Photos courtesy TriMet

Photos courtesy TriMet

This summer, Oregon lawmakers passed House Bill 2017 — the first comprehensive transportation package to receive legislative approval since 2009. The measure creates a statewide employee payroll tax dedicated to transit improvements. It is expected to generate $35 million to $40 million in additional annual revenue for TriMet. The agency will use the funds to support two key priorities: a low-income fare program and bus service expansion. We spoke to TriMet GM Neil McFarlane about the significance of this milestone and about the agency’s plans for the funding.

METRO: Explain the significance of the statewide funding package.
I have been with TriMet nearing three decades, and I’ve served as General Manager since 2010, and I can tell you that the state transportation funding package approved by the Oregon legislature is the most significant funding development for transit during my tenure. This was a hard fought bill. The need was evident but we were up against other issues in the state that could have eclipsed transit needs.

What did you learn from the experience?
One, we did not achieve this alone. The success we celebrated with the passage of this legislation was due to strong partnerships, transit advocates, and many groups coming together to address vital transit needs throughout the state. Our long-time support and collaboration with our colleagues statewide via the Oregon Transit Association helped demonstrate that transit was needed in all Oregon counties, not just metropolitan Portland.

Two, we planned for growth and expansion prior to knowing where we would get the funds. Beginning in 2013, we began deep engagement with riders, community groups, businesses, and jurisdictional partners, who helped us understand what and where the needs are and develop what we call Service Enhancement Plans for each section of our service district. Having a clear understanding of need and service expansion priorities based on planned regional growth helped us champion this bill.

What are the initial funding priorities?
We have outlined three main priorities for the new funding implement a low-income fare program, expand bus service, and address the region’s most congested travel corridors.

For more than a year, TriMet has worked with regional partners on developing the concept for a low-income fare program that could be pursued once we were able to identify a stable funding source. Now, with the dedicated transit funding we are in the position to build and implement a program that gives those who are living below 200-percent of the federal poverty level greater access to employment, education, healthcare, and services throughout the region. We are currently working on the overall implementation plan and expect TriMet’s low-income fare program to be in place by July 2018.

Along with low-income fare, we are going to be providing more access to transit in historically disenfranchised communities. This expanded bus service will be developed based on the extensive public feedback received during our Service Enhancement Plan process. In the coming years, we will build out bus service in areas with concentrations of affordable housing and create routes that connect those communities with the region’s bustling job centers.

The last piece of our plan for state transportation funds is aimed at keeping people who use our most popular routes moving and doing our part to reduce congestion in Portland metropolitan area.  The Portland metropolitan area is experiencing an explosion of multi-family housing, which is helping fulfill land-use goals but challenging the transportation infrastructure. We are working aggressively to add services in the most congested travel corridors.

TriMet’s MAX Light Rail System consists of five different lines that serve 97 stations covering 60 service miles.

TriMet’s MAX Light Rail System consists of five different lines that serve 97 stations covering 60 service miles.

What types of issues will bus service improvements alleviate?
The funds from the state transportation package, which TriMet will begin receiving in January 2019, will help speed up the service expansion efforts we already have underway. We began those efforts last year with an increase in the employer payroll tax. The employer payroll tax funds about 59 percent of our transit operations.
TriMet’s Service Enhancement Plans are the blueprint to meet the explosive growth happening in our region and to get people where they need and want to go with transit service that is safe and reliable. Our plans focus on connecting people to jobs, services and retail. That means adding new bus lines that run between affordable housing areas and growing job centers, increasing service on our busiest bus lines, and expanding hours of service, including the return of 24-hour bus service on select routes for the first time in more than 30 years. By expanding and increasing our service, we’re making transit more accessible to all riders, especially seniors, people with disabilities and those making medium to low income wages.
TriMet’s expansion plans also focus on addressing traffic congestion. We are working closely with our regional transportation partners, including the City of Portland’s Bureau of Transportation; Metro, the regional government; and the Oregon Department of Transportation on a joint initiative known as the Enhanced Transit Concept. This establishes transit as a priority in key corridors to move more people faster, making transit an attractive and reliable option for people to get to work, school, services, and entertainment.

As traffic congestion has grown in the Portland metropolitan area, trips on TriMet buses are taking longer. The Enhanced Transit Concept looks at options to move the buses through the congestion more efficiently including dedicated bus lanes, business access, and transit lanes, and design improvements to speed the boarding process. Even minor solutions that leverage moderate capital and operational investments can vastly improve the speed and reliability of transit in our most congested corridors and help keep the city moving.
Besides funding, what other key challenges is TriMet faced with?
With the needs identified through our Service Enhancement Plans and continuing community outreach and the funding coming in, our biggest challenge now is adding the infrastructure needed to expand service.  

You cannot add millions of dollars in service overnight. It requires careful planning and consideration of all of the elements needed in expanding service. That includes hiring operators, purchasing buses, hiring and training mechanics and service workers to keep the vehicles running, expanding bus garage facilities, growing security resources, and much more. TriMet will expand service in the degree possible but it will take time. We are currently envisioning a five-year ramp-up.

