Portland TriMet: Transit Mecca’s continued fare increases and service cutbacks reduce ridership

COST Commentary: As discussed in the previous post ‘Dallas Dart Desperation,’ the article below from the Oregonian is describing “desperation” actions for another major transit agency. Portland’s TriMet transit agency has continued to increase fares and cut service to meet growing budget deficits. These budget shortfalls are likely to continue. Portland was an early implementer of light rail and has the highest ridership among new, modern light rail systems is less dense cities. Portland will likely require major replacement and refurbishment of rail assets beginning within the next 5-10 years as it approaches 30 years since the start of light rail operations. As with most cities, there is no identified source for this major upgrade cost. The Federal Government paid up to 80% of early light rail implementation costs but will be unable to provide, even close to, this funding level in the future.

TriMet board kills Portland’s Free Rail Zone, raises fares, cuts bus service over protesters’ shouts, jeers

By Joseph Rose, The Oregonian

TriMet’s Free Rail Zone in downtown Portland? Gone.

A ticket to ride? Going up — again.

Bus service? Cut. Again.

Meeting in an abandoned credit union building scheduled to be demolished for the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Line, TriMet’s board unanimously approved a plan Wednesday that one opponent called “economic warfare” on financially strapped and transit-dependent riders.

“It hasn’t been easy,” said Bruce Warner, board chairman. “And the service cuts and fare increases are definitely going to be felt by a number of folks.”

TriMet officials say one of the most sweeping packages of service cuts and fare increases in the transit agency’s history, taking effect Sept. 1, is needed to fill a $12 million budget hole.

In fact, with some high-ranking TriMet officials privately saying they expect to lose an arbitration fight with Amalgamated Transit Union 757 over employee benefits, the agency is bracing for another $5 million this summer.

The vote came after months of budget revisions and outreach that resulted in more than 16,000 comments from the public. As the board prepared to vote, the former Advantis Credit Union down the street from TriMet’s Southeast Portland headquarters filled with angry chants of “Don’t throw riders under the bus!” and “No more hikes!”

One man leaving the meeting shouted to the board, “You are not human! You are despicable.”

During a 4 1/2-hour meeting, nearly 50 people urged the TriMet board to reject the final proposal. Some dramatically ripped up paper bus schedules and sobbed. Others sat with young children in their laps.

Several raised their voices to a shout as they described how the cuts would mean higher costs and more transfers for them.

By eliminating fare zones, TriMet said a systemwide flat fare where a two-hour adult ticket jumps to $2.50 – from $2.10 for two zones and $2.40 for all zones — would increase revenue by $6 million.

Ending the Free Rail Zone in downtown Portland, meanwhile, is expected to provide $2.7 million in additional revenue. The change would eliminate free rides on MAX in downtown and the Lloyd District.

Monthly passes would be $100 for adults (an $8 jump) and $30 for youths (a $3 increase). The monthly Honored Citizen pass would remain $26.

Meanwhile, a youth day ticket with unlimited rides will drop from $5 to $3.30. A two-hour honored citizen fare will remain $2, but the all-day pass will drop from $5 to $2.

Many people encouraged the board to consider an alternative budget presented by OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon’s Bus Riders Unite riders union.

Among other things, the OPAL budget calls for cutting adult bus fares to $2.25, charging user fees at park-and-ride lots and tapping into $5 million of $20 million that TriMet has set aside for a rainy day fund.

OPAL contends that its plan to could balance the budget while extending transfer times to three hours and increased ridership by 300,000 a year. TriMet’s internal projections show its budget plan will reduce annual ridership by 1.1 million.

Jonathan Ostar, director of OPAL, urged the board to read his group’s proposal into the record for consideration. “If it isn’t read into the record,” Ostar said, “it hasn’t been meaningfully considered. … You can’t hide behind your process!”

However, Jana Toran, TriMet’s general counsel, told the board that they aren’t following “process” but state law, which requires formal public notification before a new ordinance is considered. TriMet must adopt its new budget by July 1.

OPAL disagreed, saying nothing was stopping board members from reading the proposal as an amendment to the one already under consideration.

TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane said the OPAL budget “does not add up.”

Still, the board agreed to take $1 million out of its contingency fund for a program to help mitigate impacts on low-income riders.

It also directed staff to look into a convention pass and TriMet’s role in the Youth Pass for Portland public school students.

This is the third time in four years that budget shortfalls have forced TriMet to cut services and increase fares.

The board heard from retirees, people who have been unemployed for months, students and even a poet who claimed that the changes would be responsible for everything from damaging public health to devastating the fixed incomes of the poor.

Eavan Moore, a struggling writer who is transit dependent, said she makes only about $1,000 a month before TriMet’s payroll tax on the self-employed.

Moore said she depends on TriMet to get around the Portland area daily, including taking her to Wednesday’s budget hearing, “this in itself will cost $4.20,” Moore said.

Without recommending sources for future revenue, the budget calls for significant schedule and fare changes that will mean higher costs and more transfers for many riders.

Nicole Brown, civic engagement coordinator for the Center for Intercultural Organizing, asked the board to realize that many low-income riders are trying to live

When it comes to bus and train route cuts, however, TriMet noted that it eased the pain of an earlier proposal by about 50 percent. The initial proposal in February totaled $2 million in cuts. The final plan calls for $1.1 million in reductions, with no elimination of any weekend bus service or MAX service.

Starting in September, Line 9 will only serve Powell Boulevard, while Northeast segment of the current route will be combined with the No. 17. “It will be called 17-Holgate/Broadway” in Northeast Portland, said TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch. In another change, the Line 15’s Montgomery Park segment would extend into the Northwest Industrial area. In fact, all of the cuts would affect bus routes:

• 15 bus routes will be reconfigured. The plan will eliminate segments of routes that overlap with other routes while maintaining service to an area, TriMet said. This may mean more transfers for some riders on these 15 bus lines: 6, 8, 9, 12, 16, 17, 47, 48, 67, 70, 73, 77, 82, 87 and 89. Line 9-Powell will travel only as far west as Downtown Portland; Line 17 will be combined with the former 9-Broadway to become the 17-Holgate/Broadway. The final Line 16 routing will travel along Front Avenue to Kittridge Avenue with service to St. Johns and Sauvie Island.

• Routes will be changed on two bus lines. In response to community input and to make closer transfers, the agency said, Line 15 will be extended between Montgomery Park and the Northwest Industrial area. As previously proposed, routing along Line 43 would be modified in Downtown Portland.

• Bus trips with low ridership on 9 bus lines will be eliminated. Instead of reducing service on 10 bus lines that were part of the revised proposal, the final proposal would eliminate trips on 9 lines, with service either beginning later in the morning and/or ending earlier in the evening, and may include extending time between trips on 15, 18, 36, 37, 43, 50, 55, 59 and 92.

At the same time, TriMet expects to add service on seven bus lines to alleviate overcrowding: 4, 9, 33, 35, 44, 76 and 94.

Officials initially said they needed to deal with a budget shortfall of up to $17 million. But the agency hopes a third-party arbitrator rules in its favor in the long-simmering labor dispute with Amalgamated Transit Union 757.

The unresolved union contract, which ended in 2009, adds $5 million to $10 million to the fiscal year 2013 budget shortfall, said TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch.

In May, both sides went before a third-party arbitrator, who is expected to pick one contract proposal over the other with no compromises, with a final decision expected July 31.

At the heart of the dispute is the generous health care and retirement package for unionized drivers and mechanics, which is one of the most generous for public employees in the country.

A few people who gave testimony before the board criticized TriMet of attempting to pit public employee unions against the union with its budget.

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