An audit by the Oregon Secretary of State finds TriMet has much room for improvement. It makes 23 recommendations for improvement in areas that include safety, the cost of health care for employees and retirees, employee relations and transparency of operational decisions. TriMet issued the following statement:
TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane today responded to the release of the Secretary of State’s audit, thanking the team of auditors for their diligence during their review of the agency’s finances, transparency and operations.
“We are an organization that embraces the concept of continuous improvement, recognizing there is always the opportunity to do better. That is why we welcomed your assessment,” said McFarlane.
TriMet provided full access to all agency information and documents, including providing more than 450 documents totaling thousands of pages. The audit team interviewed employees and had complete access to internal and external data.
The audit noted that TriMet had made progress in the areas of its financial condition, transparency and operations, and the report’s 23 recommendations will be implemented. TriMet’s 10-page response provides details, efforts and a timeline for implementation. TriMet Interim Deputy General Manager Bob Nelson will lead the implementation phase and provide monthly updates to the public and the board of directors.
The recommendations related to safety will be focused on first. “Our first priority will be on those items that further the delivery of safe and dependable service,” said McFarlane.
The audit reported on our efforts to address operator safety concerns and provided additional recommendations:
â€žh It recommended that we improve communication with frontline employees to provide feedback on our addressing of safety concerns.
o Since 2011, we received and addressed 452 Requests for Safety Assessments (RSA); all but 16 have been implemented to date as they require outside agency involvement. The auditors also heard from employees that we had not effectively communicated those results back to employees.
o The audit noted a need to formalize our fit for duty assessment of bus operators before starting their work. Operators are observed when they start their shift at a garage; it’s more challenging to address for the approximately 30 percent of operators who begin their shifts out in the field.
â€žh The auditors noted that we have fallen behind on preventive maintenance of our MAX tracks and signals. That’s an issue we’ve been addressing, including reorganizing to better focus on our aging system and hiring an outside firm to assess the state of repair of our rail assets, including light rail vehicles and maintenance of way infrastructure. TriMet has also committed to spending more than $3 million to fund MAX track and system improvements over the next two years.
â€žh The auditors recommended continuing to work with the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) on the Interim Hours of Service policy and include it in the upcoming contract and expand it to cover all safety sensitive positions. The interim policy eliminated “double-backs” where a small number of operators took just a few hours off between service days. The policy is “interim” as it was negotiated outside of the three-year Working & Wage Agreement.
Financial issues: “Most serious and looming concerns”
The Secretary of State’s audit stated “the most serious and looming concern” is related to the cost of the health care benefits and the $852 million unfunded liability for retiree health care. TriMet is working to reform these benefits through contract negotiations to be in line with peer agencies.
The audit noted that the on-going labor challenges have had an impact on employee communications and called for improvements.
o The audit recommended operators provide more feedback on schedules, restroom facilities, bus purchases and more involvement in various safety committees, as well as for TriMet to address frontline employees’ perception of safety concerns.
o Work is already underway on the audit’s recommendation to improve two-way communication between TriMet management and frontline employees.
o The audit recommended TriMet create a hotline for employees to report waste, fraud and abuse.
The audit captured the challenging relations between management and the ATU. The report highlighted a need for better communications with frontline employees and the ATU. The contract that expired in 2012 is still being challenged and we’re in negotiations on the next contact. The agency is working to realign our overly generous benefits to be in line with our peers. The long drawn out contact negotiations are a source of conflict that’s having a negative impact on our employees.
“There are several issues where the union and TriMet should be on the same page, specifically safety,” said McFarlane. “We are committed to engaging with the ATU as they are a key stakeholder.”
The audit noted improvements in our transparency efforts and that the agency’s website includes all relevant items required by state law and recommendations by the Sunshine Review. TriMet is convening its new Accountability Committee in February and the panel will seek public feedback on what other information should be accessible on the agency’s Accountability web page.
Most of the recommendations will be implemented by the end of the year; recommendations related to contract negotiations will likely take longer.
“While this comprehensive audit gives us good direction on ways to improve, it’s not a finish line. We will continue to focus on ways to improve our safety, service and communications with our employees and the public,” said McFarlane.