MAXimum security in Portland

Cameras are everywhere in the transit system – on buses and trains and in the stations.
Crosscut archive image.

Tri-Met MAX.

Cameras are everywhere in the transit system – on buses and trains and in the stations.

News that Portland's transit system got another half a million bucks from the feds to beef up security didn't make a big splash earlier this month – understandable, since we were all still busy gaping at the blossoms-on-steroids version of Spring in the Rose City. It was also easy to overlook because the $560,000 for Tri-Met is not an enormous chunk of the agency's budget. (Technically, that's Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon, serving Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties.) Hang in for some quick numbers: Tri-Met's operating budget this year is $379.5 million, and there's roughly $700 million budgeted for capital projects over the next three years, such as expansion of MAX (Metropolitan Area Express) along Interstate 205 and new commuter rail in Washington County. By most measures, Tri-Met occupies a place in transit hierarchy that is the best of all worlds: big enough to have ideas and money, but not so big a ship that it can't be turned. Tri-Met's service area is 29th on the U.S. population list and 11th for ridership. When it cashes those checks from D.C., Tri-Met gets to spend them on behalf of an engaged, eco-aware constituency. It also enjoys the benefit of past decisions that left it with less of the land-lock that interrupts Seattle's rail daydreams. Some critics say the region's transit plan is too piecemeal, but in the national pageant of public transportation, we're at least Miss Congeniality: game, friendly, and maybe better looking than the winners. Portland is considered a "second-tier" city among transit planners (as well as fashion writers, but that's a story for another day). This smaller size, along with the ridership's gung-ho temperament, allows Tri-Met to be nimble enough to regularly try out new ideas in its system of 600 buses, a popular streetcar route, and 105 railcars for MAX. "In larger cities, introduction of new things by a transit agency is a big deal, financially and logistically," said Tim Garling, senior director of operations for Tri-Met. "But we're able to implement changes, to see the cause and effect quickly, then adjust." Garling knows of what he speaks; in an earlier life, he spent a decade with the New York City Transit Authority. Transit management became a whole new animal after Sept. 11, 2001. "Prior to 9/11, transit systems like Tri-Met paid most attention to criminal activities like street crime, graffiti, petty robbery," said Garling. Bombings in London and Madrid intensified the new urgency to thwart explosive devices and other threats. That means upgrading equipment and training. Such changes highlight another big difference between Tri-Met and its larger, older counterparts. Those urban areas must retrofit a lot of older vehicles and infrastructure, an unwieldy, pricey business. Tri-Met, covering about 600 square miles of a still-growing area, is adding routes and rail lines as you read this. It still must retrofit to a degree but can take on changing security needs more easily as it builds stations, lays rail, and orders new vehicles. Upgrading people skills works similarly. A tiny transit system can't easily accommodate sophisticated, constantly changing training; a huge system faces logistical nightmares when rotating employees through programs or getting a diverse public to think in new ways about security. Tri-Met's been able to ramp up personnel training and launch public-awareness campaigns without visibly sacrificing other initiatives. For Tri-Met, the new era of security means three things: more cameras, more patrols, and more of the aforementioned education. Some 200 close-circuit cameras are trained on the action around well-lit stations, and a majority of the system's buses and rail cars also have them. The mere presence of cameras (and signs alerting riders that they exist) is a big deterrent to the usual bads: vandalism and bugging of other riders. Word has gotten around that the transit agency hands its tapes of red-handed perps to the district attorney assigned to Tri-Met cases. Transit-security experts believe the likelihood of being caught on film deters more serious threats, as well. The feds spend money on this at the local level because eliminating "soft targets" - security jargon meaning just what it sounds like – means it will be that much easier to track bad guys of interest throughout the country. With Homeland Security's needs in ascendancy, quality of this closed-circuit technology has improved greatly. Debate all you want to about the Real ID issue; meanwhile, the camera on your bus is capturing a clearer photo of your face than it did last year. No loud worries have been voiced about civil liberties around this transit security; but stay tuned for the day when more smart card/GPS technology comes to town. There's an unexpected side benefit of these cameras. Used to be if you were riding a Tri-Met bus and it rear-ended a car, you could grab your neck and holler for dollars with a reasonable expectation of a payday. Tri-Met's bean counters estimate that they now save enough money on these bogus claims to pay for all the cameras. (These security measures, however, have yet to find a way to prevent other riders from taping your faked howls with camera phones and slapping it on YouTube.) Two other tools used more now by Tri-Met are explosive-sniffing dogs and a practice called Train Order Maintenance Sweeps, or TOMS. (Gotta have acronyms if you want government grant money.) If there is better public-relations value for the buck than Tri-Met's three K-9 units (or, as a seatmate on the No. 4 bus put it, "a 12-paw corps") it hasn't shown up here yet. And no, they aren't trained to find that pot in your backpack, so calm down. The TOMS model is imported from the New York City Transit Authority. It deploys uniformed transit police on "missions," making quick sweeps of stations and cars. "One of the things they focus on is being seen by as many people as possible, often at rush hour and in heavily trafficked areas," explained Garling. Strengthening transit security is a mixed bag of being able to react swiftly to horrible events and proactively using new technology effectively right out of the box. "Most things we've tried have worked," said Garling, "The trick is not over-reacting, but staying diligent about knowing what others are doing, and paying real attention to what the public does, and says, with the changes we bring on."


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors