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Downtown's economy thrives on rails

My View • It isn't like other neighborhoods, so why should downtown pay?
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT With the city bureau of transportation facing a huge budget deficit, TriMet is expected to announce soon that days of free MAX and streetcar rides are over.

Faced with abandoned cranes and vacant storefronts, it's easy to forget that downtown Portland remains one of the nation's most successful central city districts. Retail and apartment vacancy rates are still among the country's lowest.

Downtown streets are populated - even on nights and weekends. 'Walkability' scores are near the top. Just in the past year, Portland was ranked first in the country in public transportation byU.S. News and World Report.

These are hard-won achievements that no amount of public relations could ever buy. But, sadly - after 37 years - it looks like we're about to walk away from the celebrated experiment in fareless transit that has played a major role in bringing them about.

Almost since the inception of Fareless Square in 1975, critics have campaigned to eliminate zero-fare transit. In 2005, a TriMet advisory board proposed closing Fareless Square because Homeland Security thought it posed an easy target for terrorists. When a 71-year-old passenger was severely beaten in 2007 at a Gresham MAX platform, TriMet's manager invoked this and other crimes outside of the free-fare zone to argue for an end to fareless transit.

Now, opponents of fareless transit are focused on fairness and equity. The city's history of neglect toward outlying neighborhoods is shameful. But the facts are these:

• Most of the people who live downtown are not wealthy.

• Most of the people who travel without charge in the Free Rail Zone do not live downtown.

• Rather than being a special amenity for poor people or downtown residents, the Free Rail Zone is a valued public service available to everyone who travels downtown for work, shopping, school, recreation or business.

• A prosperous downtown is essential to the well-being of the entire region.

The downtown and Old Town neighborhoods served by the Free Rail Zone contain the city's largest enclaves of poverty-level residents. They house a high concentration of social service agencies and subsidized, low-income, senior and disabled housing. For many, $896 a year, the cost of a TriMet pass that would provide the equivalent of the current Free Rail Zone, would be an insurmountable hardship.

Downtown Portland differs from the the rest of the city in a number of ways that make differences in transportation policy perfectly reasonable. Just as it makes sense for downtown parking policies and zoning practices to vary from those elsewhere in the city, it makes sense for the city to adopt an approach to transit that reflects downtown's unique role as the thriving heart-and-soul of a region of 2 million people - all of whom benefit from living in a metropolitan area built around a healthy and prosperous downtown core.

Beneficiaries of the Free Rail Zone far outnumber the 13,000 people who actually live downtown. On any given weekday, more than 125,000 people converge on downtown Portland. That includes 87,000 work commuters, 30,000 PSU students, out-of-town visitors staying in one of downtown's 5,500 hotel rooms and tens of thousands of Portland-area residents who come to shop, see a movie, have a meal or attend an appointment.

Two-thirds of shoppers arrive by car. Most downtown workers drive to work. Many use the Free Rail Zone for errands, meetings and shopping, reducing the traffic congestion and air pollution caused by short-hop auto trips before, during and after the workday.

It's not just the absence of a fare that has attracted so many riders to the Free Rail Zone and to downtown Portland.The convenience and low-stress usability of the fareless system make a major contribution to its unprecedented popularity and success. This uncommon simplicity and user-friendliness will be lost if fareless transit is replaced with a circulator system that requires riders to fumble for the right change, negotiate temperamental ticket machines, and make complex determinations about incompatible fares, zones, boundaries and time limits.

Portland Bureau of Transportation staffers have repeatedly asked, 'What do we tell people on the east side who say it's not fair that downtown riders don't have to pay?' Here are some suggestions: Tell them that the streetcar and the MAX tie together a district thatserves as a regionwide cultural center, recreation and entertainment zone, tourist destination, governmentalhub, retail shopping destination and center of business and commercial activity.

Tell them no other neighborhood sees a daily influx of 125,000 people. Tell them no other neighborhood has 2.2 million square feet of retail space and 1.9 million square feet of restaurant space. Tell them there's no other neighborhood in which 46 bus routes and five light-rail lines converge. If you want to get philosophical, tell them that 'equity' doesn't mean treating allcases alike; it means treatinglike casesalike.

Rather than embrace the fareless system as a point of civic pride, Portland's transit leadership has treated it as a relic and an embarrassment.Instead, the city should view its uniquely successful Free Rail Zone as an opportunity to further differentiate itself from other cities in the overall quality of the downtown experience.Capitulation to the fiscal pressures of the moment - in return for extremely modest cost savings - is shortsighted.

These hard times will eventually pass. Instead of adopting a policy that will reduce transit ridership and undermine downtown prosperity, Portland should take advantage of this period of widespread retrenchment to leverage its fareless transit achievements and use them to competitive advantage.

Daniel Friedman is a board member of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, which has gone on record in support of continuing fareless transit on the Streetcar and the MAX. The opinions expressed in the article are his own.