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March 24th, 2010 Henry Stern, Mark Zusman | Q & A
 

Fred Hansen

Some questions for the man who’s been responsible at TriMet.

     
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HANSEN: “We have been very successful at cobbling together money. We’re getting to the end of being able to do that anymore.”
IMAGE: Leslie Montgomery

TriMet general manager Fred Hansen’s announcement last week that he would leave after 11 1/2 years comes at a very busy time for the agency.

Months after killing free bus service in Fareless Square, TriMet is dealing with yet another budget problem that affects the 324,000 trips it records on an average weekday.

This hole is a $27 million shortfall Hansen is proposing to fill with reduced frequency for MAX lines and many bus routes, as well as a nickel fare increase. There’s also TriMet’s latest recent winter debacle of snow-snarled service, the very slow start to its Westside Express Service commuter rail and negotiations with its drivers union.

And there’s political pressure from some to have Metro add TriMet to its portfolio of responsibilities. Or to make TriMet’s board elected by voters instead of appointed by the governor, in hopes it would be more responsive to bus riders.

Hansen discussed all that on Monday, his 64th birthday.

WW: What’s the basic challenge for your replacement after you leave in June?

Fred Hansen: A lot of places around the country are looking for a transit professional—somebody who makes the trains and buses run on time. It’s more than just about transportation. It’s about how you really build communities and alter them by a major public investment. They also have to be a manager—somebody who can run a big organization.

That’s the skill set. You haven’t identified the challenge.

The biggest challenge is, No. 1, to come out of this economic recession and be rebuilding the system and putting back some of the lines we had to cut during this period. Secondly, and most importantly, we have to be able to plan for the future if we’re going to have a million more people here in the next 25 years.… The challenge for the next person is, how do we put together the capital? The environmental community is looking at whether one can break the gas tax. That will be a tough sell. Currently, the state constitution requires that any money from petroleum tax go to roads. The issue is, can there be a constitutional amendment to use gas tax for public transit? I think that would be a great thing.

What would be your reaction to Metro taking over TriMet?

I think it would be a mistake. We have a single focus that doesn’t have to get mixed up in a lot of other issues. Metro makes the policy choice of where we are going to build out. But for it to be a 24-7, 365-day operating part of Metro makes no sense whatsoever.

How about an elected board instead of board members appointed by the governor?

Elected boards are helpful in a number of places. But in a single purpose with a focused area such as transit, which not only is about providing service but building things, one wants to have someone who can look at the long term and not just election to election. It’s not broken, so why fix it?

What are the biggest disappointments of your tenure?

Not being able to have a permanent source of capital to build. We have been very successful at cobbling together money. We’re getting to the end of being able to do that anymore.

How about the lack of light rail to Vancouver as a disappointment?

That’s still in the works. But three years ago, the mention of light rail in Clark County was something almost like a dirty word. Now, on the [Columbia River Crossing], it’s hardly debatable. What’s debated is how big the highway part of it ought to be.

What will be the key to unlock the Columbia River Crossing?

The long-term governance of how to operate that system. Tolls are a part of the debate. It’s a transportation-demand management tool. For me, I always thought 10 lanes is where I would like to see it.

Why didn’t you list Westside Express Service among your disappointments?

I think it’s too early. Everybody wants to look at WES and the ridership and say, “Isn’t it terrible?”

When is a reasonable time to judge it?

When the economy comes back.

Why can’t TriMet handle a little snow?

Every time there’s a storm it’s a very different problem. This last time the biggest problem we had were stuck cars on the transit mall on our trackway. Now the city of Portland is going to actually ban vehicles during snow events from 5th and 6th avenues. We’re installing heated switches and ice caps over the overhead wires. The heavier, wetter snow that gets down in the trackway has been a problem.

Any particular upcoming union issues for your successor?

The healthcare issue is certainly the largest. We have some of the highest healthcare costs of any public transit body in the country.

Have you figured out what you’re going to do next?

Looking back over 40 years, the longest I’ve been off between jobs has been 11 days. I don’t know if something will materialize before June 30, which is when I leave. But I want to stay involved in sustainability, in land use and the green issues with transportation connections. I was born and raised here. And I’m not going to leave.


EDITOR’S NOTE: To see a list of TriMet’s proposed cuts and public hearing schedule, go to wweek.com/trimet_cuts.
 
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