Friday, June 25, 2010

Here’s a way for TriMet to save bucks

It should actually be noted that Portland has one of the weakest vanpool/carpool systems anywhere. Part of that likely has to do with the (one-time) extensive transit system that Portland boasted of, where buses could take you from anywhere, to anywhere, most any time of day.

Seattle, in comparison, has a fleet of nearly 1500 minivans, owned by King County Metro, in a vanpool system. Metro's Vanpool website lists just a handful of privately owned vans that Metro subsidizes. (In fact, TriMet used to run the program until a few years ago when Metro took it over - citing TriMet's lack of management and marketing of the service.)

But bringing "vanpool" to "buspool" is a bigger fish - not just anyone can drive a 40' TriMet bus. They do require a Class B CDL (which not everyone has); where are the vehicles parked, fueled, serviced and maintained? Do we sell off the bus fleet and have companies like VPSI and Enterprise manage the bus fleet? Or do we still have the hundreds of union maintenance employees? What about bus stops - who maintains them? While Oregon law guarantees the right of TriMet to place bus stops on public right-of-ways, does a private buspool provider have the same right? If not, then individual agreements would have to be made with property owners. What about transit centers?

That's just the let's talk about the bus drivers. Sure, a few of them are snotty and have no business driving a bus. I'm sure that Pamplin Media also has a few "rotten apples" on its payroll. But the majority of TriMet drivers are pleasant and friendly and just go about their job. A few bad apples is not enough reason to fire some 1500 hard working drivers.

Think about the societal impact: 1500 people, suddenly out of work. No income. Strains on unemployment. Food stamps. It's not as though these drivers will easily find other driving jobs; there is a massive surplus of truck drivers, and a shortage of truck driving jobs. Greyhound isn't exactly hiring (especially given that ODOT/WSDOT/Amtrak are opening competing with Greyhound with a tax exempt operation called Amtrak Cascades, and undercutting Greyhound's fares while collecting taxpayer subsidies to operate it). Can the Portland area absorb 1500 newly unemployed workers?

I agree that looking at TriMet's benefits package is worthwhile, but I don't have the facts to call it "extraorbinate". TriMet, under the so-called "leadership" of Fred Hansen, has done nothing to even try to defend its labor practices; in fact he has already declared open warfare on the bus system. How does TriMet's benefits stack up with other, comparable transit systems? Is what a TriMet driver gets comparable to a Metro driver in Seattle, or a Muni driver in San Francisco, or a UTA driver in Salt Lake City, or a Metro driver in Houston? Are the insurance costs, and benefits, comparable? It may just be that there is a cost to operate a transit system, and unfortunately the risk taken by a transit driver is much greater than a paper pusher at Metro or Portland's City Hall whose biggest risk is a paper cut or spilling hot coffee. TriMet drivers are outside, for eight plus hours a day, in un-air conditioned buses, at risk of vehicle wrecks and unruly, assualtive passengers. Insurance is based on risk; the greater the risk, the higher the cost. That's not a hard concept to see; yet so many people ignore it.

Let's do an honest review of TriMet's benefits package. If compared to other transit agencies that TriMet is offering too much - don't go after the drivers. It's not their fault. Go after Fred Hansen, the outgoing General Manager who approved it. (And while we're at it, let's go after him for approving the Green Line MAX, WES, millions in MAX upgrades, disinvesting in the bus system, the fuel hedge from hell, and other financial problems under his leadership.)

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