Advertise on BikePortland

Bus riders’ union launches new campaign: Discount fares for low-income people

Posted by on March 11th, 2016 at 9:45 am

TriMet bus with rack
Great transit access is closely linked with
less driving and more cycling.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

One year after it persuaded TriMet to add 30 minutes to the life of every transit fare, a local transit advocacy group has a new goal.

Bus Riders Unite, a rider-led project of OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, will launch a new campaign chosen by its members: for the Portland region’s transit system to follow Seattle’s and San Francisco’s by offering lower transit fares to lower-income people.

“We think the most reasonable and simplest approach would be to let low-income people have the same fare honored citizens currently receive,” said OPAL spokesman Shawn Fleek.

Due in part to federal law, TriMet offers half-price tickets to people ages 65 and up, people on Medicare and people with disabilities, a grouping the agency refers to as “honored citizens.”

But over the years, U.S. poverty trends have shifted. As of 2014, 15 percent of Oregonians age 19 to 64 live in poverty. So do 20 percent of Oregonians under age 19. For Oregonians aged 65 and up, the figure is 7 percent.

Income-tested fares are difficult for transit agencies to offer without digital records for every rider. But cashless card systems, like the Hop Fastpass that TriMet will introduce in 2017, create those digital records, making income-tested fares much easier.

The Seattle area’s ORCA LIFT program, created last year, uses the cashless ORCA card to charge a flat $1.50 fare for all trips by people in households that make less than twice the federal poverty line.

New cashless card system could make income-tested fares easier

IMG_0050 (1)
A fare payment pole for TriMet’s Hop Fastpass card, launching in 2017.
(Photo: M.Andersen/BikePortland)

Bus Riders Unite also has two concerns about Hop Fastpass, though. Though the cashless cards are designed to be used by individuals for years, getting a new card will usually require people to travel to one of TriMet’s retail partners.

For example, here’s a map of the bus stops in the Cully area (green dots) along with the closest places to get a Hop Fastpass (purple dots):

bus stops and hop vendors

So BRU is also including a request in its campaign to sell the cards at more locations.

“Every convenience store, every grocery store,” Fleek said. “We want them at social service agencies, public libraries.”

The third goal for BRU is for TriMet to offer a type of card that could be tapped multiple times to buy fares for everyone in a family.

“The electronic fare system is one-card-one-person at the moment,” said Fleek. “If you’re a mom getting on the bus with three kids then you have to have four cards.”

Each card will require a one-time $5 payment in addition to bus fare.

TriMet already agreed, after earlier pressure from BRU, to distribute 200,000 Hop Fastpasses for free. But BRU says that after those run out, families looking to start riding transit will still be cost-burdened unless there’s a “family card” option.

Where would the money come from?

The No. 72 bus line on 82nd Avenue is TriMet’s busiest.
(Photo: M.Andersen/BikePortland)

Bus Riders Unite hasn’t yet attempted to estimate the cost of their proposal to TriMet.

The pricetag would depend on the income cutoffs for getting discounted fares. Fleek said BRU feels that the more people get discounts, the better.

“We always want to strive for the most inclusive definition of ‘low-income’ possible,” said Fleek.

In 2017, TriMet expects to bring in $121 million from fares. That’s enough to cover 21 percent of its operating revenue. The rest comes mostly from payroll taxes.

Fleek said that even if fare revenue were to go down as a result of the program, it would be possible to “find efficiencies within TriMet,” possibly by cutting its budgets for marketing ($15 million) or policing ($17 million). He also said TriMet’s board has the ability to levy new taxes — notably an income tax.

Last month, TriMet testified in support of a state legislative bill that would have given it the authority to hike payroll taxes, which are similar to income taxes but narrower and somewhat less progressive. OPAL, speaking on behalf of Bus Riders Unite, opposed the bill, saying (among other things) that an income tax hike would be better.

After that exchange, TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch said that TriMet’s board prefers hiking the existing payroll tax to creating a new transit income tax in part because the income tax might be more likely to stir political resistance.

