Not sure a fare increase is what he had in mind.
(Photo: Taylor Griggs/BikePortland)

While the cost of bread or milk seems to change daily these days due to inflation, one thing has stayed constant for the last ten years: TriMet fare. It costs $2.50 for a two and a half hour TriMet pass, which allows you to ride both the bus and MAX. 

But Portland metro transit riders are likely to see a fare increase, and it might happen sooner rather than later. TriMet leadership, who say they’re grappling with budget deficits, have floated the idea of a fare hike for some time. At a Board of Directors retreat Wednesday, they made concrete moves toward doing just that.

Stories in the Portland Mercury and Oregonian provide detailed accounts of TriMet’s budget woes and how agency leaders think a raise hike will solve some of the problems they’ve been facing.

Federal pandemic relief funds have been TriMet’s saving grace over the past two and a half years, but that money is dwindling fast. The other way the agency keeps its head above water is through an employer payroll tax. 

At yesterday’s board meeting, TriMet’s finance director Nancy Young-Oliver outlined the potential plans for how they’ll proceed. There were a few options on the table: a 20 cent fare increase starting in September 2023, a 30 cent fare increase starting in January 2024, a 40 center fare increase starting in September 2024, or no fare increase. After deliberating and discussing concerns, the board decided to go forward with the 30 cent increase proposal.

“If we ignore the issue right now, it only gets worse as the time goes on,” said TriMet board president Linda Simmons at the board meeting. “What I’ve always believed is that you make change in smaller increments over time as opposed to waiting until you have to make really large changes.”

Here’s how the changes would play out:

  • Adult 2 ½ hour ticket—increase 30 cents to $2.80
  • Honored Citizen 2 ½ hour ticket—increase 15 cents to $1.40
  • Youth 2 ½ hour ticket—increase 15 cents to $1.40
  • LIFT paratransit single ride—increase 30 cents to $2.80

High fares, low ridership

TriMet ridership since the pandemic crash.

In a time when transit ridership has declined significantly due to the pandemic’s effect on commutes, some people see a fare increase as very risky business that could threaten their ability to win back customers. But proponents of the decision say the benefits of more revenue will balance this out. 

TriMet plans to use the new income to improve ridership numbers by doing things like tackling cleanliness on the bus and light rail to make the “on-system customer experience” better, increasing marketing to attract new customers and hiring more people to increase fare compliance and avoid financial hits from fare evasion. 

If the agency raised regular fare prices, reduced fares would also see a price hike. TriMet’s Honored Citizen reduced fare program is robust and gives a discount of up to 72% to people over the age of 65, people with disabilities and people who earn low-incomes and qualify for other government assistance programs like SNAP and the Oregon Health Plan. According to TriMet’s website, this program has had 46,000 people enroll since 2018. 

Even with a price increase, TriMet officials have a plan to keep people actively enrolled in the Honored Citizen program by getting more people who qualify signed up, renewing current subsidy programs like the youth pass that allows Portland high school students to use TriMet for free during the school year (they also have a summer pass pilot program underway). The agency would also look into other funding opportunities through the Statewide Transportation Improvement Fund and overlapping grants they can apply for with outside agencies like the Department of Human Services, medicare providers and public housing operators. 

If TriMet doesn’t raise fares, leaders say they’ll have to start cutting costs, threatening employee layoffs and more transit service reductions. These would both be detrimental to the agency, which has already been experiencing a severe operator shortage that has already forced them to reduce service and cut some routes

Earlier this fall, TriMet made waves among transit enthusiasts when they released their Forward Together draft service concept, which outlines potential new bus routes across the Portland metro area. Many transit advocates are excited about this proposal; but some of these same people have spoken out against the potential price increase. It will be interesting to see how advocates weigh the possibility of service cuts to the potential ramifications of a fare increase – because according to TriMet, it’s one or the other. 

A different solution?

Are there really no other ways for the agency to stay in the black? TriMet surveys have shown they lose millions of dollars a year due to fare evasion, so one option could be to increase compliance. But more security has its own pitfalls if it’s modeled after traditional police or other armed personnel. An approach like that is likely to lead to unfair enforcement and possibly discrimination against some riders.

A new report, Alternatives to Policing on Transit, released by Portland non-profit OPAL Environmental Justice, imagines a different scenario. What if, instead of raising fares or beefing up enforcement, TriMet abandoned fare compliance measures altogether? 

The report points out that TriMet’s budget for fair collection is substantial – up to a quarter of the passenger revenue TriMet collected between 2012 and 2019. 

“TriMet’s argument that passenger revenue is one of their biggest sources of operation costs seems a little bleak considering the costs that go into fare revenue collection and fare inspection,” the OPAL report states. “The burden of fare inspection lies not only on riders and their engagement with fare inspectors, but also on TriMet’s budget.”

The report also posits that TriMet could save money by decreasing their security presence and hiring more community-centered, unarmed crisis workers. This could look like the Streetcar Rider Ambassador Program, which won an Alice Award this year for its equitable approach to safety on public transit. 

Ultimately, this report echoes the claims made by many public transit and equity advocates, who think an equitable transportation system that truly aims to get people out of their cars and onto the bus or light rail will be fare-free. The report states:

“We see a world where transit is a center of community building, where people don’t have to live in fear of police violence — or any violence — in public spaces, and a world in which transportation is a free, public good that is understood to be a human right.”

Given the recent vote by TriMet’s board, a fare-free future seems unlikely.

What’s next

In a statement Wednesday, TriMet said they’ll launch a public outreach campaign that will include events and an online survey starting in December 2022. They plan to take feedback through this spring and the ordinance will be read at the April 26th, 2023 board meeting. There will then be a public forum and vote on the increase at the May 24th meeting. If you want to share feedback, you can sign up to testify at the start of any Board of Director meeting. Stay tuned for more details in the coming weeks and months.

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