Riders could pay more for short two-way trips under proposal heading to board

Transit riders in Washington County could experience a serious case of sticker shock September if a plan to rejigger TriMet's fare system is approved by its board.

The plan would make any one-way trip cost $2.50, a $0.40 increase from the cost of a trip from Forest Grove to Beaverton today.

Portland's Fareless Square could also fall victim to the dour economic times, if TriMet adopts a package of cuts proposed by its general manager, Neil McFarlane.

The transit agency needs to cut $17 million from its $400 million operating budget in order to make up for weak payroll tax proceeds, reduced federal funding and the costs of a labor arbitration deal.

Eliminating Fareless Square, which was rebranded as the Free Rail Zone in 2010 when buses began charging fares in the panhandle-shaped central city zone, would earn the agency $2.7 million in fares, largely from residents who live near Lloyd Center and the Convention Center, who ride for free.

But McFarlane's proposal includes a laundry list of tweaks to the agency's operations that would boost revenue or save money in the short term.

Included in the list:

• $9 million earned by restructuring the agency's fare system, eliminating discounted tickets for traveling short distances within 'zones,' eliminating round-trips on a single ticket, and encouraging riders to buy day passes instead of individual tickets.

• $4.4 million saved by reducing service on some bus lines, including eliminating weekend service for the 22, 32 and 73 bus lines, increasing wait times for the MAX during non-peak hours and have Red Line trains terminate in downtown Portland instead of Beaverton.

In a presentation to the editorial board of the Pamplin Media Group, McFarlane said the agency has already taken steps to streamline operations, like freezing the wages of top management and reducing benefits for non-union employees.

Now, after cutting service in three of the last four years, the agency is trying to maintain as much service as possible, while raising revenue to meet its projected shortfall.

That's why a preponderance of the proposal aims at raising revenue.

It's also why service reductions focus on trips with low ridership on some bus lines, eliminating some underutilized weekend trips and modify routes that are redundant (see box) and altering MAX service by increasing wait times.

The hope is that riders can still accomplish the trips they need to, though they may need to wait longer or make an additional transfer.

'That's the theme of the service changes, we're trying to keep the same service,' McFarlane said. 'It still allows the trip to occur.'

But McFarlane conceded the new fare structure could add as much as $0.40 to a one-way-ride, the largest single increase in recent history at the agency.

OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, a Portland non-profit, has been pushing TriMet to increase the duration of the transfer to allow transit-dependent and poor riders to accomplish more trips with a single ticket.

Instead, the new fare plan cements a two-hour transfer time in place. While it allows riders to make pit-stops along a bus line (say, stopping in Downtown Hillsboro on a trip from Forest Grove to Beaverton), it doesn't allow the rider to ride a bus to a grocery store and use the same transfer for a ride home.

Jonathan Ostar, executive director of OPAL, said he is concerned riders haven't been involved enough in the formation of the agency's budget.

'OPAL is concerned that the level of engagement shown by the agency and the transparency has not been sufficient,' Ostar said.

McFarlane said this proposal is far from the last word on the matter. The agency will reevaluate its tax revenue projections in March and a victory for management in labor arbitration would reduce the shortfall by $5 million.

'This is the negative in the fixer,' McFarlane said.

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