Restoring service on 10 bus lines is a good start

At the direction of General Manager Neil McFarlane, TriMet’s board of directors took a significant step forward Oct. 23 to improve the transit system by restoring service frequency on 10 bus lines.

By doing so, TriMet made good on a two-year-old promise to Bus Riders Unite and riders when it adopted frequent service restoration as the top priority in its annual Transit Improvement Plan. This increase in service is slated to be completed by March 2014.

From 2007 to 2009, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon organizers talking to residents in East Portland kept hearing about how challenging things were for folks who depended on TriMet. The recession was squeezing pocketbooks and TriMet was making matters worse with successive fare hikes and shrinking service.

Those who had access to a car stopped riding — service just wasn’t reliable, and the cost and time wasn’t worth it. Those who had no other options were at the mercy of a system that simply wasn’t delivering. And there were few to no opportunities for riders to meaningfully participate in TriMet decision-making.

In 2010, OPAL set out to change this dynamic by working with transit riders to engage in transportation decision-making. This initial group of Bus Riders Unite activists began working with TriMet staff on the TIP in an effort to get the agency to prioritize the needs of transit-dependent riders.

In May 2011, Bus Riders Unite finalized their top two priorities for TriMet’s Fiscal Year 2012 TIP: one, to restore frequent service; and two, to establish a transit equity committee to allow for citizen oversight. Earlier this year, TriMet established a Transit Equity Advisory Committee to provide feedback to the agency on equity concerns.

OPAL and BRU representatives are at the table, and we’re cautiously optimistic as the committee finds its role and its voice. The decision to restore service will make the lives of the bus riders on those lines a little better, since there will be less waiting and overcrowding.

But what of the thousands of bus riders who have to transfer to or from an infrequent line, or live farther out? Two out of every three transit riders who use cash or single tickets are low-income — folks who cannot afford to regularly spend $5 per day in fares, let alone $100 upfront for a monthly pass. Almost one-third of cash and ticket riders are people of color and new Oregonians.

That’s why for more than two years, Bus Riders Unite has prioritized its Campaign for a Fair Transfer, seeking to extend valid time of a fare to three hours. Extending transfer times is the most equitable and most efficient way to provide direct relief to those who need it the most, at a cost less than that of restoring service. Even better, it’s been shown to stimulate ridership growth as folks realize they can do more with transit than before.

In order to restore real value to our fare and increase equity for riders across the region, TriMet should couple the service restoration with an extension of the valid fare time to three hours, long enough for multi-transfer rides across town and reasonable round-trips. The policy proposal is affordable, efficient and equitable, and was generated by transit riders and prioritized by a broad and diverse stakeholder community.

If the TriMet board formally considers BRU’s proposed ordinance for a three-hour valid fare time at its next board meeting on Nov. 27, riders will know that we’re building a more trusting partnership with the agency. We look forward to giving thanks.

Vivian Satterfield of Southeast Portland is associate director of OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon in Portland.

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