PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) -- The transit systems of Portland and Denver are ranked right next to each other in average daily ridership. On average, 328,000 people use the mass transit system each weekday in Denver and 308,000 in Portland.
Denver RTD carries those people over a 2,300-square-mile area with 120 miles of light rail track.
In Portland, TriMet transports people over 575 square miles with 58 miles of light rail track.
But TriMet leads Denver RTD, 70 to 51, in executives and managers earning more than $100,000 per year, according to TriMet records given to KOIN 6 News.
When asked if that's a fair number for a transit agency its size, TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane said, "Yes, given the work that we have underway right now."
Pressed on the fact that Denver RTD serves an area four times larger than TriMet, McFarlane persisted. "Again, I would say, in general, when you look at the overall comparison, we stack up well against our peers."
Documents provided by TriMet show the newly-created position of deputy general manager is budgeted at $208,000. In 2012, Denver's deputy general manager was paid $162,556 -- $46,000 less than Portland.
TriMet's CFO is paid $175,663, about $18,000 more than the same position in Denver, Colorado.
The chief technology officer at TriMet is paid $26,000 more than his counterpart in Denver -- $149,960 to $123,136.
"There's a definite difference in the positions and responsibilities," McFarlane told KOIN 6 News. "One had to look at that in a much more comprehensive way than just looking at the wages."
Portland's cost of living, he added, is slightly higher than Denver's.
"Again, I would say, in general, when you look at the overall comparison we stack up well against our peers."
McFarlane, who became TriMet's general manager on July 1, 2010, recently gave himself a raise to slightly more than $221,000. That's more than the general manager of transit systems in Chicago, Boston and Seattle's King County Metro.
"Do you know what the general manager in San Diego makes?" McFarlane asked rhetorically. "He makes more than I do."
But in San Diego, there are only 30 transit executives earning more than $100,000.
"It's a very different operation," McFarlane said, "where a number of the services are contracted."
Both San Diego and Denver do contract out some services. To passengers, though, the only thing that matters is the cost of a ride.
TriMet fares are now among the highest in the nation.
A monthly pass for an adult on TriMet is $100. In Philadelphia, it's $83. In Denver, $79, $72 in both Los Angeles and San Diego and $70 in Boston.
Jonathan Ostar, who heads up OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, an organization that closely watches TriMet, said Portland riders are paying more money for less service right now.
"When you look at the raw numbers, we are paying the same amount here in Portland as transit riders in New York and San Francisco," he said. "And they get much more extensive service for that fare."
McFarlane blames the recession and the high cost of TriMet's union health benefits for the increase.
"When it came to our most recent fare increase, which was last September, we went out with a very thorough public process," he said.
"We were asking a very fundamental question," McFarlane said. "We have an imbalance in our budget caused primarily by the health care costs of the legacy lifetime health care benefits of our union employees."
When asked about the controllable administrative costs, he said, "They are less than 10% of the budget."
But when it came to raises for TriMet executives, the process wasn't so public. In June 2012, the TriMet board approved cuts in service and fare increases -- and approved more than $900,000 in raises for TriMet executives.
There was no public discussion. The raises weren't listed as an item in the budget. They were buried inside TriMet's $20 million contingency fund. It seemed TriMet was less than transparent, an attempt to hide the raises from the public.
"I've admitted and I've apologized for the way that was rolled out," he said. "That was wrong. We can do better and we will do better next time."
When asked why money could be taken out of the contingency fund for executive raises but not to reduce fares, he said there was no good time to do what he said had to be done.
"We need to retain talented workers at TriMet, a talented workforce in the non-union ranks."
Follow this two part series on KOIN.com:
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