What project have you recently completed?
In July of 2017, TriMet and our transit partners publicly launched the Hop Fastpass™ regional electronic fare system. This project had been in development for more than five years. We wanted to develop a fast, easy, and convenient account-based fare payment system that reduced the reliance on cash. It’s a regional transit pass for seamless riding across the three main transit providers in the Portland-Vancouver area — TriMet, C-TRAN, and Portland Streetcar.

Hop offers users exciting benefits, including the ability to earn day and month-passes with each ride. This feature eliminates the need for riders to incur the upfront costs associated with purchasing a pass. They simply tap their card to the Hop reader each time they ride, and earn day and month-passes as they go. Using Hop technology, we also offer our riders the ability to purchase fare with their smartphone mobile wallet. Riders who enable Android Pay, Apple Pay or Samsung Pay can tap their phone to any Hop reader to purchase one Adult fare.

TriMet is currently in the process of receiving 57 new Gillig 40-foot buses, which are being acquired as part of a 2013 contract to augment the fleet.

TriMet is currently in the process of receiving 57 new Gillig 40-foot buses, which are being acquired as part of a 2013 contract to augment the fleet. 

You are in the midst of receiving Gillig buses to augment the fleet. What amenities does the new fleet have?
TriMet is currently in the process of receiving 57 new Gillig 40-foot buses, which are being acquired as part of a 2013 contract to augment the fleet. Our goal is to have all of these new buses in service by the end of January 2018. The majority of TriMet’s buses — 369 of 681 vehicles — have been acquired since 2012. As we purchase new buses, we retire our oldest and most problematic vehicles, which increases service reliability and decreasing overall maintenance costs.

All TriMet buses acquired since 2012 were made by Gillig and have low floors, air conditioning, the latest emission-reduction technology, electric engine cooling, and interior and exterior security cameras. These buses also have automatic stop announcements, easy-to-clean vinyl seats, larger windows, brighter LED lighting, handrails, and a gently sloping floor at the rear exit and a GPS dispatch/tracking system. On our most recent buses, we’ve added LED turn-signal lights on mirrors. This feature improves safety and alerts pedestrians and cyclists when a bus is preparing to turn.

Tell me about TriMet’s electric bus pilot.
TriMet is excited about the promise of battery-electric bus technology and is looking forward to the addition of five 40-foot battery-electric buses joining the fleet in 2018. This pilot project will enable TriMet to gain firsthand experience with the emerging technology and to validate cost and performance in our operating environment. This will help our agency better understand any changes needed to scheduling and operations to accommodate battery charging.

We are in the early stages of plan development for a possible transition to electric propulsion for the entire bus fleet. In addition to piloting electric buses for the fleet, TriMet has applied to form a federally funded consortium through the Federal Transit Administration’s ZERO program. We would partner with Portland General Electric and other electric utilities, bus manufacturers and transit agencies around the country to develop a reliable pathway for expanding battery-electric fleet choices and utilization. This would be done through encouraging the bus manufacturing industry to continue to advance bus, charger and battery technology, reliability and affordability. This would enable transit agencies and utilities to better understand the requirements of converting large fleets of buses to electric propulsion, which can create high levels of power demand in concentrated locations.  This is particularly important for agencies with larger fleets, such as TriMet and the peer agencies with whom we have applied to form the consortium.

Discuss the Division Transit Project?
The Division Transit Project offers an exciting opportunity to provide high-capacity transit service to one of our most diverse geographic regions, and one that needs and wants more transit options. This type of bus service will be new to TriMet and riders, reducing travel time up to 20 percent while increasing service reliability. Service will be quicker as riders will be able to board and pay fare electronically at three doors of the bus. Stations will be located where rider demand is greatest. New 60-foot articulated buses to be operated on this line that have capacity for 60 percent more riders than our standard buses, accommodating the busy ridership already seen along the Division corridor between downtown Portland and Gresham.

Right now, TriMet is working with the community and businesses along the 14-mile route to ensure this project is designed and constructed with the same input, care and diligence as our light rail projects. The project is at 30 percent design, and currently with the Federal Transit Administration for funding consideration. We eagerly anticipate moving forward with the project and opening this service in 2021.

How will planned light rail improvements help with service?
TriMet’s MAX Light Rail System consists of five different lines that serve 97 stations covering 60 service miles. It connects communities in Beaverton, Clackamas, Gresham, Hillsboro, Milwaukie and Portland, as well as Portland International Airport, providing nearly 40 million rides over the last year. The MAX Orange Line, which opened in September 2015, continues to see strong gains with both weekday and weekend ridership. It averages about 67,000 trips per week, and that number continues to rise.  

Our light rail system, just like any other across the country, requires repairs and upgrades. The oldest section of the system is more than 30 years old, opening in September 1985. As with any light rail system of such age, replacements and improvements are necessary to continue providing safe and reliable service for our riders. In 2016, we began a series of major improvement projects to replace switch machines, install new rail and overhead wire in sections and upgrade trackway materials with newer, longer-lasting products. These projects help us increase MAX reliability, lessen delays and create a smoother, better ride for our customers.

