Many say new policies hurt low-income riders

After years of fare increases and service reductions, TriMet is holding fares steady and increasing service throughout the region.

But that doesn’t mean everyone is happy about it. And even the TriMet Board of Directors is puzzled about the best way to improve service in the future.

Bus rider advocates say the regional transit agency didn’t need to raise rates and cut service last year. They say TriMet is currently projected to run a $20 million surplus this year, which proves last year’s deficit predictions were unfounded.

The advocates also complain TriMet is not doing enough now to help those most hurt by its earlier decisions. And they do not believe the service improvements approved and proposed to date help low-income riders.

“TriMet can and should improve service, but that doesn’t help those who were hurt the most by the fare increases,” says Jared Franz, the law and policy associate with the OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon advocacy organization.

TriMet officials disagree. They say the fare increases and service cuts were necessary to stabilize the agency’s finances, which were undermined by the Great Recession. They also deny the current budget includes a $20 million surplus, arguing the agency has numerous unfunded liabilities and an aging bus fleet that needs to be replaced.

In addition, TriMet still has not resolved its long-running contract dispute with the union that represents most of its workers. Although the state Employment Relations Board upheld the contract imposed by an arbitrator earlier this year, Amalgamated Transit Union 757 recently appealed that ruling to the Oregon Court of Appeals.

Despite the uncertainty created by the appeal, the TriMet board has approved and is considering a number of service improvements. The budget that took effect on July 1 includes $2.1 million in service restorations and additions that took effect in September. TriMet management also has proposed spending an additional $2.8 million to increase service on 10 of the agency’s most heavily used lines. And TriMet staff is working on plans to reconfigure routes in Washington and East Multnomah counties.

New transfer policy sought

But Franz says TriMet also needs to change the transfer policy it adopted last year before doing anything else. The new policy says single-purchase $2.50 tickets are only good for two hours. Franz says that needs to be increased to three hours, and until the end of the service day after 7 p.m.

That is the Campaign for a Fair Transfer proposal being pushed by Bus Riders Unite, which is supported by OPAL. Franz says it will help riders who cannot complete their business in just two hours and now must buy one or more additional tickets every day.

OPAL also argues the new ticket printers in all TriMet buses have decreased transfer times from three to two hours on weekends, a change TriMet says is not an intentional fare increase.

According to Franz, TriMet data shows the majority of the riders hurt by the two-hour transfer limit are low-income and people of color. A TriMet analysis says such a change could reduce expected revenue by between $2 million and $3 million, however.

The pushback helped prompt the TriMet board to postpone approving the frequent service restorations at its Sept. 25 meeting. TriMet General Manager Neal McFarlane argued the board needed to approve the restorations then so the agency could implement them next March. But instead, the board unanimously voted to table the resolution authorizing them.

Most board members said they wanted to consider the restorations together with OPAL’s proposal and a new Strategic Financial Plan expected to be completed by their Nov. 27 meeting. The plan is being written to help the board prioritize future spending decisions.

“I’m very interested in the frequent service proposal, but we need to look at it and the transfer policy in the larger context of the Strategic Financial Plan,” said board member Craig Prosser, who recently retired as Tigard’s city manager.

Many hands grab at surplus

The delay proves an old political adage: It is frequently harder to increase government spending than to cut it. The competition for available funds can be so fierce that policymakers have a hard time pleasing everyone.

In TriMet’s case, the situation is complicated by the unresolved labor dispute. After negotiations over the last contract broke down, a state-approved arbitrator imposed TriMet’s final offer last year. ATU 757 appealed that decision to the state Employment Relations Board, which upheld it. Now the union has appealed the ERB decision to the Oregon Court of Appeals, which could reverse both decisions.

The appeal raises questions about the starting point of the new contract negotiations that are just beginning. And it is unclear if TriMet would have to reimburse the union’s members for unpaid raises and increased health care benefit costs if that happens.

The uncertainty does not matter to OPAL, however. Its mission is to help low-income people and people of color. OPAL believes last year’s fare increases and service cuts disproportionately hurt those populations, and it has focused on the transfer policy change as the solution. OPAL does not oppose increasing run times on the frequent service lines. But it believes changing the transfer policy would help more riders.

“You can increase service on a limited number of lines or help everyone in the region who travels on a single (fare) ticket,” Franz told the board at its Sept. 25 meeting.

Most board members seemed receptive to Franz’s argument, although they did not want to completely rule out the frequent service line improvements, either.

Board member Travis Stovall argued that larger issues need to be considered, too. For example, Stovall said TriMet’s payroll tax revenue will grow as the economy improves and more people move to the region.

Stovall, who is working on the Strategic Financial Plan, said the board should decided whether that additional revenue should be dedicated to a specific purpose — such as restoring service cuts — or be set aside in a rainy day fund to prevent future cuts if the economy turns bad again.

“We need to take a step back and consider some of these questions that have tremendous implications, not just for this organization but for riders throughout the region,” said Stovall, president of the Stovall Group consulting firm.

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