“Any fee or tax implemented as a result of board action may be referred to the voters by petition, so the board must carefully consider community sentiment as it considers funding options,” Fetsch wrote in an email.

OPAL is hosting a rally and press conference on Friday March 18th to raise awareness and build support for their demands.

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 – michael@bikeportland.org

BikePortland can’t survive without subscribers. It’s just $10 per month and you can sign up in a few minutes.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan

  • Lester Burnham March 11, 2016 at 9:55 am

    Looks like another well intentioned program that could be heavily abused.

    Recommended Thumb up 5

  • Adam H. March 11, 2016 at 9:59 am

    I fully support this, as well as a rise in my taxes to pay for it!

    Recommended Thumb up 8

    • B. Carfree March 11, 2016 at 11:23 am

      I whole-heartedly concur on both counts.

      Recommended Thumb up 4

    • ruprickt March 13, 2016 at 10:31 am

      Are you self-employed and pay Tri-Met tax through payroll? If not, you pay no tax for this but your employer does.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

  • JeffS March 11, 2016 at 10:04 am

    “Fleek said that even if fare revenue were to go down as a result of the program, it would be possible to “find efficiencies within TriMet,””

    Can’t support anyone who makes statements like this.

    On one hand, we have people trying to expand the system for the benefit of all. On the other, we have a group trying to cut funding for the benefit of the few.

    Recommended Thumb up 2

    • dan March 11, 2016 at 10:27 am

      Even better let’s cut policing…
      “…it would be possible to “find efficiencies within TriMet,” possibly by cutting its budgets for… policing ($17 million).

      Recommended Thumb up 0

    • longgone March 11, 2016 at 10:53 am

      Privatized management of Trimet has allowed the massive increase in fares since I moved here. I am certain like most businesses, there are ways to find excess spending.
      I ride the bus often. I am barely able to afford it, to be honest. There are many far worse off than I.
      Bill Hicks would end the marketing department, I am sure. Let’s start there.
      I do not need to be sold on riding the bus. Everyone knows what city busses are for.

      Recommended Thumb up 10

      • Tom Hardy March 11, 2016 at 11:17 am

        Privitization of mass transit is what caused the diesel busses to replace the electric busses and trolleys in Portland, Washington County, Gresham,Yamhill County, and yes Marion county (all connected) in the 50’s.

        Recommended Thumb up 3

      • 9watts March 11, 2016 at 11:25 am

        We agree!

        And while we’re at it, I’d like to ask why these sorts of suggestions can’t be expected to come from Trimet itself. Aren’t they (more or less) a public agency?

        Recommended Thumb up 4

      • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
        Michael Andersen (News Editor) March 11, 2016 at 1:05 pm

        Hey Loggone, TriMet hasn’t privatized its management or anything resembling this — see my other reply below.

        Sometimes rumors go around about this sort of thing because it’s confusing to keep track of these things, but basically in Oregon a transit district is its own category of government like a city or a county.

        Recommended Thumb up 0

        • longgone March 11, 2016 at 1:43 pm

          Thanks for the clarification. I had been wondering about this for quite a while. I’m not so sure I didn’t get that planted in my mind here in the comments of BP.org.

          Recommended Thumb up 1

  • BB March 11, 2016 at 10:24 am

    Public transit should cost less or be free, subsidized by private vehicle ownership which should cost more than it does now.

    Recommended Thumb up 12

    • Lester Burnham March 11, 2016 at 10:28 am

      If one is playing by the rules, owning a vehicle even if it’s long paid for is not a trivial expense. Why should a group get a free ride?

      Recommended Thumb up 3

      • 9watts March 11, 2016 at 11:28 am

        “Why should a group get a free ride?”

        Well if we’re looking at subsidies and free rides, I think automobility would be a good place to start. I’m not for free rides, per se. But given the level of subsidies that those who rely on the automobile enjoy I don’t think it fair to beat up on the idea of subsidizing buses (further) given the social benefits we get from transit that we don’t get from subsidies to the car.

        Recommended Thumb up 13

    • longgone March 11, 2016 at 10:42 am

      While the bus service is for the public, I believe Trimet is now managed privately. Correct me if I am wrong, someone….

