, it’s apparently not the company’s routine refusal to deal with the safety issues my members report to management. The real problem is those workers who just don’t “embrace safety as a cultural value,” whatever the fuck that means. And “cultural value” reads a little like a dog-whistle, but maybe that’s just me.
Strikes are bad, mmmmmmkay
Next up: workers being unable to strike to demand better pay/conditions is a strength.
Let’s be clear: transit strikes are disruptive. They make it hard for folks to get around. But when it comes to organizing workers, withholding labor in the form of a strike is one of the most important tactics we have in our toolboxes, and this is exactly why: when you can’t strike, bosses win.
Commuuuuuunication, where the wind comes whippin’ down the plains
And speaking of the labor/management relationship, check out their business-speak for “our management is out of touch with the experience and needs of our actual workers.”
Credit where it’s due, this is absolutely right. Unfortunately, TriMet fails to point to the biggest issue, which is the fact that the agency has gotten top-heavy by adding managers, meaning the folks with oversight authority are working in their own little silos and fiefdoms, and creating a structural barrier to collaboration with front-line workers.
Uber and Lyft cause some mixed emotions
Okay, let’s talk about Uber, Lyft, and other “transportation network companies,” which TriMet’s conflicted about. They’re a strength, apparently:
For the folks reading this who aren’t transit nerds, this is also code for, “outsourcing paratransit to private corporations.” Paratransit is a service provided for folks with disabilities and elders, and one of the hot trends in transit is outsourcing it (like TriMet — they use a contractor called First Transit to provide their LIFT paratransit service, sometimes to Uber and Lyft. Our union’s written a guide into how that destroys transit services for already-vulnerable folks: https://www.atu.org/work/abandoning-paratransit-service-to-save-it
But wait! Are Uber and Lyft really a strength? Because according to TriMet they’re also, confusingly, a weakness:
To be fair to TriMet, this is the closest they get to saying something truthful in this entire plan: Uber, Lyft, and their ilk ARE disruptive and destabilizing to public transit. So why the hell is the company so dead-set on working with them?
Now we get to an easily-demonstrable, outright lie: one of the company’s weaknesses is the money it will cost to provide poor folks a discount on high fares.
TriMet says its new low-income fare program is unfunded, but as OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon proved with its low-income fare equity campaign, TriMet has ALWAYS had the money to pay for a low-income fare; seriously, read OPAL’s Low-Income Fare Equity (LIFE) Report, which pegs the cost of a low-income fare at the same $12 million figure TriMet throws around AND provides a model for how to pay for it. Their budget is, as my comrade Jared Franz likes to say, a shell game: they’re really good at reallocating money for whatever cockamamie capital project they want to fund this week, but somehow they don’t have the money to provide for riders’ needs. Funny how that works.
Those pesky communities, asking not to be gentrified out of existence
And have you ever been through a TriMet planning process? I have, for the SW Corridor, aka the new Purple Line. The company and their planning partners at Metro promise you the moon: jobs, housing, community benefits. But it turns out, we’re just wild locals expecting our benevolent transit agency to deliver on those clear and unambiguous promises, according to this entry in the “weaknesses” column:
The anarchists are coming!
I’ll just leave this one here: one weakness TriMet identifies is “public anti-government sentiment.” I really don’t know what they mean:
TriMet’s governance model
Okay, now let’s talk about their assumptions about the work they do. First up, they know they got a good thing going:
It’s hard to describe how absolutely unaccountable and out of touch the TriMet Board and budget are. Board members are appointed by the Governor in a totally perfunctory process; I once calculated how long the Oregon Senate spends confirming TriMet board nominees, and the average hearing length is about four minutes. Here’s one example. Yes, 240 seconds is all you need to determine if someone has the right skills and knowledge to govern the state’s biggest transit agency. Let nobody ever accuse the Senate of wasting time!
No current TriMet Board member is transit-dependent, nor are any of their senior managers. Put another way: nobody running that agency or setting the budget has skin in the game. They know that, and they like it.
Automated vehicles for fun but mostly for profit
And since I’ve recently been ranting about self-driving cars, TriMet’s already testing some of this tech:
Goals: cut pay and health care for transit workers
Okay, let’s turn to their goals and benchmarks. Shockingly, most of them are about shafting workers and retirees! This, for example, is thinly-veiled code for “force workers and retirees to pay for more of their health benefits”
And for retirees, there are no “industry peers,” so this could also be read as code for “cut most retiree health benefits entirely.” Why is that so bad? Well, long-term health outcomes for transit workers are some of the worst of any job in the US. Rates of stress, depression, bladder disease, kidney disease, musculoskeletal issues, etc. are through the roof. My members wreck their bodies while getting people where they need to go. We owe them health care one way or the other.
This, of course, means “pay managers more and workers less using artificial market calculations” in Boss-ese:
In case you doubt that they REALLY want to cut their workers’ pay. This is a separate section from above:
It sounds so quaint as a euphemism.
More militarized transit
Is it any surprise that the agency building a $12 million transit jail wants more cops on buses and trains? This will only result in more Black and brown folks being profiled on transit. Full stop.
How to get more riders riding: tourists, apparently?
Finally, proof the company has no fucking clue how to run a transit system: their strategies to improve ridership:
Better marketing to tourists will not improve our transit system. And you can promote off-peak ridership all you want. That’s not the issue. Does it get people where they need to go when they need it? This is what we’re up against: TriMet fundamentally believes that every one of its challenges is about marketing.
Conclusion: public transit is a public good, fuck the company
Want to cut costs? Let’s eliminate three-quarters of all management positions starting with the General Manager and working our way down. Because this is the dirty but open secret: TriMet isn’t a public agency. It’s a “quasi-public corporation” — public money, private management. Between the bosses’ salaries and benefits and bonuses, I bet you could find a lot of money to balance the budget
But seriously, let’s treat public transit is a public good. Fuck the company’s bottom line, and fuck its marketing budget. My vision: make TriMet a fully public transit agency run as a co-op managed by riders and workers alike. Can you imagine how much better it would be if the only folks running transit were the people who actually understood it? Not because their degrees taught them all about rail planning, but because they ride or drive the bus every day
Would the SW Corridor/Purple Line still be a vanity train running from one mall to another? Or would it actually serve PCC students? Would the Division Project function as a glorified express line with 60-foot articulated buses? Or would it be one of those placemaking projects the bosses disdain? Would we have buses stuck in traffic all over the city, or would we get dedicated right-of-way to keep transit moving?
The status quo isn’t sustainable. If you ride or work for TriMet, you know that implicitly. Service is slow, schedules are poorly written, the company doesn’t bother to maintain its system no matter how much workers protest. So why do we pretend that if we just follow the institutional inertia long enough, something will change?
A fully democratic TriMet is achievable. Workers and riders, let’s roll up our sleeves and make it happen.