Getting around the Portland metropolitan area ideally is getting a bit easier for more cash-strapped people.
The transportation funding measure passed by the 2017 Oregon Legislature will allow TriMet to launch a low-income fare discount program. The bill, signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown, includes a statewide 0.1 percent employee payroll tax that will raise an estimated $1 billion a year for transit improvements, excluding light rail projects.
The transportation package is expected to raise $5.3 billion a year from a variety of sources when it is fully phased in. The sources include higher gas taxes, higher motor vehicle fees and a $15 tax on adult bikes that cost $200 or more
TriMet anticipates receiving up to $40 million a year in additional revenue from the tax. The regional transit agency has earmarked up to $12 million a year from those funds to reduce fares for low-income bus and train riders.
“We have seen the need for a low-income fare program and have worked for more than a year with regional representatives on a low-income fare task force to identify the basic parameters and a sustainable approach to building a regional program,” says Angela Murphy, public information officer for TriMet. “With the recent state transportation package, we are now in a position to successfully build and implement a program that will be responsive and feasible for long-term operation.
“This program will give low- to middle-income earners greater access to employment, education, healthcare and services throughout the region.”
Benefits broken down
The discount program will cut fares in half for anyone earning 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level. This year, that would be $23,760 for one person or $48,600 for a family of four.
The program is largely modeled after a Seattle-area program. King County Metro, joined later by the regional Sound Transit system, introduced Orca Lift in 2015 and financed it by raising fares for other riders by 25 cents. As a result of this program, King County executives have said that low-income ridership has increased.
Orlando Lopez says a discounted fare program has long been a top priority of OPAL Environmental Justice, a low-income advocacy organization with a TriMet rider program. Lopez serves as the Bus Riders Unite! Organizer.
“Public transportation is a lifeline for many folks in our community. It allows our folks access to education, jobs, health services, green spaces, among other things,” he says. “But it is also expensive.”
Lopez explains many people are unable to pay the $100 monthly pass, but they will pay $5 a day for a day pass and, over the course of a month's time, wind up paying more than the cost of the monthly pass. That, coupled with the area’s rapidly rising cost of living and the displacement of people of color to the fringes of Portland, paints a “pretty bleak” economic picture for some people, he said.
Trying to meet demand
Murphy says TriMet’s initial efforts to help low-income riders have not kept up with needs. When the low-income fare programs initially were launched in 2013, TriMet has increased its annual funding to $1.5 million to provide public transit funding to nonprofits and community-based organizations at low or no cost, which they then distribute to their low-income clients. Recipients include the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization and Central City Concern.
Grant requests for the Fare Relief program have increased over the last three years. Murphy says grants totaling $1.2 million (in fares) were distributed last month and the remaining $300,000 is allocated to the Fare Assistance program.
Lopez says he is pleased TriMet will be expanding the low-income fare program to reach more of the population in need.
“We see this as a step towards our vision of a fareless transportation system,” Lopez says. “We need to look at our transit system as a community investment the same way we look at libraries, public schools, fire departments, among other things. Fundamentally, we see transit as a human right.”