Neil McFarlane, the general manager of Portland’s TriMet transit agency, stunned Portland-area residents recently when he warned that the agency would have to cut service by 70 percent unless unions agreed to reduced benefits in upcoming contract negotiations. When he did so, he piously noted that TriMet’s non-union managers have had a pay freeze for four years.
Turns out that pay freeze was more imaginary than real. In the last year alone, TriMet gave its managers pay increases totaling nearly $1 million. McFarlane alone received a 3 percent raise, which–considering his previous pay was $215,000 a year–means a $6,450 boost to his income.
TriMet’s financial woes are hardly new. Last year, TriMet made the largest service cuts in its history and also decided to start charging fares in what was formerly the downtown Fareless Square. Most of the streetcar line had been in Fareless Square, and as a result actual streetcar fare collections averaged less than 4 cents per reported ride.
We don’t have reliable streetcar ridership numbers, but we do know that the fares collected since September, when Fareless Square ended, are only half as much as predicted. That means the city of Portland, which has promised to make up for streetcar operating deficits, is on the hook for more than expected–not that it expected much as the predicted fares were expected to only cover 11 percent of the streetcar’s $9 million annual operating cost.
Are revenues lower because they aren’t enforcing the new fares? Or because new fares have led people to try faster modes of travel, such as walking? Or possibly is it because the streetcar has fewer riders than claimed? We know the city’s second streetcar line, which also opened last year, has earned the name ghost train because of how few people ride it.
Whatever the results about the streetcar, Portland continues to demonstrate the old adage that you can tell when transit agency executives are lying by whether their lips are moving.