What’s Going On with Streetcar Fares?

There’s been a bit of buzz about Streetcar fares lately, usually framed as “Streetcar is about to drop out of Free Rail Zone.”

That may happen (in fact it probably will), but I’d suggest it’s the wrong way to frame the question.

The real question is “what’s an appropriate fare structure for the Streetcar Loop?”

Free Rail Zone (originally Fareless Square) is a downtown-centric creation. True, it’s been extended to include Lloyd Center, but it doesn’t embrace the concept of a central city (even though in 1988 Portland replaced its Downtown Plan with a Central City Plan). The Streetcar Loop is a transit project that embraces the entire central city on both sides of the river.

A successful central city transit service can’t be free on the west side and $2.00+ on the east side. It’s both inequitable and fails to serve as a unifying factor for the central city. There’s no way we can tell a rider on MLK that their five-stop trip is $2.15 while a 5-stop trip on 10th Ave is free.

In an ideal world, we might make the whole Loop fareless. But I hope everyone understands that given that both organizations that partner to operate Streetcar are in financial distress (TriMet has a $12-13M budget gap for next year, PBOT $16M), that’s not a realistic scenario.

So the real questions we’re grappling with are whether or not to try to maintain compatibility with TriMet’s Zone 1-2 fare and what impact different fare levels will have on ridership given that most streetcar trips are relatively short? Would users rather have a seamless transfer with TriMet or have a $1.00 or $1.50 fare to represent a better value for a short trip? And of course the adequacy of revenue to operate the system also has to be a factor (note that the highest fare is not necessarily the one that generates the most revenue).

One other misapprehension is that this decision will be made by the Portland Streetcar Inc. board. That’s not correct. PSI will make a recommendation, but the ultimate decision authority lies with PBOT and the City. And the decision will be made with public input.

Indeed, there’s a full-blown Title VI process going on to comply with Federal regulations on equity issues.

Two open houses are coming up where you can learn more and share your views:

Wednesday, November 30th – 5:00 to 7:30pm
The Cleaners at the Ace Hotel
403 SW 10th Ave
(Streetcar or #20 Bus)

Thursday, December 1st – 5:00 to 7:30pm
Architectural Heritage Center
701 SE Grand Ave
(#6 Bus)

See you there!

24 responses to “What’s Going On with Streetcar Fares?”

  1. Finally!

    It’s always been troubling that while TriMet subsidizes PSI to the tune of millions of dollars a year:
    1. streetcar riders pay a much smaller percentage of the cost of rides than do TriMet riders, and
    2. PSI undercuts TriMet’s fares with its $1.00 single-ride ticket, daylong validity of a regular fare, and $100 annual pass with its aerial tram validity.

    It’s easy to understand that the relatively high proportion of existing service in the FRZ enables riders to pay a much smaller proportion of ops costs than TriMet riders, but there’s no excuse for the bargain-basement fare structure while living off TriMet subsidies.

    It’s sauce-for-the-gander time.

  2. I’ve probably said this before (and I’ve said this to Chris in private), but it bears repeating:

    I would LOVE it, as a Beaverton resident, to have the option to purchase for $100 an annual pass which entitles me to unlimited rides on one single TriMet line. It would save lots of money were my personal commute to only cost 40 cents a day (assuming 250 workdays in the year).

    Obviously, it wouldn’t be a good deal for TriMet, as many users have one or two lines which they use most often, and then could pay cash fares for the rest. If this service is going to be offered on any route within the system, including Streetcar, SOMEBODY ought to be paying for it to make up the lost revenue to the operating agency(s).

  3. I love the streetcar. That being said I ride it in fairless square a short walkable distance , and without a ‘distance based fare’ as Chris suggests , I won’t get on again.

  4. @Chris: I would definitely agree with that. It would be nice if TriMet had the infrastructure to go in that direction.

  5. I prefer flat fare, simply because it’s simple. Pay $2, ride for two hours. Pay $5, ride all day. My policy preference is to prioritize “easy” over “fair.”

    Distance-based fares add a level of complexity that (I think) would discourage new riders. I’ve seen first-time riders perplexed over the zone system more than once, and that’s not particularly complicated.

  6. I agree with Douglas in general on this one. Zones are very confusing and don’t really work in practice, since drivers are stuck trying to figure out who got on where. It’s easier with smartcards and rail, where you can have a “tap-on tap-off” system, but it still adds a level of complexity. I would also argue that a higher fare for longer distance does not really incentivize lower-distance travel, but rather incentivizes driving instead. After all, people who travel long distances are likely to own a car.

