Neighborhood activists and city staff are scrambling to prevent the closure of the TriMet Rider Advocate program Sept. 30.
TriMet, facing $30.5 million in budget cuts, says it has no choice but to trim the $472,770 Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods' program contract for the upcoming fiscal year.
However City Commissioner Dan Saltzman and NECN Executive Director Paige Coleman are agitating for a funding solution to keep the community-based mediation squad on the transit lines.
"The impact that the Rider Advocates have as community outreach and advocates on the lines tend to be unmeasurable, because they interrupt any potential for disruptions — that are then measurable," Coleman said. "So what we're doing is putting the call out to all the community members, the city, our community partners, the schools, our community based organizations, our faith-based organizations – I don't think we've left anyone alone on this – to underscore the public support for the Rider Advocate program."
David Miller, lead Rider Advocate for the program, said he expects that TriMet's gains in elderly riders over the past couple of years will be erased.
"You'll probably see fewer senior citizens on the bus," he said. "I also see that some of the drivers will have problems with kids because school starts on Sept. 8 and we end the 30th, and we won't be there to mediate the situation."
Coleman and the Northeast neighborhood office staff are spearheading a campaign to get at least 1,000 citizens to send letters and email in support of the program to TriMet by Sept. 4.
Coleman said the goal is to make sure the community has an opportunity to support the Rider Advocates, and to explore the possibility that the program's cut might be temporary, with its reinstatement "as soon as possible and as funding allows."
"We're not blaming TriMet for ending the program, they have to make the decisions that their finances allow," Coleman said. "The situation is purely financial reality for TriMet so that's really important to be clear about."
In an open letter to TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen dated Aug. 14, Saltzman, North Precinct Commander Jim Ferraris and City Office of Youth Violence Prevention Director Rob Ingram joined to underscore what the city's Gang Violence Task Force believes to be a compelling need for the Rider Advocates' continued service.
"While we understand the budget realities facing all public agencies, we believe it would have a detrimental affect on public safety if the rider advocate programs were not continued, or drastically reduced," the letter said. "Further, we would like to suggest a conversation between Tri-Met and key members that represent the GVTF to discuss options to keep the program viable and active."
Mary Fetsch, TriMet spokesperson, said the agency is reeling from gargantuan budget cuts.
In addition, after a series of high-profile crimes including the assault of a wheelchair-bound transit customer two years ago, TriMet significantly beefed up security on bus and rail lines to curtail the public's perception of violence.
When the additional transit police were hired, Fetsch said, the Rider Advocates were moved out of the agency's public safety division and into its operations division with an "eyes and ears" function.
"We've had to cut more than $31 million, and in the operations department they had to cut $20.5 million dollars," Fetsch said.
"I think obviously the last thing we want to do is cut service – and we've cut $10.4 million worth of service," she said. "We've had layoffs in the agency, and salary freezes, furloughs for executives."
Saltzman announced the program cut at a meeting of the Youth Violence Prevention Committee last week, after hearing a report from the Portland Public Schools about expected hot spots at area high schools during football season.
"We are well aware of the key role played by the Rider Advocates in keeping public order on public transit and transit stations," said Saltzman, Ferraris and Ingram's letter to TriMet. "The Rider Advocates also provide a great service to those who ride public transportation by promoting good behavior, providing information and a sense of security for riders."
Coleman says community members are encouraged to email statements of support to NECN at [email protected] as well as TriMet directly at customerservice @trimet.org or email Peggy Hanson directly at [email protected]
Letters may be mailed to Support Letter, Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods- Rider Advocates, 4815 NE 7th Avenue, Portland, OR 97211.