02-19-2017  8:44 am      •     
MAX train in downtown Portland

Earlier this year Bus Riders Unite – an advocacy group for transit-dependent people linked with OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon – asked TriMet to consider adopting a separate fare for low-income riders.

Now the agency has hired a consulting firm to look into the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of charging some riders less, if they meet certain income criteria.

In May the Oregonian reported that TriMet has hired Four Nines Consulting to analyze how much it would cost to provide reduced fares for households at certain income levels, and the potential costs of subsidies ranging from a 25 percent discount to a free fare.

“We’ve been tracking the issue of low-income fares for a few years since they’ve begun to be implemented in the transit industry,” said TriMet spokesperson Mary Fetsch. “About a year ago we started exploring the idea as part of our future Hop Fastpass™ efare system that was under development. We’ve also discussed the idea with our Transit Equity Advisory Committee (TEAC), and others, including APANO and OPAL. We recently issued an RFQ to research the issue and find out if it was feasible, including costs and whether it expanded access to transit for low-income riders beyond our current Access Transit programs targeted at low-income riders. Once research is complete, we’ll begin a broader discussion with partners and other regional leaders.”

Lopez told The Skanner News the Bus Riders Union has been considering proposing a low-income fare since last year, but didn’t launch a public campaign until early 2016. He also noted OPAL plans to perform its own analysis of the potential impact of a low-income fare to present to Tri-Met’s board by July.

Transit systems in both Seattle and San Francisco already offer reduced fares for low-income riders. According to Lopez, the ORCA Lift program – which King County Transit instituted last year – was initially estimated to cost $20 million in lost revenue but has so far actual costs have been under budget. ORCA Lift riders pay $1.50 per ride, where regular adult passengers pay anywhere from $2.25 to $3 depending on the time they ride and number of zones they visit. To qualify, a rider in a one-person household must make $23,760 or less.

TriMet currently offers fare assistance and fare relief programs to qualifying non-profit organizations that serve low-income people. Seniors and people with disabilities – who are disproportionately likely to live in poverty, whether they work or not -- can also qualify for reduced fares through TriMet’s honored citizens program. Fetsch said in 2014-15 the agency distributed 125,000 tickets/day passes and 12,000 monthly passes through its fare assistance and fare relief programs.

Fetsch said TriMet does not have data on riders’ income levels, but just wrapped an on-board survey about fares and is currently compiling the results.

Lopez said Portland’s housing crisis – which is pushing lower-income residents, including transit-dependent residents – further and further from their workplaces was a major catalyst for the low-income fare campaign. Increases in housing costs across the metro area have impacted poorer residents’ ability to manage other expenses, including public transportation.

“We have folks who are spending $5 per day because they can’t afford to buy a monthly pass upfront, so they often spend more than $100 per month [the cost of a monthly TriMet pass] on public transit,” Lopez said. “Often they are transit dependent.”

Bus Riders United will also hold a forum from 6 to 8 p.m. this Friday at 8114 SEDivision St.

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All of this has played out amid a steady drip of revelations about an FBI investigation into his campaign's contacts with Russian intelligence officials. Trump says his administration is running like a "fine-tuned machine." He points to the rising stock market and the devotion of his still-loyal supporters as evidence that all is well, although his job approval rating is much lower than that for prior presidents in their first weeks in office. Stung by the unrelenting criticism coming his way, Trump dismisses much of it as "fake news" delivered by "the enemy of the people" — aka the press. Daily denunciations of the media are just one of the new White House fixtures Americans are adjusting to. Most days start (and end) with presidential tweets riffing off of whatever's on TV talk shows or teasing coming events or hurling insults at the media. At some point in the day, count on Trump to cast back to the marvels of his upset of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November election and quite possibly overstate his margins of support. Expect more denunciations of the "dishonest" press and its "fake news." From there, things can veer in unexpected directions as Trump offers up policy pronouncements or offhand remarks that leave even White House aides struggling to interpret them. The long-standing U.S. policy of seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Trump this past week offered this cryptic pronouncement: "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one." His U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, the next day insisted, "We absolutely support a two-state solution." Trump's days are busy. Outside groups troop in for "listening sessions." Foreign leaders call or come to visit. (Or, in the case of Mexico's president, cancel out in pique over Trump's talk about the planned border wall.) After the president signed two dozen executive actions, the White House was awaiting a rush order of more of the gold-plated Cross pens that Trump prefers to the chrome-plated ones used by his predecessor. Trump hands them out as souvenirs at the signing ceremonies that he points to as evidence of his ambitious pace. "This last month has represented an unprecedented degree of action on behalf of the great citizens of our country," Trump said at a Thursday news conference. "Again, I say it. There has never been a presidency that's done so much in such a short period of time." That's all music to the ears of his followers, who sent him to Washington to upend the established order and play the role of disrupter. 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