      Recommended Thumb up 0

      • BB March 11, 2016 at 12:41 pm
      • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
        Michael Andersen (News Editor) March 11, 2016 at 1:05 pm

        Thanks for asking — you are indeed wrong on this. TriMet is a regional independent public agency with a board chosen by the governor and confirmed by the legislature. They are funded mostly by a flat tax on employer payroll of a bit less than 1 cent per dollar paid to employees and contractors.

        Recommended Thumb up 3

    • longgone March 11, 2016 at 10:58 am

      @ BB,…. Drug and alcohol rehab should be provided by tax on beer sales, and strippers tips.

      Recommended Thumb up 1

      • Mao March 12, 2016 at 12:25 am

        Strippers often need to pay an upfront fee to go to work.
        It’s weird.

        Recommended Thumb up 1

  • grrlpup March 11, 2016 at 10:33 am

    “one-card-one-person” is incredibly unfriendly to families! Refilling multiple cards, making sure they’re with the kid or handed from adult to adult if the kid is too young to keep track of it, added expense up front… what a hassle. Shouldn’t we make it easier for kids to grow up riding transit with their families so they’ll keep doing it as adults?

    Recommended Thumb up 11

    • Adam H. March 11, 2016 at 10:38 am

      In Chicago, the Ventra card system allows for up to a certain amount of pass-backs. Though, the ‘L’ is controlled by fare gates, so this makes it easier. However, it should not be that difficult to implement pass-backs in a proof-of-payment system.

      Recommended Thumb up 3

  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) March 11, 2016 at 10:43 am

    FWIW the City of Portland announced yesterday that they will reduce the price of parking in downtown garages for people who have lower incomes.

    “The new parking pass will give people with an annual income of less than $35,000 and who work a swing and/or evening shift a reduced rate at SmartPark Garages between 3 p.m. and 7 a.m.”

    Full story here.

    Recommended Thumb up 5

    • dan March 11, 2016 at 10:52 am

      Seems like a nice idea, I’m curious as to what the overhead will be for managing the program.

      Recommended Thumb up 3

    • Adam H. March 11, 2016 at 10:58 am

      Seems like a good stop-gap measure until we can get 24-hour bus service.

      Recommended Thumb up 4

    • Tom Hardy March 11, 2016 at 11:12 am

      Subsidies for parking motor vehicles is a no-no. If a person needs subsidy for riding transit they do not need subsidy for parking their major cost moneypit motor car.

      Recommended Thumb up 1

      • Adam H. March 11, 2016 at 11:15 am

        I agree about subsidizing car parking being a bad idea, however this is only for overnight parking and we lack 24-hour bus service. A better solution would be buses that run all night.

        Recommended Thumb up 5

      • 37Dennis March 11, 2016 at 11:35 am

        5$ bus ride..5$ parking. Its a very close trade off. I do not drive to work often. As a single parent, I need my car for many things in life. An 1.5 hr. bus trip home to St.Johns is brutal after an 11 hour shift on my feet. Sometimes I drive, it just makes my life better. I can be home in 11 mins.

        Recommended Thumb up 11

        • Rob Chapman March 11, 2016 at 11:48 am

          It’s easy for many of us to forget how long it takes to get to places like St. Johns, Parkrose etc. from the central city on the bus/MAX.

          Recommended Thumb up 9

          • Adam H. March 11, 2016 at 12:44 pm

            It still baffles me that there is no rapid transit to most of North Portland. The 75 bus line should be considered for a BRT upgrade.

            Recommended Thumb up 5

            • longgone March 11, 2016 at 1:45 pm

              We need express lines on SO many bus lines here. Even my hometown has them.

              Recommended Thumb up 5

    • Beth H March 11, 2016 at 7:23 pm

      Why are we subsidizing automobiles at the expense of other transit modes?
      Come ON. This is just plain wrong. Better to put that money into 24-hour public transit.

      Recommended Thumb up 1

      • Tyler March 12, 2016 at 1:27 pm

        Could it be because 1/6 of the economy is transportation related? Or perhaps because 95% of all people commute by car?