    Having different fares for different services also distorts everything. For example, in Seattle many people in Rainier Valley take the bus even though light rail is nearby and faster, because the bus fare is slightly cheaper. This is inefficient to say the least. If I remember correctly, New York saw a huge boost in transit ridership on all modes when they equalized bus and subway fares. Right now, the streetcar distorts the transit market by, for example, encouraging students in the NW to buy a streetcar pass and never take the 17 bus, even though both the bus and streetcar go to PSU.

    So I would prefer a flat fare in general, with variations based on time of day and quality of service. Express buses should cost more, and the fare should be higher during peak times to reduce crowding and pay for the extra peak-only buses.

  7. I love the streetcar. That being said I ride it in fairless square a short walkable distance , and without a ‘distance based fare’ as Chris suggests , I won’t get on again.

    I would imagine that this opinion is shared by at least 50% of the Streetcar ridership.

    “I love the Streetcar because it’s “free” because I don’t have to pay for it…but if I have to pay for it, I just won’t use it.” Shows the clear cut differences between streetcar versus a TriMet bus. People use the bus because they need it. People use the Streetcar because they’re being paid to.

    Seattle had the right idea: the Waterfront Streetcar was an “upgraded service” and thus required a fare, even though the utilitarian bus that ran a block away was free. Even the S.L.U.T. requires a fare (although buses do too, since it’s outside the fareless square.) and there’s a clear distinction between the limited service S.L.U.T. and the through-service buses.

  8. What are the contingency plans if ridership drops like a rock after a fare is imposed? I believe people should pay a flat fee to ride the streetcar but also think that many riders will abandon it if a fare is imposed.

  9. If I remember the projections, we expect that about 400K riders annually (out of 13M) will stop using the service if it is no longer fareless.

    Keep in mind that about half the people who board streetcar have a pass in their pocket. And others already have a transfer.

  10. Yeah, I ride with a pass, so my use of the Streetcar wouldn’t change.

    But if I were paying a fare to ride, I’d use the streetcar for trips from downtown to Northwest Portland, or downtown to South Waterfront, or maybe PSU to Pearl District. For shorter distances (say, under a mile) I’d just walk it. Which I sometimes do anyway, depending on how long I need to wait for the next Streetcar.

  11. @zefwagner:

    Right now, the streetcar distorts the transit market by, for example, encouraging students in the NW to buy a streetcar pass and never take the 17 bus, even though both the bus and streetcar go to PSU.

    Not sure if you’re aware, but a big reason why this occurs is that recent TriMet cuts to the #17 have effectively made that line useless outside rush hours and on weekends. Service from downtown to NW on the #17 comes on ~50 minute headways after 7:15. There is no #17 service north of Burnside on Sunday or after 9:30 or so on weekdays. This forces many people to use the streetcar even though the 17 is demonstrably faster during most hours of the day for a hypothetical trip from 21st and Lovejoy to 5th and Montgomery. The fact that PBOT and TriMet have viewed the streetcar as a comparable replacement service to the #17 (even they serve two completely different corridors in NW) is part of this larger problem with fare and modal equity.

  12. The Free Rail Zone should be extended to the Central Eastside. That would be more in keeping with the spirit of the Central City Plan of 1988 that first envisioned a “circulator” of some kind.
    Parking meter funds are available in Lloyd and will soon be coming to CES to cover operating costs. Later, MAX should be free to South Waterfront and OMSI just as it is now to Rose Quarter and Lloyd Center.
    I would proposed as well that if meters go in NW the free rail be extended to that disrict and South Waterfront as well, again with meter dollars covering a portion of operating costs. The whole point of Streetcar to weave the various neighborhoods and districts of the Central City together with an easy to use, frequent and low (or no) cost link. Charging fares runs counter to that vision.

  13. End the “fare less” (basically because its an affront to fairness).

    Go back to short hopper tickets, the $1 ticket that you ride within the one zone, maybe a downtown Portland version of that just for that area.

    I don’t know about that streetcar existing as some sort of independent unit within the transit area all the while millions of dollars of transit funds are used to keep it going.

    If Portland owned it, payed for keeping it going independently of TRIMET, then they could run it completely free if they wanted to. But they don’t do that do they?

    It’s another “government entity” scam as far as I am concerned.

  14. It is really too bad they cut the 17 so much. Many of my PSU classmates who take the streetcar to NW were amazed to discover that the 17 (when it runs) is way faster! If it ran full-time, and if the streetcar did not offer a streetcar-only pass, I think many more students would take it. The goal here should be choices, choices, choices! A person living in the NW should be encouraged to buy a bus pass and have several options (streetcar, 15, 17, 77, etc) for not having to use a car. Instead, some people do that but other people just buy a streetcar pass for getting downtown and drive everywhere else.

  15. instead of charging by the zone, lets charge by time of day. Make the whole system fareless late at night when it is preventing drunk driving and underutilized, and raise the prices during the day when it is busy.

