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!

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