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TriMet urged to revamp transfers, restore bus line cuts

How long should a single-purchase TriMet ticket last?

The regional transit agency’s board of directors decided that tickets would be good for two hours when they restructured the fares last year. It was part of a series of changes the board made to balance the budget. Other changes included a restructuring that increased fares for most riders. The board also approved a number of service cuts, including the elimination of free rail service in downtown Portland.

Representatives of OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon argue that transfer times are now so restricted, many riders are required to buy two or more tickets just to complete their daily trips, however.

“The burden falls most heavily on low-income and minority riders who cannot afford to buy monthly passes,” says Jon Ostar, executive director of the advocacy group.

Ostar’s organization is pushing TriMet to extend the length of time a ticket can be used. The group suggests that before 7 p.m. a ticket would be good for three hours; after 7 p.m. a ticket could be used the rest of the service day. That will allow more people who rely on TriMet for work and shopping to complete their trips using only one ticket, saving money they desperately need.

Ostar also says such a policy change will increase TriMet ridership, largely offsetting any revenue losses. OPAL representatives working on the organization’s Campaign for a Fair Transfer are scheduled to present their request to the TriMet board at its Sept. 11 briefing meeting. They hope the board will make the change at its Sept. 25 public briefing.

TriMet originally said such a change could cost the agency between $2 million and $4 million a year, however. That was the range in an analysis prepared by ECONorthwest, an economic consulting firm. The figures are being revised after discussions with OPAL, however.

TriMet also has heard from some riders who say that if TriMet has that kind of money to spare, they should use it to restore service cuts the board made when it restructured the fares and eliminated free rail service to balance the budget.

TriMet Public Information Officer Roberta Altstadt says the agency has been talking to OPAL about its proposal, but that other options also are on the table.

“Running on a parallel track and based on community feedback, we are looking at all available resources to restore service that will greatly benefit transit-dependent riders. Our consideration of OPAL’s proposal will be made in the context of restoring service,” Alstadt says.

The issue is coming to a head as TriMet learns how the changes played out last fiscal year.

Recently released figures show overall ridership dropped nearly 3 percent last year. Total rides fell from approximately 112 million to nearly 99 million after the changes took effect.

But the reductions were not spread evenly across all modes of transportation. MAX light-rail trips fell 7.4 percent, to just more than 39 million rides. But bus ridership remained constant at just under 60 million rides. And the WES commuter rail saw a nearly 5.5 percent jump in ridership, increasing to 418,090 rides.

TriMet says several factors contributed to the drop in MAX rides, including the elimination of free rail service and an aggressive fare enforcement campaign to prevent fare evasion.

Despite the drop in ridership, revenue from tickets and passes actually increased, however. It grew to around $112.5 million last year from just over $102 million the year before. All transportation modes produced increases, including MAX trains, buses, WES trains and the LIFT service provided to handicapped riders.

TriMet attributes the revenue increases to fare increases and the crackdown on fare evaders.

But this does not mean TriMet suddenly has $10 million more to play with. The revenue increase was projected and included in the budget approved by the board. It helped allow the board to keep fares and service largely unchanged in the budget that took effect on July 1. It also includes funds for an accelerated bus purchasing program to replace the agency’s aging fleet.

TriMet still does not know the details of the next contract with the union that represents most of its workers. Negotiations with Amalgamated Transit Union 757 are not scheduled to start until later this month.

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