TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane announces retirement

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Board of Directors, agency launch worldwide search for next leader

Neil McFarlane became TriMet General Manager on July 1, 2010. Previously he served as TriMet’s Executive Director of Capital Projects (1998-2010) and the agency’s Project Control Director on the Westside Transit Project.

TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane will retire after more than seven years at the helm of Oregon’s largest public transit provider. McFarlane, age 65, announced on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, that he would retire in early 2018. McFarlane has been with TriMet since February 1991, serving as general manager since July 1, 2010. The agency and TriMet’s Board of Directors will now launch an international search for the next general manager, including holding listening sessions with community stakeholders and soliciting public feedback.

Under McFarlane’s leadership, TriMet has become an important partner in the efforts to create livable communities and keep the Portland region moving, garnering the respect of national transportation leaders. Through his years of service, he led the expansion of TriMet’s light rail system, which has become a national model for integrating land use and transportation planning, policy and development.

As general manager, McFarlane began a 10-year expansion of bus service and laid the groundwork for future service enhancements to meet the needs of our growing communities. He led the agency’s recovery from the great recession and put TriMet on a strategic financial path. He championed a culture of safety and continuous improvement inside TriMet. McFarlane fostered a commitment to diversity, equity and cultural competence. And, he pushed the agency forward on investments and innovations to improve service and the overall customer experience, while reinvesting in the existing system.

“It has been an honor to serve as general manager these past seven years,” said McFarlane. “I want to thank all the employees past and present, the TriMet Board of Directors and the community partners who’ve contributed to our successes, helped us overcome challenges and understood how vital transit is to keeping the region moving. My work is not yet done. TriMet has a bright and busy road ahead and I pledge to continue in high gear until my last day.”

“On behalf of the Board of Directors, I want to thank Neil for his hard work and dedication to this agency,” said President of the TriMet Board of Directors, Bruce Warner. “Neil’s leadership guided the agency out of the Great Recession, improved financial stability and built the foundation to successfully expand service and modernize the system.”

Growing transit for growing communities

During his years at TriMet, McFarlane helped lead the expansion of the MAX Light Rail System from a single line, 15-mile system to the five-line, 60-mile system that serves communities from Hillsboro to Gresham and north Portland to Clackamas County. He also brought the first commuter rail line to Oregon and made a lasting mark on TriMet’s bus system.

Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx stands with TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane and Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici on the Tilikum Crossing, during construction in 2014.

Rail expansion
General Manager (2010-2018)

  • Portland-Milwaukie (Orange Line) Transit Project
    • First-of-its-kind bridge in the nation: Tilikum Crossing, Bridge of the People, carries buses, trains, streetcars, pedestrians and bicyclists but no private cars.
    • Innovations in sustainability

Executive Director of TriMet’s Capital Projects Division (1998-2010)

  • Airport Transit Project (Red Line) – 2001
    • Innovative public/private partnership established first train-to-plane connection on West Coast
  • Interstate Transit Project (Yellow Line) – 2004
    • National model both for innovative environmentally-friendly construction practices and the involvement of Disadvantaged Business Enterprises
  • Washington County Commuter Rail Project (WES) – 2009
    • First commuter rail service in Oregon
    • One of few suburb-to-suburb commuter rail lines in the nation
  • I-205/Portland Mall Transit Project (Green Line) – 2009
    • 2-year transformation of the Transit Mall in Downtown Portland

Project Control Director: (1991-1998)

  • Westside Transit Project (Blue Line) – 1998
    • Robertson tunnel: 3-mile, 2-bore tunnel through the West Hills
    • The nation’s deepest light rail platform 260 feet below ground
    • First low-floor accessible rail vehicles in the U.S.

Bus service improvement highlights

  • Service Enhancement Plans to identify long-term service improvements
  • 10-year bus service expansion program with new or improved service twice a year (launched in 2016)

Setting a strategic financial path

McFarlane faced early challenges as general manager including the great recession. Lower-than-expected employer payroll taxes, anticipated cuts in federal funding and unsustainable health care costs led to a $12 million shortfall. Based on the feedback from a budget task force he assembled and unprecedented public outreach, McFarlane preserved as much service as possible while implementing a multi-pronged approach to close the financial gap.

Financial highlights

  • General Manager’s Budget Task Force: Brought together diverse individuals from throughout region
  • ‘Challenges & Choices’ budget outreach with innovated web-based voting system
  • 2014 union contract significantly reduced liabilities
  • Agency’s first ever Strategic Financial Plan
  • Business plan approach to assure agency’s costs kept in check and internal efforts aligned to better serve TriMet’s customers
  • Pursuit of stable funding for transit capped by the passage of HB2017 – first dedicated funding for transit throughout the state

Striving for balance and inclusion

McFarlane has long held the belief that access to transit is access to opportunity and has championed diversity and equity in TriMet’s standards and policies. He’s also advanced inclusive business practices and community partnerships while bringing more voices to conversations about the transit system.

Diversity and equity highlights

Seeking innovation and continuous improvement

McFarlane launched a number of innovative projects to help customers and improve the overall customer experience.

Innovation highlights

  • Launch of the regional Hop Fastpass electronic fare system (July 2017)
  • Launch of the first mobile transit fare ticket for riding both buses and trains (Sept. 2013)
  • Launch of a new Computer-Aided Dispatch/Automatic Vehicle Location system (2012)
    • More communication between operators and dispatchers
    • Improved real-time bus arrival data feeding TransitTracker system
    • Opened new data to independent developers for third-party transit applications

McFarlane also has instituted an environment of continuous improvement inside TriMet to better serve riders and the public. Taking the helm following the worst collision in TriMet history in April 2010, McFarlane prioritized safe operations and a culture of safety.

Continuous improvement/safety highlights

  • Comprehensive turn-by-turn and stop-by-stop review of all bus routes
  • Renewed driver training and safety campaigns
  • On-time performance – nearly 10 percent MAX on-time improvement in two years
  • Security budget increase from $10.6 million in fiscal year 2010 to $25.3 million in fiscal year 2018
  • Increased fare enforcement
  • Increased security, Transit Police presence on the system
  • Security continuous improvement team addressing attacks on operators

Reinvesting in the system – and making it better

While McFarlane was part of the growth of the MAX Light Rail system, he now finds himself part of the rejuvenation of it as the system has reached the age for necessary repairs and replacements. McFarlane also reinstated TriMet’s bus purchase program bringing the average age of the fleet from 14 years to less than 8 years.

System improvement highlights

About TriMet

TriMet provides bus, light rail, commuter rail and paratransit services across a 533-square-mile district of the Portland, Oregon, metro area, connecting communities while easing congestion and reducing pollution. More people ride transit in the Portland area than in larger cities such as Dallas, Denver and San Diego – with nearly eight out of ten riders choosing TriMet over driving. Portland ranks 9th in per capita transit ridership, even though it ranks 24th in population. In fiscal year 2017, TriMet provided nearly 99 million trips.