Meanwhile, we are making improvements to some of our oldest light rail stations including shelter renovations, better lighting, new information monitors, platform surface repairs, new tactile warning strips and upgraded amenities to improve the overall customer experience.

Our region is looking to expand the light rail system to better serve residents and reduce traffic congestion. The Southwest Corridor is the fastest growing corridor in Oregon, already containing more than 10 percent of the region’s population.

Congestion is expected to double in the next 20 years, and the corridor will grow by more than 70,000 residents and 65,000 jobs by the year 2035. That’s why light rail is one crucial response to that growth, as it would connect downtown Portland, still our region’s largest employment center, with Southwest Portland, Tigard and Tualatin. Metro estimates that by 2035, light rail will carry almost 20 percent of commuters heading south from downtown Portland—commuters who otherwise would travel on Barbur Boulevard or Interstate 5. Design and construction would create over 23,000 jobs and the resulting high-capacity service would attract an estimated 40,000 riders by 2035. Planning continues on this vital component to improving connections and travel options for our growing region.

McFarlane touts TriMet’s “great operators and dedicated employees.”

McFarlane touts TriMet’s “great operators and dedicated employees.”

Getting to know Neil McFarlane

How did you get involved the public transportation industry?
I’ve always been attracted to transportation. It’s quantitative. You’re able to count people on bus and count people on the train. I’ve always loved statistics. At the same time I was drawn toward urban design and planning. These interests merged when I came to Portland.

I worked at Metro, the regional government for the Portland metropolitan area, conducting transportation studies. While there I had the great opportunity to be the project operations manager for the building of the Oregon Convention Center. I really enjoyed the construction project management and that helped me look at the statistics and design from a new angle. Those skills brought me to TriMet.   

What did you take away from that early experience?
I am not a policy wonk. I loved getting stuff done in the real word. So much of planning requires deferred gratification. It takes a long time to see the plan come to fruition. But the projects at TriMet come together faster. From a light rail project that comes together in five to 10 years or the amazing service we put out on the streets every day, it’s very gratifying.

What pivotal moment helped you get to where you are today?
A pivotal moment was moving to Portland in 1980 — A region launching an innovate approach with the urban growth boundary, second in the nation light rail line, and a focus on using public transit to build a great place.
A second moment that stands out was 27 years ago when then General Manager Tom Walsh invited me to come to TriMet.  

What project/initiative are you proud of?
When I came to TriMet there was one 14-mile light rail line and that was a strong legacy to build on. Now the light rail system — electric, sustainable, low polluting transportation, stretches 60 miles.

Our last project, the MAX Orange line was a culmination of the TriMet approach, on time, under budget, responsive to its surroundings, and featuring a beautiful bridge that is a new icon of our region. I’m proud that I had a role in designing the approach that led to those outcomes.

We took an innovative approach with our Service Enhancement Plan process — going out and asking citizens what they want. This gave us a strong vision for the future while building transit advocates.

When I became GM, despite being in the midst of the recession, I turned our focus toward modernizing the bus system. Bus purchases had been put on hold but we needed to address the age of fleet. We reinstated an annual purchase process and have put more than 360 new, reliable, fuel-efficient buses on the road.

Righting the cost structure of the agency took years of work with our employees and our union. Not only has that given us some breathing room financially, it has established credibility with the business community. It’s that credibility that I believe gave us support to increase the employer payroll tax and gave some impetus for approval of the state dedicated resources for transit. Now we are in line to increase service by more than 30 percent over next five to eight years.

I’m proud of the Hop Fastpass™ system we launched this year. We put together a smart team, chose our partners well, developed sound management, and created an electronic fare product that we’ve been able to launch smoothly to our customers.

What key lessons have you learned during your career?
In November 1998, we lost a ballot measure by narrow margin. Critics said light rail was dead, but citizens told us to keep at it, that their neighborhoods deserved this type of transportation improvement. Since 1998, we’ve built four light rail lines. It took longer than we had hoped but we got it done. So the takeaway: Keep plugging away. If you believe in what you are doing, don’t take the setbacks personally and keep working toward what you believe in.
Listen. I’m a good listener and I’m able to listen to the various voices and look for the center, the common ground. That’s what moves us forward.

Who has inspired you in your career?
Tuck Wilson was my first boss on the Oregon Convention Center project and at TriMet on the Westside Transit Project. He taught me to be dauntless but have fun and take time for celebration along way.

Tom Walsh was TriMet’s General Manager when I came to TriMet. He had a strength in project management and analyzing problems in a unique way that led to creative solutions.

Fred Hansen, the man who was General Manager before me, had a great deftness in dealing with public process and public policy.

What did you learn from being a regular rider of your system?
Every General Manager should be a consumer of the product their agency puts out on the street. It gives you a consumer’s eye view. You see the importance of reliability and information, as well as the issues that operators deal with every day.  

What do you look forward to doing when you retire next year?
What I’m looking forward to, for a while at least, is a leisurely morning — having a cup of coffee, reading the newspaper and not needing to rush out the door first thing.

I also am looking forward to spending more time with my three grandchildren. I do plan on staying in Portland. And, I will still be riding on the TriMet system on a regular basis.