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TriMet charts tough path to stability

Zoned tickets are a vestige of a time when Portland was riders' primary destination.

Whichever route TriMet takes toward a balanced budget for its next fiscal year, it risks ending up at an undesirable

destination unless transit users get on board and voice their ideas.

As the transit agency attempts to close a $17 million budget gap, its major choices are limited: It can cut service, raise fares or do a little of both.

No matter which alternatives are chosen, TriMet will hurt ridership, and potentially place an additional burden on the working poor who are most sensitive to fare hikes and most dependent on frequent transit service.

Given the unstable ground they must navigate, we believe TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane and other administrators are doing a commendable job of defining possible ways to balance a budget that's been hammered already by four years of economic difficulties. McFarlane this week unveiled his proposals for a budget that must be adopted prior to July 1. His recommendations contain a couple of ideas that we reluctantly endorse, including:

• Abolishing the three-zone system for one-time fares.

The zoned tickets are another vestige of a time when downtown Portland was the primary destination for transit users. The idea was to charge people for the distance traveled, and the zones were measured from the center of town, akin to circles on a dartboard.

Nowadays, train and bus riders travel across town as well as toward it, and the zone system no longer makes sense. Beyond that, TriMet will increase revenues if it eliminates the zone system and charges a flat $2.50 per ride, as McFarlane recommends.

Our concern with this suggestion is the impact on low-income riders who are buying single tickets to travel short distances. Their costs will jump at least 19 percent and, for some trips, could more than double.

Currently, someone heading from Forest Grove to the Cornelius Fred Meyer pays $2.10 for a bus fare that can be used for a return trip. Under the proposed fare structure, that person would pay $2.50 each way.

To help these low-income riders, we'd like to see a more aggressive effort to encourage employers to make pre-tax transit passes available to their workers. Plus, TriMet should explore providing discounted passes to people who are collecting unemployment insurance. After all, the sooner they get back to work using transit, the quicker that TriMet's payroll tax revenue will rebound.

• Making various cuts to both bus and MAX service.

This is where nearly everyone's mass-transit ox gets slightly gored. If you are a regular MAX rider, you'll see trains arriving less frequently during non-rush hours (the gaps will be 20 minutes instead of 15 to 18 minutes). For bus riders, the cutbacks are spread throughout the system and will touch 42 bus lines with reduced trips, eliminated weekend service, modified routes or some combination of those three things.

TriMet will hear a lot of complaints about these service cutbacks - as it will for its changes in fares. But given the agency's financial situation and the uncertainties it faces with health care costs, labor contracts and federal funding, McFarlane's recommendations are a good starting point.

But his ideas must spark a wider community discussion about fares, fairness and the future of transportation in a region that's staked its reputation on moving people in different ways.



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