PORTLAND — Portland’s regional mass-transit agency must fix a culture of secrecy, safety problems and more than $1 billion in unfunded financial obligations, a state audit concluded.
The 54-page audit by the Oregon secretary of state’s office — obtained Tuesday by The Oregonian and other media outlets — said strained relations between TriMet management and the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents most of the agency’s front-line employees, are also hurting operations.
Secretary of State Kate Brown said low morale and employee mistrust of management are barriers to communications and problem-solving,
“TriMet must work to improve a contentious labor-management relationship in order to solve its fiscal challenges and continue to provide critical services to Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas County residents,” Brown said in a statement Wednesday. “While auditors found more than two dozen areas of concern, TriMet’s $1.1 billion health care and pension liabilities remain the agency’s most significant challenge.”
In a 10-page response, TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane didn’t dispute the findings.
“Our first focus will be on those items that further the delivery of safe and dependable service,” he said.
TriMet operates 79 bus lines with 6,800 stops and four MAX-light rail lines covering 52 miles.
State lawmakers ordered the audit last year, after The Oregonian reported that bus drivers were sleepy and managers received secret pay raises.
Following the articles, TriMet started to require at least 10 hours off between shifts. The audit found that bus collisions, overtime pay and reports of drivers falling asleep have all declined since TriMet took that step.
The audit urged management to meet more frequently with union leaders to address operational and financial challenges.
Over the past decade, the cost of medical benefits has increased 65 percent. The agency has $852 million in unfunded liability to pay health benefits for current and future retirees, the audit found. TriMet also must find a way to pay $274 million in pension liabilities.
Bruce Hansen, ATU 757 president, likes the idea of regular meetings, but he’s not hopeful anything will come of it — despite McFarlane’s promise to make the effort.
“I’m ready,” Hansen said. “But I’m not convinced that management is open to change.”