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Free rides come to end of the line

Streetcar supervisors begin checking for tickets outside Fareless Square

There are no more free rides on the Portland Streetcar outside of Fareless Square.

Until this week, the 9-month-old line had no real system for making sure passengers really paid the fare. Unlike Tri-Met, there were no fare inspectors.

But that changed on Monday when line supervisors assumed the added duty of checking for tickets. Passengers without tickets will be asked to buy a ticket or get off.

'Asked nicely,' stressed Mary Volm, spokeswoman for the Portland Department of Transportation. 'This is an added job requirement of our supervisors. Tri-Met checks randomly. We will, too.'

Through the end of May, supervisors also will survey riders to see who has tickets and what type of tickets they're using.

'We'll start to measure how many excuses are out there,' Volm said.

The line, which shuttles between Northwest 23rd Avenue and Portland State University, was never expected to bring in much in the way of fares Ñ maybe $100,000 year, officials said when the system opened last July.

Two-thirds of the line, remember, lies inside Fareless Square, and the streetcar must work in sync with Tri-Met's fare system. But when the first year is done, officials said, the line expects to see ticket revenue of about $70,000.

That revenue comes in by means of an honor system. Riders needing a ticket can use any type of Tri-Met ticket, buy a ticket from a machine on the streetcar itself Ñ for now, exact change only Ñ or buy a separate monthly streetcar-only pass. Fare inspectors were never a part of the picture. Operating money comes from parking meters. The decline in fares hasn't hurt the line's financing because sponsorships at stops is higher than expected and annual passes have sold well, Volm said. Streetcar officials expect to sell about 8,000 annual passes in the line's first year.

It's easy to cheat

Tickets are needed on only about one-third of the line, a stretch from Northwest Hoyt Street Ñ the northern end of Fareless Square Ñ to 23rd Avenue. The odds, some riders figure, are against getting caught.

'A lot of people get on and don't have any change,' said Rick Woodward, a Northwest Portland resident who rides the streetcar to classes at Portland State. 'I tell them not to worry about it. If you catch it near Fareless Square, are you going to pay $1.55 to ride two blocks?'

Some excuses for not having a ticket are legitimate. The on-board ticket machines, for example, don't take dollar bills and don't make change, frustrating otherwise honest riders. Change machines will be added next month, Volm said.

'It's totally different from the bus,' said Blake Deeds, also a PSU student and a regular streetcar rider. 'You don't have someone at the door. You walk right on. If people can get away with something, they're going to try. I don't mean to sound skeptical or negative. I have a pretty positive attitude about human nature. But such things are going to happen.'

Deeds said friends who use the streetcar to visit him don't buy tickets, and he often hears passengers talking about fares.

'They're like, 'Hey, do you pay?' 'No.' You hear conversations like that.'

Tri-Met also finds that its passengers abuse the honor system. Riders don't have to show tickets to board a MAX train or when boarding a bus within Fareless Square.

Tri-Met, of course, is much bigger. It has 16 fare inspectors operating from 5 a.m. to midnight on trains and buses, not counting transit police and supervisors, who also check for tickets. In general, more than 10 percent of riders have no tickets or passes of any kind, said Peggy Hanson, Tri-Met's manager of field operations.

Keeping tabs on scofflaws

In January, Tri-Met issued 304 citations for not paying fares, 48 of them to juveniles. The tickets come with an $89 fine, which judges can either reduce or increase to $200. In addition, there were 268 exclusions from the system, 40 of them administered to juveniles.

Tickets and exclusions, though, are a last resort for Tri-Met when passengers are caught without a tickets, Hanson said.

'We want to find out first why,' she said. 'It could be someone new to the city who doesn't know how the fare system works.'

Inspectors then check the database. If they're dealing with someone who has a history of avoiding fares, citations may be issued that entail exclusions of up to 90 days and perhaps criminal trespass charges. Such charges, though, aren't frequent. As of today, three criminal trespass cases were pending in court, Hanson said.

Making the entire streetcar route free is not in the cards, Volm said. First, officials want to keep the system coordinated with Tri-Met's fare structure. But perhaps more important is that Northwest Portland residents worry that a free streetcar would turn their neighborhood into a commuter park-and-ride lot and make their already scarce street parking even scarcer.

The information gleaned from the streetcar survey in the next two months might make it easier for riders to buy tickets and maybe bring a little more honor back to the honor system.

One rider said recently that the system as it is today has few controls.

'I have never even been checked,' she said.

Contact Don Hamilton at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..