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Fare increase painful – but it makes sense

TriMet directors have little choice but to boost rates to help cover rising fuel costs

A large fare increase from TriMet won't be popular at a time when a growing number of people are depending on buses and light-rail trains for their daily transportation. But given the financial pressures at work on the transit agency, TriMet directors have little choice but to raise rates substantially for riders.

TriMet board members approved the fare increase last week, which includes 20 cents to cover the rising cost of fuel and a usual 5-cent boost to cover inflation. Before the increase, adult tickets cost $1.75 for two zones and $2.05 for all zones.

This increase is driven by rising diesel costs, which have soared from a budgeted $2.31 a gallon earlier in the 2007-08 fiscal year to nearly $4 a gallon today.

While the fare hikes may foster grumbling among TriMet riders, it is important to remember that the increases are necessary not only to offset rising costs, but also to help maintain equity among the various parties that fund TriMet's operations.

Riders pay only about 20 percent of the cost of keeping TriMet running, with a much larger share coming from local employers who fund the agency through a mandatory payroll tax. And in the past few years, the percentage of TriMet revenue coming from the fare box actually has been dropping.

This low percentage also helps explain why TriMet, even when business is booming, cannot absorb the higher fuel costs.

It's true that more people are riding and paying their fares, but the additional revenue from increased ridership is still just a small part of the whole. If anything, TriMet must be careful that it doesn't underestimate the need for higher fares going forward. Diesel prices may level off - or they may continue their steep ascent.

One danger, as TriMet board member Robert Williams pointed out in May, is that the transit agency would have to come back in just a few months for another round of rate increases. If that's a probability, rather than a mere potentiality, then TriMet should make sure the current fare hikes are sufficiently large.

It's easier for riders - especially those on fixed incomes -to make long-term adjustments in their personal budgets if they know their transportation costs are fixed for at least a year. Higher TriMet fares won't be easy for all riders to afford, but the rate changes still come with the usual protections for the most vulnerable populations.

Senior citizens and students will continue to pay less than half the regular fare, and disabled passengers also will receive discounts. The costs for these groups are increasing by only 10 cents per ride, or $2 for a monthly pass. In this way, TriMet avoids balancing its budget at the expense of those who can least afford the increase.

TriMet won't hear much in the way of praise for its rate decision today, but the public will understand that the agency isn't immune from the economic realities of the day.