Could TriMet become a “free” (or nominally-priced) service?

There’s been discussion lately about the fare structure of Portland’s transit agencies–both the Streetcar and TriMet itself. Much focuses on the current disconnect between Streetcar pricing (currently a sweetheart deal, especially for Streetcar users who don’t use TriMet-badged services) and the rest of the system. TriMet’s fares are currently above the national average.

So here’s a hypothetical.

What about making the entire system free–or drastically reducing fares to a nominal level–less than 50c a ride or so (sufficient to discourage camping on busses), with annual passes costing no more than a couple hundred, rather than the $1000 you’ll pay today? TriMet’s farebox recovery ratio is about 25%, so this isn’t quite as far-fetched of an idea as it might seem. It would require other new revenue sources of about $100M/year (minus what passenger revenue remains under the new scheme) to keep service at the same level, but such a gesture might make other monies available.

  • How much would this boost ridership, particularly encouraging a shift from cars? For those who have a car in the garage, it takes about a 15-mile round trip to work and back (not counting tolls and parking, but counting things like fuel and maintenance) for a bus pass to be cheaper than driving; a dirt-cheap service would vastly alter this equation.
  • Would a combination of reduced fares and a higher payroll tax to plug the hole, be a politically saleable proposition?
  • What level of fares should be targeted in such a scenario?
  • How much would this increase demand for new services (crowding on existing routes, calls for new routes)?

Again, this is a hypothetical proposal, but one which seems interesting to discuss.

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