Pricey gas is pushing TriMet ridership to a record high and a fare-hike is on the horizon - could the time be right to form a Transit Rider's Union? The upstart group Portland Coalition Against Poverty (PCAP) thinks so. Last week they started a city-wide grassroots campaign to organize a union, donning silkscreened red PCAP shirts and canvassing on the MAX and buses. In six days, the organizers signed up 350 people. The union's first meeting is scheduled for August 20th and its first goal is an ambitious one: make TriMet a fareless system.

While some people have also floated the idea of a union to force TriMet to focus funds on the two-thirds of its ridership using the aging bus fleets rather than the MAX, a political association for all transit riders hasn't existed in Portland for at least a decade. Transit experts outside PCAP think the union could get a lot of support, but are more hesitant about the pushing for a fareless system.

"The idea of a transit riders union is great, the voice of transit riders is not very strong," says Chris Smith, who runs Smith says the rising fares might take a toll on low-income riders but the hurdles to making TriMet fareless are pretty big.
During her time in office, mayor Vera Katz investigated the idea of a fareless TriMet, but the final report found safety concerns and lack of revenue for expansion would outweigh the benefits. Jim Howell, who's been working on Portland transit issues since 1969, thinks the lack of money to expand service could be the biggest problem with a fareless system. "They don't even have enough funds to meet the current demand," Howell says, "If somebody wants to come up with the money and provide fareless service, I'm all for it. But I don't know where that could come from."

Twenty percent of TriMet's current budget comes from fare revenue. PCAP's plan to make up the difference is pretty vague right now, but organizer Colin de Laval believes the decreased costs of collecting fares would help TriMet could compensate for lost revenues.

De Laval says the arguments against a fareless system boil down to money. "Anytime you cut into the capitalist system you're going to get backlash," he says, very sincerely. He envisions an end goal of eventually abolishing the TriMet board and running TriMet via the union.