TriMet has laid out a plan to reduce fares for low-income riders. Now it's looking for roughly $11 million a year to implement it.
The regional transit agency is hoping the Oregon Legislature will come through with a transportation funding package that includes money for transit. TriMet leaders have offered the low-income fare program as a carrot to lawmakers, saying it would be a priority if new funding came through.
But it's also exploring new local taxes and fees to help pay for the program, said John Gardner, TriMet's director of diversity and transit equity.
"It kind of came down to what can we move on today," Gardner said. "Everybody would like to see the program move forward as quickly as possible."
The program would be open to households making no more than twice the federal poverty level. This year, that's $23,760 for one person or $48,600 for a family of four.
The fare would be discounted to the same level as Honored Citizen passes for riders 65 or older, or who have disabilities. That's 50 percent less for a single fare or day pass and 72 percent less for a monthly pass.
The $11 million figure assumes 50 percent of eligible riders would participate, a figure that the program would be unlikely to reach in its early years, Gardner said.
In addition to the state transportation funding package, Gardner said TriMet would research local funding options including but not limited to a tax on commercial parking facilities, business fees, hotel fees and corporate taxes.
The agency sees the forthcoming launch of its electronic fare system, Hop Fastpass, as an ideal time to launch a low-income fare program. Each card is assigned to an individual, which the agency believes will reduce the opportunity for fraud.
The proposal 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.
Much of the administration, including income verification, is handled by other social service agencies, which helps reduce costs. The administration for that program alone costs $3.1 million a year, not counting lost revenue.
As a result of Orca Lift, low-income riders began using the transit system more frequently, King County Executive Dow Constantine told The Oregonian/OregonLive last year. He said that contributes to more productivity and economic activity in the region.
Opal Environmental Justice Oregon, a group that's advocated for a low-income fare program, said it's desperately needed.
"The cost of living here in Portland has gone up dramatically," said organizer Orlando Lopez, "and housing and transportation are the things taking up a majority of people's income right now, especially for low-income folks."
About 660,000 live at or below 200 percent of the poverty level in the Portland area. Meanwhile, the average rent has jumped by nearly 15 percent in the past five years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Lopez said TriMet's proposal is a good one, noting that it's similar to one Opal pitched last year. But he said the agency shouldn't wait for new outside funding.
He pointed to TriMet's plan to spend $9 million to build a new headquarters for its Transit Police Division within a new parking garage planned near the Oregon Convention Center (TriMet says it would cost more in the long run to keep the transit police in their current Old Town location). It also plans to beef up its fare-enforcement staff.
"We're seeing those as what TriMet is putting down as priorities," Lopez said. "Why not put that money toward making the system more accessible?"
-- Elliot Njus
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