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TriMet, rider advocates spar over ruling

TriMet and the OPAL consumer organizing group are sparring over the dismissal of a civil right complaint.

OPAL filed the complaint with the Federal Transit Administration over changes to ridership hours. The FTA dismissed the complaint Thursday, prompting triMet to issue a statement saying it had complied with federal civil rights laws.

OPAL issued a statement a few hours later saying the dismissal was based on a technicality and calling on TriMet to approve a proposal it had previously made to extend transfer times.

Here are the two statements.

TriMet:

The Federal Transit Administration dismissed a civil rights complaint filed against TriMet on Thursday.

The complaint was filed by the community organizing group OPAL. it charged the regional transit agency failed to take the effect of standardized and other fare decisions on minority communities into account, as required by federal law.

TriMet released the following statement around 5:00 p.m. on July 17:

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) today dismissed a Title VI complaint against TriMet that had been filed by the community advocacy group OPAL and the Center for Intercultural Organizing. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin in programs or activities which receive federal financial assistance.

The Title VI complaint filed last December with the FTA claimed that TriMet failed to conduct a transit equity analysis before the agency standardized all transfer times with the installation of ticket printers on buses. In today’s FTA decision, the federal agency concluded “FTA does not find TriMet noncompliant with FTA’s Title [VI] requirements for the 2012 transfer policy change.”

The FTA also noted that TriMet “attempted to work with complainants to expand the Transfer policy, and TriMet has a history of proactively seeking Title VI technical assistance [from FTA].”

Background

In 2012, TriMet standardized all transfer times with the installation of ticket printers on buses. The printer gives riders a two-hour ticket, just like for the MAX and WES system. Under the old transfer system, bus operators manually adjusted the cutter bar to accommodate the progression of time during the day, resulting in inconsistent transfer times. The complaint claimed that the two-hour transfer was in effect a fare increase and that TriMet should have conducted a transit equity analysis on the impact to riders before launching the bus printer program. The FTA requires a transit equity analysis when there is a fare change, but had no requirement in place for a transfer change.

The FTA said the complaint was untimely and that a transit equity analysis was not required under federal guidelines in effect at the time of the complaint. FTA has updated its guidelines and going forward, will require an equity analysis when there is a change to transfer times.

After the federal complaint was filed in December, the TriMet board of directors tabled a scheduled vote on whether to extend transfer times from two hours to 2.5 hours for all bus and train trips. The board was awaiting guidance from the FTA on the issue.

OPAL:

Today, low-income bus riders in the Portland metro region received some good news from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Contrary to TriMet’s interpretation, any change in transfer time policy triggers a fare equity analysis under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. FTA’s ruling stated:

“A transfer policy directly affects a rider’s ability to access a transit system. *** FTA views a change to a transfer policy the same as a change to any fare medium. As a result, a transfer policy change requires a fare equity analysis to determine whether a proposed change will result in a disparate impact.”

This is a big win for low-income riders and riders of color in the region. Previously, TriMet refused to conduct a fare equity analysis when changing its transfer policy. As a result of FTA’s decision, low-income riders won the right to be protected from discriminatory impacts from changes to the transfer time policy. This directly contradicts the position of TriMet board members and equity staff, who publicly stated that changes to the transfer policy did not require a fare equity analysis.

While FTA determined that TriMet had not technically violated Title VI in its 2012 decision to reduce transfer times for weekend bus riders, this was only because FTA’s new guidance manual had not yet been published, giving TriMet a pass.

“We were vindicated today. The crux of the dispute was that, in spite of FTA’s revised guidelines, TriMet refused to be accountable to a fare equity analysis when changing its transfer time policy,” said OPAL Director Jonathan Ostar. “Now transit-dependent riders have that right. We weren’t seeking corrective action or looking to tie up funds, so we are very satisfied with FTA’s decision. We hope this is the first step towards a stronger relationship with TriMet.”

TriMet’s board of directors are now free to move forward with Ordinance No. 332, which will extend transfer times for cash and single-ticket fares to 2.5 hours. TriMet had tabled the decision pending today’s FTA determination. This will provide some needed fare relief for low-income riders, who are struggling under the weight of the fare hikes that took effect in September 2012.