“I don’t think we’ve paid enough attention to how TriMet is doing their business.”

– Tina Kotek, to OPB

(Photo: Kotek at a PBOT open house event in 2017, by Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Oregon Governor Tina Kotek hinted at her desire for more accountability at TriMet in an interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting last week.

The exchange with Dave Miller (of Think Out Loud fame) came in response to a question he asked Kotek on behalf of Sarah Iannarone, a former Portland mayoral candidate and current executive director of transportation advocacy nonprofit The Street Trust.

Iannarone submitted a question to OPB that referenced Oregon’s woeful track record of pedestrian fatalities, high household transportation costs, and the relative absence of any focus on these topics by Kotek (either in her campaign or her public statements thus far).

In her answer, Kotek pivoted to TriMet.

Here’s the exchange:

Dave Miller: Sarah Iannarone, a former mayoral candidate who is now the head of the Street Trust, sent us this question: “Oregon was in the top 10 states for pedestrian fatalities in the latter half of 2022. Transportation is the second highest household cost after housing for many people. Yet our mobility isn’t much talked about in the governor’s agenda. What are Tina Kotek’s plans to get Oregonians moving safely and affordably?”

Tina Kotek: Thank you for the question, Sarah. In the 2017 transportation package we did, for the first time, have a statewide payroll tax to help local transit. Again, I haven’t been in office very long, but one of the questions I would have for the Department of Transportation and our local transit districts is: “How are they using that money effectively to improve lines and the pricing?” I don’t think we’ve paid enough attention to how TriMet is doing their business, and so having conversations with them will be important.

Dave Miller: What are the questions that you are most eager to ask them?

Tina Kotek: Well, are we really focusing on making it as easy as possible to move people, make that option of public transit a real option? As you know, I lived in and represented North and Northeast Portland for years, and it wasn’t easy to get on the bus and get where you need to go, and the Max was too slow, multiple stops, right? How do you really have a conversation about changing behavior? It has to be easier, has to be affordable, and TriMet plays a big role in the metro area, and I’m going to ask them what they need and see if we have to do something differently so they can do a better job serving the community.

It’s notable that Kotek zeroed in on TriMet here. There was nothing in the question that even referenced transit, yet this is what popped into the Governor’s mind. Why is it notable? Because for many years, advocates have grumbled about the lack of accountability at TriMet, and despite its reputation compared to other transit agencies in America, using the bus and MAX in our region is still not as easy or attractive to people as it should be (especially compared to driving a car).

One reason it’s difficult to hold TriMet accountable (and thus, push them to be more bold) is because their board is chosen by the governor. That means even though TriMet is funded primarily by payroll taxes and fares from the Portland region, it’s governance is controlled by lawmakers in Salem who might have never set foot on a TriMet bus.

Not only is Kotek different because she has lived experience using TriMet (and she had constituents in north Portland as a state legislator who relied on it as their primary form of transportation), she has now made public her concerns about whether or not it’s doing enough of the right things.

In my interview with former Metro President and leader of Transit Center David Bragdon last month, he said without hesitation that TriMet lacks accountability and that the solution is to change its governance structure so that Metro, our regional planning authority, has final say over its leadership.

Here’s Bragdon on that subject:

“Basic principle 100 of good governance is that those who are most effected, those who pay the bills, that’s who should be in charge. So, who pays for TriMet? It’s the people who live in this region who pay the payroll tax and who pay the fares. And while that is enabled by the state, it is not a statewide revenue source, it is a revenue source in this region and most effects this region, and those are the people who should be in charge.

… Absolutely TriMet should be under regional control… The idea that there the board should be appointed by a governor, you know, and then confirmed by state senators from Burns or Klamath Falls absolutely makes zero sense. And it’s not fiscally responsible…”

For the first time in a long time, we have a governor who understands our region from a transportation perspective and has questions for TriMet. This is definitely something to keep an eye on.

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