  16. The whole point of Streetcar to weave the various neighborhoods and districts of the Central City together with an easy to use, frequent and low (or no) cost link

    The bus system did the same thing; why can’t there be free rides on buses? Why not free rides in downtown Gresham, or downtown Hillsboro, or downtown Tigard or Tualatin or Oregon City?

    All those residents pay a fare even if they’re going a couple stops. Surely if you live in a downtown condo you can afford the $2.05 like the rest of us pay.

    Regional residents should not be forced to subsidize the City of Portland Streetcar. As long as TriMet is forced to pay towards the Streetcar ops, the fare should be identical to that of a bus. I’m sick and tired of being given the same old B.S. that “We don’t have money to replace 22 year old buses” at the same time TriMet is writing blank checks to fund a competing transit service that TriMet has no legal or moral obligation to support.

  17. Erik, I don’t understand the target of your complaint here. You’ve made it clear earlier (and in previous discussions) that you think the streetcar should charge a fare. And lo and behold, the streetcar organization is moving toward doing that (I’m a CAC member), so why the continued criticism? Isn’t the streetcar policy moving toward what you want?

  18. TriMet is writing blank checks to fund a competing transit service

    The streetcar isn’t “competing” with TriMet. It covers a different route than any TriMet service. As others have already pointed out, the #17 does not follow the same route or serve the same audience as the streetcar.

    TriMet’s contribution to operations has traditionally been in the ballpark of what it would have cost TriMet to run a bus on the same route.

    If the city had never built the streetcar, but had somehow managed to encourage the level of development that had occurred, TriMet would likely be running some kind of bus service at the same level of expense (to TriMet). The only difference is that now, with the recent policy of making buses non-fareless, TriMet would be charging fares. But that will soon be moot, as the streetcar is moving to a charge-anywhere policy as well.

    And TriMet’s contribution to operations as a percentage is being reduced in the future. So again, this is an increasingly moot and distracting criticism.

  19. I suggested Streetcar remain free in districts with paid on street parking, with that income making up the “lost” fare income. Its a wash.
    Hillsboro is free to install parking meters and direct those funds to cover transit fares on a bus or streetcar they want to operate. So is Tigard. Why not Portland?

  20. Streetcar competes with TriMet on the other end of the line. The 35 & 36 share alignment with streetcar for almost 1 1/2 miles with about a third in the FRZ. Some people do use bus, even going out of their way to do so when it’s perceived as being more efficient.

    Then there’s that little matter of the LO extension being predicated on eliminating all bus service on highway 43 between Portland and LO in order to force riders to use streetcar. Granted, this would be in the future, but it sort of fits the definition of “competing with”.

  21. I think it’s wrong to consider Streetcar and TriMet in “competition”; simply because they aren’t hostile entities trying to win business from the other. Do the 35 and the 36 “compete” with each other between LO and downtown? I don’t grok all the financial arrangements between Portland Streetcar and TriMet, as I’m not on any of the Streetcar boards or such; but I think it’s safe to say that the two agencies are on friendly terms; and neither considers the others’ services to be a threat.

    I think that the issue of a forced transfer at LO should Streetcar replace the 35/36 is a potential problem, especially given the slow service speeds of the proposed line; but that has nuttin’ to do with which agency operates the line in question. Were the LO Streetcar to be a TriMet-badged-and-operated service, my concerns about the project as proposed would still exist.

  22. It’s not a matter of competition between transit operators as much as for funding of individual services. If there is a significant ridership drop on a specific bus line for any reason, including migration to streetcar, then TriMet may increase headway or otherwise reduce service on that bus in response. There really is competition.

    A lot of us are looking forward to the end of the cut-rate fare structure for streetcar and hope the FRZ goes away for the same reason. Barring a premium service (think WES) with real premium pricing (so much for WES), it should cost the same to use one type of transit to get from A to B as it does another.

  23. My 2 cents:

    Tri-Met service (rail & bus) are already subsidized 60% or thereabouts. However, Fareless Square and Free Rail Zone offer monetary benefit to downtown commerce, and increase transit use ‘to/from’ downtown thus reducing traffic and its costs overall. The subsidy is justified.

    Eastside growth and commerce can be similarly influenced with FRZ streetcar service. Some people will dodge the fare to cross the river on the new bridge if outside RFZ, but as Tri-Met is already subsidized, what harm does fare evasion really do?

    Keeping and expanding westside RFZ to the eastside upholds a universal ideal: THE HONOR SYSTEM. Some may abuse the Honor System, sure, but it’s better to have an honor system than to lose it over dishonorably pennywise accounting.

    PS: I’m right about the CRC Concept #1 Off-island Access to Hayden Island ‘and’ building the Southbound-only I-5 Bridge to start. Nyah!

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