(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

— This guest opinion is by Bus Riders Unite! member and OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon Board Member Tristan Isaac.

We are in the midst of multiple economic crises and many working people struggle to recover in an economy ravaged by a global pandemic. Rent hikes and price gouging by greedy landlords and corporations are driving thousands into poverty, debt and homelessness. You could scarcely pick a worse time to raise prices on an essential service like public transportation. Yet that is exactly what TriMet aims to do, all while doing everything they can to avoid public scrutiny and accelerate the process with minimal outreach. 

“The issues at TriMet stem largely from a lack of visionary leadership rather than a lack of resources. With a few exceptions, the Board of Directors is assembled of retirees, paper pushers and functionaries with dubious qualifications and problematic opinions.”

At a series of recent meetings, TriMet’s unelected Board of Directors, led by President Linda Simmons, pushed forward implementation of a 30-cent fare hike starting in 2024.They claim that without raising fares, the agency would be pushed into a budget deficit, leading to layoffs and service reductions. While such cost-cutting measures would be a disaster, it’s hard to ignore that, despite being flush with cash, TriMet has already been forced to implement unprecedented service reductions due to an operator shortage driven by decades of mismanagement and hostile labor relations.

TriMet claims to be concerned about a budget deficit but the real issue is a deficit of leadership. During the same meeting where they proposed a fare hike, the Board of Directors also attempted to torpedo the notion of a fareless system with a heavily-biased presentation. Several Board members also shared bizarre anecdotes to justify their skepticism of free public services like subsidized community college and engaged in alarmist rhetoric around unhoused people “taking over” a fareless transit system. 

The truth is: Raising fares has nothing to do with finances or budgets and everything to do with who TriMet’s leadership thinks should and shouldn’t be allowed to ride transit. According to TriMet’s most recent budget, passenger revenue accounts for roughly seven percent of their total funding. Between administration, collection, maintenance and enforcement, the cost of collecting fares is barely covered by the fares themselves. Fares function less as a critical source of revenue and more as a convenient justification to control who is allowed to ride the transit system by criminalizing homelessness and poverty.

If TriMet’s administrators are truly concerned about the financial health of the agency, why limit the discussion only to that of fare hikes? TriMet, or rather the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon, is a public agency charged with operating a public transit service established by legislative action more than fifty years ago. It is in effect a municipality unto itself with a ruling Board of Directors appointed by the governor. Within the district, these Directors have broad authority to pass laws and raise revenue from a variety of taxes, levies and bonds, many of which have yet to be tapped. Ad valorem property taxes, business license fees and a graduated net income tax where the highest earners pay more are all on the table.

Additionally, TriMet could enter into intergovernmental agreements with any of the numerous cities and counties that overlap with their district for additional funding. So far, they have yet to explore any such options, except in existing contracts where TriMet pays tens of millions of dollars to a dozen different law enforcement agencies to staff the Transit Police Division. TriMet’s government affairs division could also lobby the state legislature for an expanded mandate or additional funding. The last time TriMet turned out a major lobbying effort was–you guessed it–to protect the power of police to check fares, before reversing course years later in the face of public backlash against police officers following the murder of George Floyd.

From all of this, we can surmise that the issues at TriMet stem largely from a lack of visionary leadership rather than a lack of resources. With a few exceptions, the Board of Directors is assembled of retirees, paper pushers and functionaries with dubious qualifications and problematic opinions. Are they regular transit users? Hard to tell for sure, but not particularly likely. Agency bureaucrats are more interested in operating the district like a private corporation rather than a public agency. When riders are “customers,” forcing people to pay for service is only logical. However, TriMet is not a private corporation, it is a public agency almost entirely funded by tax dollars. We all pay for TriMet long before we ever step up to a ticket machine. 

Rather than hiking fares on already cost-burdened families who rely on TriMet and continuing to use fare enforcement as a method of exclusion that criminalizes poverty and harms the most vulnerable, TriMet should take the bold step of making transit free for all users. Fareless transit would be a huge boon to our region’s climate goals, coaxing more people out of their cars and in the process easing traffic congestion, improving air quality and making streets safer for pedestrians. No fares also means faster boarding and better on-time performance, making the system more efficient and reliable. TriMet could also save tens of millions of dollars per year and alleviate the operator shortage by eliminating their fare administration divisions and putting dozens of reprobate fare inspectors to work doing something good, like driving buses.

It should be obvious that TriMet’s leadership lacks the radical ambition to implement such a bold initiative, which means it falls on us, the public, to hold them to account. TriMet will soon begin public outreach about their proposed fare hike and they need to hear from us loud and clear that we do not accept it. We need people to turn up to their board meetings and testify against fare hikes and for fareless transit. Be willing to take direct action against fare enforcement. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need new leadership at TriMet. Two out of seven board members are currently approaching the end of their term and our new governor will need to replace them. Look to your community, we need transit advocates and riders who know and rely on the system to govern it. That could be your neighbor, your friend, your coworker or even yourself. Together, we can elevate bold new leaders, stop a fare hike and make fareless transit a reality.

— Tristan Isaac

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