Taking a look at its annual budget, TriMet is seriously considering a controversial change: getting rid of or limiting Fareless Square.
A consulting team for TriMet released a report at the end of December (read through it here) finding that TriMet has estimated lost revenue due to Fareless Square to be between $2.72 and $3.26 million. TriMet is desperately looking to shore up its budget this year. While TriMet has raised its fare and is slated to get $127 million from the stimulus package for infrastructure improvements, the high price of gas at the beginning of the summer took a fat cut from their earnings. More recently, the steep increase in unemployment means TriMet is losing payroll taxes, slicing another $13.5 million from its budget.
Labelling Fareless Square a "$2.7-$3.6 million loss" doesn't look at the big economic benefit overall of cheap transit in the city. The most frequent riders in Fareless Square are PSU students, business people who work downtown, homeless people and tourists. The free transit strengthens the city's economy by helping cut transit costs for students and business people and by helping make Portland a great place to visit. The homeless people use fareless square in part to get between shelters and social service providers - making homeless people pay for a bus trip could keep them from getting the services they need and make them a greater burden on the economy in the long run with healthcare costs.
Also of note: The study - which cost Trimet $35,000 to put together - reports that "there is no strong evidence that the fareless aspect of Fareless Square results in increased criminal activity."
Anyway, the consultants say TriMet has four options: make no changes to Fareless Square, limit the square to light-rail only, limit the square on the east side to the light-rail stations at the Oregon Convention Center or Seventh Avenue, or make a $1 fare for all bus and MAX rides that are currently free.
TriMet is holding a series of public meetings at the end of February to get opinions on "possible service cuts and changes to Fareless Square."