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Farewell Fareless Square

East side, west side, streetcar riders will pay all around the town
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT TriMet is expected to announce this month that the days of free streetcar rides are over.

Vanessa rides the streetcar at least four times a day with her 5-year-old daughter, Sadie. Sadie attends Chapman Elementary School in Northwest Portland, Vanessa studies at Portland State University, and the two of them live in an apartment near PSU.

Every weekday morning, mother and daughter take the streetcar to Sadie's school, and Vanessa rides back to PSU. In the afternoon, Vanessa rides back to Northwest Portland to pick up Sadie, and the two of them ride home. That's six trips in total. All for free.

Putting aside the fact that technically, the two are riding a couple of stops outside the streetcar's traditional Fareless Square route, Vanessa counts on these free trips. In fact, on a tight budget, she's based a large part of her life with Sadie on them, choosing to give up her car and to rent in a building on the streetcar line.

The prospect of losing her free rides worries Vanessa, holding tight to a hand rail as the streetcar heads out of the Pearl District on a Wednesday afternoon. It could, she says, drive her back to the car-based lifestyle she eschewed out of a desire to live more sustainably. Maybe she'll try Zipcar.

'If they start charging, that changes things for me, significantly,' she says.

Putting people back into cars is the last thing that local transportation officials want to do, but elimination of free streetcar rides is beginning to look inevitable.

Next September, the eastside streetcar line opens, and Portland Bureau of Transportation officials have been working on a fare policy for the new line. Last week, they held two open houses, one on the eastside and one on the westside, to give residents a chance to comment on the proposed new payment model.

The new plan hasn't been cast in stone, transportation officials say, but according to insiders the overriding premise is pretty much decided. Riding on the streetcar line on the east side of the Willamette River will require a fare, which makes continuing fareless rides around downtown politically unfeasible.

Two years ago, TriMet dropped downtown buses from Fareless Square, which was renamed the Free Rail Zone. Next year, the streetcar is likely to follow suit, leaving the downtown-to-Lloyd Center MAX route as the only free ride. Local transit experts say that with TriMet facing a looming transportation bureau budget deficit of about $16 million, it's only a matter of time before free downtown MAX rides are eliminated.

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Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • PSU student Vanessa (center) and daughter Sadie ride the Portland Streetcar throughout the day. Should they have to pay for those rides, Vanessa says, she might buy a car instead.

The transportation bureau is proposing a citywide two-hour streetcar ticket that will cost $1 or $1.50, and a $2.10 all-day streetcar/TriMet fare. That would mean an extra $4.20 a day for Vanessa and Sadie, more than $100 a month. And while Vanessa says she can see how the issue would appear to eastsiders, she still doesn't think it would be fair to make her start paying when she's based her lifestyle on the free rides.

Nearby sits Ellie, who regularly rides the streetcar from Portland State to her job at Oregon Health and Science University's South Waterfront campus. OHSU provides Ellie with a transit pass, so she won't suffer if the streetcar requires fares.

Still, Ellie doesn't like the idea of the streetcar losing its hop on, hop off, don't worry about the change in your pocket distinction.

'It would be upsetting if Fareless Square is gone,' she says. 'It's nice to have that piece of town where you don't have to pay for it.'

Free streetcar rides for so long have seemed like an iconic bit of Portland, Ellie says.

'There's this entitlement where you've always had this,' she says. 'But if there never was a Fareless Square, it would not be an issue.'

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Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • The east side streetcar line along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard will start operating in Sept. 2012. With the city bureau of transportation facing a huge budget deficit, passengers shouldn't expect free rides.

Some will walk, drive

What Ellie is describing is called 'the endowment effect' by psychologists, who say it is human nature for people to be reluctant to give up what they already have, even if they know they should. The endowment effect might be the single greatest obstacle Portland Streetcar faces with its new fare plan.

Ahmed, a graphic designer who lives at Northwest Tenth Avenue and Marshall Street in the Pearl District, knows the feeling. He says he only takes the streetcar on shopping days, when he walks to Whole Foods and takes the free ride back with his arms full of grocery bags. And, yes, he too might be taking the streetcar a stop beyond its fareless district.

If he has to pay, Ahmed says, 'I just won't take it.' What will he do instead? 'Drive.'

Then there's William, disabled and riding the streetcar through downtown on the TriMet honored citizens pass he gets for $26 a month.

William says he is riding the streetcar loop just to pass the time, same as he's done the past few days on MAX and buses. He says charging for the westside streetcar would be a mistake.

'There's a big culture of homeless people who stay within the confines of Fareless Square,' he says. 'You're going to have to go ahead and bump up security and dog people.'

PSU students Lindsay and Naomi aren't riding today, but they are having coffee right next to the streetcar line where it cuts through University Plaza. Lindsay says she's an infrequent streetcar passenger.

'If it's raining and it's six blocks and it's a quarter I'll pay that. But $1.50? It's too much,' she says. 'People are going to rip them off if they ask for too much.'

Naomi says she'll pay a dollar or less for the privilege of riding from PSU through downtown. Anything more and she walks.

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Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • The downtown lifestyle until now has included a mostly free streetcar with an honor system for payment. But fare inspectors with the authority to kick off those who don't pay may soon be part of the streetcar scene.

