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TriMet to study OPAL’s Campaign for a Fair Transfer

The TriMet board today, before a packed house, considered a proposal from OPAL, the “Campaign for a Fair Transfer“, which would extend the validity of single-ride tickets to address equity issues in public transit. OPAL, an advocacy group which focuses on environmental and economic justice issues, claims that the reductions in service over the past few years have made certain trips on the TriMet system impossible on a single-ride ticket under current policies–and that as these extra-long trips are generally only undertaken by the transit-dependent, this has a disparate impact on the poor. OPAL also argues that the transfer policy is unfair to bus riders. Their proposal is to make MAX tickets and bus transfers alike valid for 3 hours from the time of purchase or validation, and to make tickets purchased or validated after 7PM valid until the end of the service day.

After several hours of passionate testimony, the TriMet board voted to formally study the matter. Board president Richard Van Beveren indicated that the proposal would be likely adopted outright under better economic circumstances–“If we were in a normal environment, man, we would be all over this.” OPAL was generally satisfied with the outcome, as co-director Joseph Santos-Lyons called it “definitely a step not only in our transfer issue, but in the board opening up to public communication.”
Revenue Impact

One issue of debate would be the revenue impact of such a transition. While the financial impact of permitting long trips to be made with a single fare would probably be minimal; a three-hour transfer window would also permit many round-trips to be made with a single ticket which presently require two. There have been various estimates floated about as to how much the proposal would cost–according to Opal, a preliminary analysis of the 3 hour transfer suggests lost revenue would be between $1-$2 million dollars, offset by new revenue from additional trips projected between $500,000 to $800,000. TriMet itself claims a net cost to the agency of $1.8 million to $3.2 million (for the 3 hour transfer plus the unlimited use after 7PM fare), down from an admittedly-flawed initial estimate of over $5 million. Portland Afoot has a good summary of the various arguments concerning revenue here.

Regardless of the financial impact, the proposal has proven popular, with diverse organizations such as Kaiser Permanente and AORTA endorsing it.

Better routes to take?

Speaking personally, I think the 3-hour transfer idea is a good one, at least for an all-zone ticket. (For a 1-2 zone ticket, two hours should be sufficient, barring a few hellacious suburb-to-suburb commutes I can think of). Single journeys on the system shouldn’t require more than a single ticket to complete. The Portland metro area is small enough that any trip which requires three hours represents a failure of planning; the added time riding (and waiting at transfer points) serpentine routes confers no benefit whatsoever on the passenger.

The unlimited-use-after-seven part I have a few more issues with–mainly, this strikes me as a way to subsidize casual users of transit who ride the system to and from their evening entertainment downtown (Blazers/Timbers games, nightclubs, concert halls, etc); there is no real reason to give this demographic a break on price. (Breaks should go to frequent users and the poor; not to club-hopping yuppies). There probably are some service employees at the same venues who would benefit from this proposal, needing one ticket rather than two to get to work and back; but even there this seems overly targeted towards a specific segment of the workforce.

An alternative I would consider is a five-hour ticket; which is good for unlimited use of the system in a five hour window (or until closing if bought after seven); this should cost more than a single-ride ticket but less than two single-ride tickets (say $3.75-$4 for all-zone). It would still provide benefit to riders using transit for non-work trips (as well as some part-time employees), and have the additional advantage of reducing long queues at ticket machines after events let out, without unduly subsidizing the restaurant crowd.

One thing that strikes me about OPAL’s proposal is that many of the intended beneficiaries are commuters–people using transit to get to and from jobs. In this case, these commuters often use TriMet for journeys where transit is highly inconvenient, because they have no other choice. Most commuters who use transit regularly, rather than purchasing single-ride tickets, choose instead to buy a pass: a monthly adult all-zone pass costs $92, about the price of 38 single-ride tickets–a nearly 40% discount over single-ride tickets, assuming two trips per day. (A year pass can save you even more, but requires you spend $1k up front). 14- and 7-day passes are also available; the discount for these is slightly less. However, many people in poverty may find the cash outlay for a TriMet pass to be difficult to justify, even for a $24 7-day pass; thus may end up choosing to use single-ride tickets instead (possibly paying more in the process). It’s often been noted that it’s expensive to be poor; and one big reason is that limited cash flow limits one’s ability to buy in bulk and enjoy volume discounts on purchases.

Some transit-dependent riders also may have sufficiently irregular schedules that a buying a consecutive-days pass isn’t an economical idea. TriMet does permit ticket purchases in groups of ten, but (strangely) offers no financial discount for doing so: a book of 10 all-zone tickets costs $24, same as ten single-ride tickets. Other than the conveniences of not having to watch the MAX leave while you are waiting in line for the infernally slow ticket machines to spit out your ticket (or hoping the fare inspector buys the “sorry I forgot to validate it” line after you make journey after journey on the same unvalidated ticket), there’s presently no reason to buy MAX tickets in bulk. Given that, I think it would be a useful idea for TriMet to either a) provide discount pricing on single-ride tickets bought in bulk, such as 10 tickets for $18; or b) provided “separable” multi-day passes, good for a given number of days but not necessarily consecutive, and needing validation on the days used. Or both. A separable 5-day pass, for $18 or so, or even a 3-day pass for $12, seem like reasonable offerings.

And of course, all of this assumes the current system of paper tickets and passes is continued, along with the current zone system. Switching to a modern electronic fare-collection system would enable many other possibilities above and beyond the simplistic ideas contained herein.

But regardless of the specific mechanisms employed, it would be beneficial to all involved were the agency to find better ways to make the system accessible to and affordable by its most vulnerable and dependent customers. The poor have borne the brunt of the recent service cuts and price increases; the rest of us can more easily avoid the former and afford the latter. Demand for transit is generally highly elastic; it’s a common mistake to assume a fixed pool of trips and that lowering prices won’t produce an increase in demand. It’s easy for transit agencies to be caught up in the dreaded death spiral; but reversing such spirals and driving demand often requires investments to be made. TriMet is willing to make such investments for expansion of its rail system. It should be equally willing, and not so quick to plead poverty, to keep the core of its customer base happy–and to treat them like customers instead of like hostages.