Prioritize removing barriers to transit

Public transportation exists to get people where they need to go. We collect fares for public transportation to provide a revenue source that supports quality, convenient service. The purpose of fares is not to prevent people from getting where they need to go. If fares prevent people from getting where they need to go, we should try to remove this barrier, while maintaining a quality of service that makes the transit system convenient.

The other evening Street Trust Advocacy Director Richa Poudyal and I arrived early for an event in Beaverton and filled the extra time by grabbing a glass of wine. I fully intended to pay, but when the bill came, I realized I had left my wallet at work. Richa graciously picked up the tab for both of us.

Coincidentally, TriMet launched a campaign last week that compares people who don’t pay their transit fare to “that guy” who never chips in for drinks. I was “that guy” the other night, but fortunately, I was not fined $175 for my mistake--nor was I left stranded in Beaverton with no way home.  

Public transportation exists to get people where they need to go. We collect fares for public transportation to provide a revenue source that supports quality, convenient service. The purpose of fares is not to prevent people from getting where they need to go. If fares prevent people from getting where they need to go, we should try to remove this barrier, while maintaining a quality of service that makes the transit system convenient.

The Street Trust advocated for the creation of a low-income fare for TriMet riders that was funded by the Get Oregon Moving legislation passed by the Oregon Legislature in 2017. TriMet has enrolled more than 24,000 people in the program, providing a substantial benefit to the people who need it most. Community organizations serving low-income households believe the program could do even more. For example, people have to go to Pioneer Courthouse Square during regular business hours to pick up their HOP card. Finding a way to bring low-income passes to the people in more than one location would remove a barrier to participation.

The Street Trust has also called for a comprehensive study of the transportation needs of youth in the TriMet’s service area. Portland Public Schools is the only school district that is not required to provide school buses for middle schools and high schools. Kids attending PPS need access to the transit system and, for many, free transit is needed. OPAL has supported a seemingly perennial campaign to fund the youth pass to assist these kids and students in other school districts in Portland. But other districts in the region are concerned that they do not have a TriMet bus line serving their high school, so a free pass would not be helpful. If we had a better handle on the transportation needs of youth--including those who are not in school--we could begin to attack the barriers they face to getting where they need to go. Improving the safety of routes to walk and roll, bike share, and other alternatives should also be on the table.

People with low incomes are not the only people getting a break on transit fares. Variability in fares applies to riders of all incomes. TriMet offers transit pass programs for employers and the federal government provides tax breaks when a transit patron pays with pre-tax dollars. For the better part of my career, I received free or reduced transit passes even though I earned more than the median income. The fare I paid is not fair if ability to pay is considered.

The TriMet Board took action last year to reduce the negative impact of fare citations on people with low incomes. The Board decriminalized fare evasion and, notably, a citation will be waived for low-income riders who meet certain conditions. Fines are lower if you can pay right away and there is a community service option. These are important moves and TriMet should continue efforts that recognize that for some households a citation could be catastrophic. For example, King County Metro in Seattle reduces fines to $25 if paid within 90 days. 

Our regional plans to accommodate growth and reduce greenhouse emissions depend on growing transit ridership. Adding barriers to riding transit will not get us there. Complaints about fare evasion are not new, but TriMet’s expansion of fare enforcement is. Let TriMet know you support removing barriers to accessing a great transit system by submitting a comment today! 

-Jillian Detweiler
Executive Director