        Recommended Thumb up 1

        • 9watts March 12, 2016 at 1:36 pm

          I think you have causality backwards.
          First off, it is considerably less than 95% who commute by car, but it is a majority. The automobile did not achieve such dominance in the absence of massive and overlapping subsidies. So I’m not following your logic.

          Recommended Thumb up 3

      • ruprickt March 13, 2016 at 10:38 am

        I’d love to have a line item list of the “subsidies” you folks keep talking about concerning private auto utilization.

        Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Chadwick F March 11, 2016 at 10:45 am

    Yes to passes sold more places! It took me a long while before I started using the books of tickets, because I had to search out places that sold them. Even have signs like the “SNAP cards welcome here” signs that convenience stores put out advertising the fact that you sell passes would be great.

    Recommended Thumb up 3

  • bjorn March 11, 2016 at 11:20 am

    Implementing the hop pass is expensive and unnecessary, they should be advocating for killing the whole e-fare collection system and moving to a fareless system funded through a utility fee like the City of Corvallis does.

    Recommended Thumb up 4

    • Matt S. March 11, 2016 at 3:21 pm

      Awww, Corvallis, a wonderful city!

      Recommended Thumb up 1

  • ethan March 11, 2016 at 11:35 am

    It’s crazy to me that there are no places to buy passes along the 72 route in Cully. The 72 is the busiest route in the system!

    Recommended Thumb up 6

  • Chris I March 11, 2016 at 2:06 pm

    I fully support this. I often get passed by really junky cars that probably shouldn’t be on the road. This is a big part of encouraging alternatives to car ownership for those in poverty. They need cheap convenient options.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • chris m March 12, 2016 at 8:07 am

    A means tested transportation benefit is a good idea, but why should Tri-Met administer it? There is a lot more to running a program like this than just opening a box and having it ready to go. You need to verify incomes, publicize the program in places where lower income folks are likely to live, help people apply, etc. etc… these are thing that social service organizations have experience doing but Tri-Met would have to build out. Why don’t we just fund social service orgs so they can buy bus passes and distribute them for free to the lower income?

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • gutterbunnybikes March 12, 2016 at 10:31 am

    Portland metro 2.35 million people – Trimet expects 121 million in fares and expresses that expenses could be trimmed, in another article VZ board says lowering driving rates is the big push.

    So as is stands now, it’s $50.00 a person a year. How low could it get with the admitted fat cutting that is possible? Add perhaps a few new small creative strategies like a small bump in hotel tax, or parking rates, a new construction permits fee, or a portion of DEQ?

    How many people would be upset about a small tax $2 or $3 dollar a month bump to income tax for a no-fare transit system?

    Recommended Thumb up 4

    • Beth H March 13, 2016 at 10:30 pm

      As any longtime Portland will tell you, what is promised and what ends up happening are usually two different things. The way the lottery was brought online and how the funds promised for public education were steered elsewhere left a bad taste for many folks that lingers today.
      And as for how much a bump in income tax means to an individual, I suspect it would require a far bigger bump to realistically subsidize no-fare transit in Portland — a big enough bump to make it very hard for those on food stamps and/or struggling to find affordable housing anywhere.
      I’d love to see the math on this one before I could get on board.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Paul Z March 12, 2016 at 11:02 am

    The article doesn’t really explain the “technology” required. Is this a smartphone “app”, in which case I don’t know that “low income” individuals would or should have that available. I buy my MAX tickets in advance at Fred Meyer.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

    • Mossby Pomegranate March 13, 2016 at 10:22 am

      Obama-phones seem widely available and usually they are much newer tech than my old relic. : (

      Recommended Thumb up 0

    • lop March 13, 2016 at 7:57 pm


      Here’s trimet’s site for their new payment system. It’s supposed to cut fare collection costs from the current ~10% of fare revenue.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Tyler March 12, 2016 at 1:24 pm

    Quote from article: ” He also said TriMet’s board has the ability to levy new taxes — notably an income tax.”

    Want to see TriMet disappear totally? Let them implement an income tax. They will be gone ASAP.

    Recommended Thumb up 1