In an attempt to cut down on confrontations with passengers, TriMet says its bus drivers should no longer tell fare evaders they can't board.
But the new directive for drivers, including a clause allowing partial payment, is causing confusion among the agency's own employees.
The new direction "is no more kicking people off for nonpayment of fare," said Al Margulies, a retired bus driver who writes about TriMet on his blog. Because it would cut down on passenger-driver confrontations, the new policy "is a good one as far as I'm concerned."
Other employees are not as pleased, complaining that the new guidance could put them in the position of explaining to riders who pay full fare why those who don't can receive the same privileges.
"Operators may not deny boarding to a fare evader," said the new bus operator procedure document, which is dated Feb. 16. The document then explains how to handle those passengers that pay a partial payment: "Issue a printed ticket closest to the actual amount that a customer has made an effort to pay the fare."
Some drivers feel the new guidance calls for them to accept any amount of partial payment. A TriMet spokeswoman, however, maintains that the partial payment clause is only intended for when riders become threatening. She stressed that the agency will still go after fare evaders; it just wants drivers to alert dispatch to send enforcement officers.
"If somebody is not going to pay the full fare, bus drivers can still alert dispatch and report them for fare evasion," said Roberta Altstadt, adding that it's up to the driver whether to accept partial payment.
In cases of partial payment, the new document "allows them to use their professional judgment on whether to issue a transfer to a customer or contact dispatch for assistance," she added.
But where the old policy specifically called for drivers to use their judgment, the new one does not.
Bus drivers and fare inspectors have been raising concerns about the confusing changes with their union, Local 757 of the Almagamated Transit Union, and President Shirley Block says she sees why. The new guidance for drivers isn't intended to be that different from how it was before, but "I don't think it's written clearly enough," Block says. "I think they should reconsider what they are saying."
The new procedures are driven by concerns about confrontations and assaults on drivers, a national trend according to Altstadt.
"If someone does not pay their fare, they are subject to a citation, exclusion or arrest," she said. "We have increased fare enforcement missions – by supervisors and fare enforcement staff – on both buses and MAX. So riders should not expect to ride without fare."
She said "bus operators have been instructed that they are fare informers and not enforcers."
Although the new document is dated last month, word has only lately been spreading in blogs and in TriMet circles. Margulies, the retired bus driver and blogger, likes the idea. Assaults on drivers have been an increasing concern for TriMet employees.
Click here to read the new TriMet driver guidance document.
But an anonymous TriMet bus driver's blog, From the Driver Side, states "It won't be long before the riding public rises up and refuses to pay at all. Why should it? This flip-flopping fare policy makes us all look silly, from management to operators."
Altstadt says the driver is misinterpreting the new procedure. "This is not about people being able to ride for free. It's about the safety of our operators. We do require fares on all our vehicles and will continue to do do."
If drivers are confused, "I would encourage them to talk to their manager about this," Altstadt said.