A rebellion

Shoshanah Oppenheim understands those sentiments. She's the bureau of transportation project manager forging a final recommendation for streetcar fare policy in the next few weeks. She's been working her way through the dozens of comments made about the proposed streetcar fares last week.

The popular divide is pretty clear on the matter of free west side transportation, Oppenheim says.

'People really identify with it,' she says. 'People told me they've moved to a neighborhood to live in the rail-free zone. They see it as part of their community on the west side, and if you ask people on the east side, they see it as a subsidy.'

Free public transportation might have seemed a quaint and sustainable way to run a city three decades ago, but it is hardly affordable anymore, says Chris Smith, a longtime transportation activist and a member of the board of Portland Streetcar Inc.

Besides, Smith says, the new streetcar line is forcing the city to once again confront what exactly it considers its central city, and increasingly the answer, he says, is 'It's not just downtown.'

'Once the streetcar loop is built (anticipated date - 2015), people will think the central city is everywhere that's inside the loop,' Smith says.

Smith says he's seen estimates that claim eliminating fareless streetcar on the west side will cost the city about 10 percent of its westside riders, about half a million trips. Most of those people, he says, probably will walk instead. On the other hand, he says, charging fares on all streetcars will yield about $1 million in revenue.

The one group least willing to lose free transit service is the city's downtown hotel owners, according to Megan Conway, spokeswoman for Travel Portland.

The tourism industry depends on people attending events at the convention center on the east side of the river and staying at hotels downtown. Conway says TriMet has talked to hotel industry representatives about maintaining some sort of free rail service, possibly badges given out to conventioneers, so they can ride for free during their stay.

Peter Finley Fry, co-chairman of the Central Eastside Land Use Committee and a member of the streetcar advisory committee, says there's no way fares won't be equal for the east and west sides.

'There'd be a rebellion if the east side had to pay and downtown was free,' Fry says.

That rebellion would make it impossible for the streetcar to proceed into its next stage of building spokes further into eastside neighborhoods, once the close-in eastside loop is completed, according to Fry.

Portland transportation activist Lew Church says he's all for equity and that the streetcar should be free all over town. Church says he has collected 1,400 signatures on a petition calling for retention of Fareless Square.

Susan Lindsay, who attended the eastside open house last week, says she's looking forward to the eastside streetcar opening next year.

'It will be fun,' says the Buckman neighborhood resident, who can't figure out why westsiders think they should have a different fare than eastsiders.

'We're in the central city,' she says. 'Whether it's zero or a dollar or $1.50, it should be equitable.'


• Better fare enforcement next stop for streetcar

It's one thing to say everybody has to pay to ride the streetcar, and another to make them do it.

Since its first run 10 years ago, the streetcar has operated on an honor system for payment, with fare inspectors not authorized to boot people who don't pay.

The streetcar has had occasional fare surveyors, whose job is simply to ask people if they have paid, and maybe go a little further.

Longtime streetcar rider Jeanne Harrison, who lives in Northwest Portland, says lately she's seen a change in the frequency of fare surveys and the approach of fare surveyors.

Harrison, a retired transportation planner, rides the streetcar once or twice a week between her Northwest Portland home and downtown, preferring it to the bus. She owns a $100 annual streetcar-only pass and is not pleased that the new streetcar fare plan proposes to bump the cost to $250 next year. But she has been intrigued by what she perceives as an attempt to buckle down on riders who don't pay.

'Almost every time I've been on, there's been an inspector asking to see the pass, and he says, 'Let me show you how the machine works, this is not fareless here,' ' she says.

People who don't have a fare are 'encouraged to get off,' according to Harrison, who says she's seeing an effect from what appears to be a stepped-up enforcement policy - fewer riders who aren't paying.

According to Portland Bureau of Transportation spokesman Dan Anderson, surveyors have become more ubiquitous on streetcars, but there has been no change in policy for their inspections. Anderson says surveyors have been trained to say to riders who cannot present a fare, 'Let me show you the ticket machine.'

But if a passenger resists paying, there should be no conflict.

'We call it a concierge service,' Anderson says. 'You're shown the different options, but you're not escorted off the streetcar.'

With about three-fourths of the westside streetcar loop in a fare-free zone, fare enforcement has always been a dicey matter. By the time a non-paying rider in Northwest Portland finishes fumbling for his change in the clumsy onboard fare boxes, the streetcar is back in its fareless zone.

But that kinder, quirkier Portland way of managing the streetcar probably will have to change once the entire streetcar line becomes a pay-as-you-go affair. Streetcar officials aren't saying how they will manage that, but MAX-like fare inspections are likely, along with easier-to-use ticket machines on platforms where people wait for the streetcar, according to Chris Smith, a member of the Portland Streetcar Inc. board.

Real inspectors with the authority to fine and kick off non-paying riders will cost the city. Fare surveyors don't have those authorities, primarily because they are not paid union wage for transit inspectors.

The latest streetcar fare survey shows that from June to December of this year, 27 percent of streetcar riders did not pay for their rides, through either a ticket, a TriMet pass or a streetcar annual pass. Once approached on board by a fare surveyor, 43 percent of the fare cheats still refused to pay.

That doesn't count the handful of passengers who exit the streetcar every time an inspector boards and announces he's going to check for tickets.