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City considers charging fares to ride SAM buses

by: POST PHOTO: JIM HART - POST PHOTO: JIM HART Sandy Area Metro bus driver Robert Bevilacqua sits in the bus ready to begin the 1:30 p.m. trip to Gresham. With his right hand on top of a fare collector, the driver is indicating that the city soon may begin charging modest fares.One of the last strongholds of people power is yielding to the almighty dollar.

Fareless SAM (Sandy Area Metro transit) is the last holdout for free bus rides in the metro area and likely in the entire state.

When the city of Sandy broke away from TriMet at about the turn of the century, bus rides to Gresham became more frequent — and they were free.

They’re still free 13 years later, but that is destined to change within a few months.

With nearly two-thirds of the city’s transit system revenue coming from grants and about 30 percent from business payroll taxes, the system has been financially solvent.

But some of the grants are going away, said Transit Manager Julie Stephens, who spoke at a Sandy City Council public workshop Monday night.

Without any options, the city is losing from 15-20 percent of its state and federal grant revenue, which is at least $100,000 each year.

But charging a fare for transit service could fill that gap, Stephens says, and keep the service operating at the quality level of past years.

It’s not like the bus system in Sandy is wasting money on anything. Comparing the costs of each ride on TriMet, Wilsonville and Molalla gives a clear picture of the thriftiness with which SAM is operated, Stephens said.

TriMet, Wilsonville and Molalla each have expenses of about $10 a ride, while SAM operates for about $4 a ride.

After looking at the results of a rider survey, the Transit Advisory Committee, a panel of about a dozen local residents, advised charging a fare of $1 a trip.

In the survey, 37 percent of the riders said they would pay at least 75 cents for a ride, while another 35 percent would pay $1 for each ride and another 7 percent were willing to pay $1.50.

Stephens told councilors that she wasn’t trying to re-invent the wheel, and had data from all the other transit agencies in the metro area.

SAM should expect to have its ridership decline by as much as 25 percent in the first year after riders begin paying a fare, she said. But the other transit agencies have found that ridership returns to previous levels within a couple of years.

An ideal way of operating the bus system, Stephens told the councilors, is to have fares be equal to about 15 percent of operating costs.

That means the city would be subsidizing 85 percent of the costs of operating SAM. That 85 percent includes mainly business payroll taxes and state and federal grants.

The city of Sandy is one of the employers who are assessed a small fee for each employee, based on their salary. The city, for example, pays about $40,000 a year to keep the bus system operating.

But the payroll tax for SAM is 18 percent lower than the TriMet payroll tax.

Councilors advised Stephens to take the fare proposal to a regular council meeting, but to make it simple. With fares and ticketing and transfers, they agreed, simple is best.

The changeover to a fare system is likely to begin between July and October.

The councilors would like to hear SAM riders’ views on fares, and welcomes people to come to their meetings on either the first or third Monday of each month.

For more information, call Stephens at 503-489-0925 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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