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January 2012

Rail News: Passenger Rail

Town hall, Twitter style: TriMet turns to social media to obtain public input on budget issues


During the past three years, the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet) has cut bus and rail service by 13 percent and 10 percent, respectively. The economic and financial conditions that led to those cuts, coupled with an upcoming union agreement that could mean higher labor expenses for TriMet, have led to an anticipated $12 million to $17 million budget gap in fiscal-year 2012. As agency execs mull options to close the chasm, they want to make sure they offer riders as many opportunities as possible to weigh in.

Among the steps being taken: an interactive online survey that invites visitors to vote on potential gap-closing measures, public hearings and citizen budget advisory committee meetings. But there’s one audience TriMet officials want to make sure they reach: the social media community. A sizeable portion of the agency’s riders use social media accounts to communicate with or follow TriMet alerts; the agency has about 6,000 Twitter followers and 5,000 people who “like” their Facebook page. TriMet officials believe many of their social media users aren’t likely to attend a public hearing, but would provide comments or feedback through social media channels.

That’s why the agency held its first-ever Twitter town hall meeting on Jan. 12. During an hour-long period, TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane responded to questions via Twitter regarding the agency’s budget shortfall and options to cut it during the session.

“We’re trying to cover a lot of different avenues to reach out to the public, and various stakeholder and community groups so we can get a broad representation of feedback with regard to what we might do going forward,” says Drew Blevins, TriMet’s director of marketing and customer service. “We wanted this audience to have a voice in that process so that when we put a proposal forth in early February … it will be a thoughtful proposal based on our own analysis but also guided by feedback from different segments of the public.”

TriMet invited people to the town hall meeting through tweets, a notice on its website, emails to riders who have signed up for agency alerts and a press release. Thirty-three people posted questions on a TweetChat page Trimet created, using the hashtag #askneil. During the hour-long session, McFarlane answered 35 questions — though he didn’t actually do the tweeting.

About a dozen people gathered in the room with McFarlane to view the questions on a large screen as they came in. McFarlane dictated the responses, but agency personnel familiar with TriMet’s Twitter account — and Twitter’s 140-character tweet restrictions — did the tweeting. Meanwhile, communication department officials were on hand to ensure responses were consistent, IT department folks were on hand in case there were any technical difficulties (there were none) and a handful of agency officials from various disciplines were in the room in case a question required a more specific response. Another person monitored the questions to ensure McFarlane answered to all participants (rather than addressing multiple questions posed by a single person) and grouped similar questions together as they came in so McFarlane could issue a single response.

Participants asked questions such as why the agency is hiring a new transit bridge project manager if money is tight, what the ratio is between union and non-union employees, what the operating cost per ride is, and why the Westside Express commuter-rail service is not meeting ridership expectations. Participants offered suggestions, as well, such as eliminating the marketing department, and outsourcing IT and human resource functions.

“That hour went really fast and questions came in fast and furious,” says Blevins. “We were appreciative of folks being candid and we recognize this is a channel where it’s important to be authentic. We also wanted to make sure we were timely in our responses and stick as much as possible to the nature of the town hall with regards to our budget challenges.”

Blevins says the chat was “worthwhile” and that TriMet would consider holding another Twitter town hall in the future.

“It created an important opportunity to show folks we’re listening and also demonstrates that our general manager wants to be accessible,” says Blevins.

As the Twitter town hall format gains popularity with various organizations and government agencies (the White House held its first in June 2011), it’s likely more transit agencies will turn to Twitter to obtain feedback on important issues. Recently, Utah Transit Authority General Manager Michael Allegra held a similar Twitter chat to discuss a proposed fare increase.

Angela Cotey


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