The Pearl District resident and general manager of TriMet takes the No. 17 bus to and from the Portland-area public transit agency's eastside headquarters every day.
"I have these patterns of what I read in the morning and at night when I'm going home," Hansen said. "I'm one of the lucky ones because ... I can take the (bus) without changing downtown."
But the TriMet general manager isn't just along for the ride. Hansen guided the outfit through a three-year recession that left all of Portland's agencies struggling just to provide basic services.
His policies of focused investment and streamlining for efficiencies axed nearly $20 million per year in operating expenses, helping to keep the agency afloat.
Now, Hansen says, the agency is nearly back to its pre-recession revenue, and it has three major rail projects under way that will greatly expand its services. The Washington County Commuter Rail project began in October and will connect Wilsonville to Tigard and Beaverton. The downtown Transit Mall light-rail project will bring MAX service on Fifth and Sixth avenues from Union Station to Portland State University. And the Interstate 205 MAX line will link the Gateway Transit Center and Clackamas Town Center.
DJC: What were the highlights of 2006 for TriMet?
Fred Hansen: A whole series of things.
DJC: As general manager you introduced the idea of focused investment to TriMet. Where does that idea come from?
Hansen: I'm a believer that you have to be able to touch and feel things for it to be a difference. I'm a regular rider and I know those things.
What we did (in the past) was we spread whatever investments we had over a wide distance and nobody could tell any real difference. Now we're able to promote them. Here's a bus that's going to be coming at least every 15 minutes seven days a week. And as a rider that makes a real difference.
DJC: Where is TriMet sitting financially?
Hansen: We've had, as most every business in the greater Portland region in the three-and-a-half-year period between 2000 and 2003, we really saw essentially flat revenues, and that was a direct reflection of the fact that this region had lost a little over 30,000 jobs and most of our revenue is based on the payroll tax.
But what we did during that period is we launched an effort that we call the productivity improvement program, and what it was really aimed at ... was how do we get more resource out of our existing base and put it into more service. Do things smarter, do it cheaper. And as it ended up ... we've been able to save on, an annualized basis, a little over $20 million and still deliver the same service.
And we've done it in a thousand different things. Literally our frontline workers came up with virtually all these ideas. And it's everything from how do you tighten up the front-end alignment of buses so we get less tire drag because there's play in the wheel, and that means we need to use less diesel fuel. And so we've increased our fuel efficiency. And putting nitrogen, not air, into the tires because nitrogen's a bit heavier, it doesn't leak as easily, and therefore we're able to maintain tire pressure a little bit more consistently. We're a big business. ... We run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. When the vehicles aren't out they're in being maintained, so in many ways we're a very big pick-up and delivery service that runs all the time. So we applied business practices to all those things.
DJC: What are you looking forward to in 2007, both in projects and financially?
I-205 is a lot longer alignment but, because it's in a dedicated right-of-way, we're not going to be going through as much activity like the mall. ... It's a bit easier setting because when they built I-205 Multnomah County required that there be a transit way set aside along and in the middle of 205, and we're going to use that and that makes it a lot easier.
DJC: And that downtown mall project also has requirements for minority and women participation?
We set the bar higher than anybody has ever set it before on Interstate MAX. We set a goal of having 16 percent participation in our contracting; we reached 19 percent.
A lot of people use those numbers, (but) what to us is very important is we used locally owned minority and women businesses and we put about $8.6 million on Interstate MAX into businesses that were located in that area.
And it wasn't the big businesses. This is the one- or two-dump- truck operators or the small engineering firm that's trying to get going.
DJC: I know the Portland Development Commission is looking at setting goals for minority and women participation. Is there a difference between how such a program would be implemented in an agency that oversees building construction versus transportation?
Hansen: Obviously there are differences, but the ability to break down contracts is very similar in both settings. ... So the ability to do that is there, but it takes effort and real commitment. And very frankly, we got quality work, a very low changeover level, no litigation that came out of Interstate MAX, and those are the things you can actually deliver for the community, the project and the overall budget.
DJC: All of the agencies involved in transportation in the region are feeling the budget crunch of huge looming projects, such as the Columbia River Crossing. Yet it sounds like you're saying that TriMet is doing well. Do you not feel the squeeze?
Hansen: Let me not leave you with the impression that we feel like we're doing well. We've had a very tough three years - flat revenues with normal inflation or expenses, about $10 million more a year just to stay in place. And that $20 million total essentially offset the additional (annual) costs just to stay in place. So we felt the exact same pressures. ... We're suffering much the same thing every other business and government has suffered.
We've just been able to leverage our investments in a way that's been very critical. The mall I-205 project, 60 percent of that is being funded by the federal government. And that means every time that goes into the local economy we get that extra benefit. ... What we're able to do is really build off of that and make things work.
Bridging the authority gap
DJC: Have you heard Ted Wheeler's proposal about a regional bridge authority?
Fred Hansen: I smile only because I think I was one of the sources of that idea. Obviously, you have to figure out how to make it happen but I think if you look right now the mixture of bridge ownerships are really kind of screwy. You have ODOT owning the big ones, Ross Island and the interstates, you've got (Union Pacific) owning the Steel Bridge and Multnomah County essentially with the rest of the bridges.
And they're not the highest focus certainly within Multnomah County, so you end up getting to this crisis where something's got to happen, and that's not the way we ought to be maintaining things. So, in the long run, something like an authority makes sense.
DJC: Do you think (Wheeler) is the natural champion of that?
Hansen: He certainly has the most bridges.
I was just talking with Sam Adams two days ago and we were talking a little about the bridge authority as well, and he sees it doesn't make sense that what are essentially city streets but have to cross a river are now in another jurisdiction.
How do we think smarter about this? I don't think it's going to come quickly because you need to have a revenue source that goes with that. ... You've got to have a way that is dedicated dollars so those bridges are maintained. But I think in the long run it does make sense, given how critical river crossings are to Portland.
Daily Journal of Commerce (Portland, OR), Nov 17, 2006 by Libby Tucker