After months of debate and vocal protests from a loose transit riders' union, the TriMet board this morning voted 6-1 to eliminate buses from Fareless Square.

“When Fareless Square was started some 34 years ago, it was a bus-only system. We now have four MAX lines that will serve this area once mall service begins,” says Mary Fetsch, TriMet’s spokesperson.

While eliminating free bus service from downtown saves only $800,000, TriMet expects to see improvements in bus efficiency and a reduction in bus fare-related evasion. TriMet is counting on this projected savings to help close its $3.5 million budget gap.

At last month’s Board of Directors' hearing, nearly 20 people showed up to voice their opinions on TriMet’s Fareless Square proposal. “This vote demonstrates that the TriMet board is not interested in public opinion,” says JL Dunn, a rider's union member. “This is why we support having a democratically elected board.”

Riders union members protesting Fareless Square cuts in July.
  • Riders union members protesting Fareless Square cuts in July.

We're waiting for a call back from Lynn Lehrbach, a teamsters rep and the one dissenting vote on the TriMet board, but the WW blog quotes him explaining: “I expected this outcome, we talked about it, but I feel it is important to keep Fareless Square intact. We can afford to have a Fareless Square.”

At the root of this change is the big problem with how TriMet is funded—a significant portion of their budget comes via payroll tax. That means while millions of dollars are still pouring into sexy transportation projects (like the streetcar), TriMet has to slash budgets when unemployment soars.

I asked East Portland Representative and transportation committee co-chair Nick Kahl if he thinks there is a better way to fund TriMet. Probably not on a state level, he explained, because putting more transportation dollars into public transit would mean changing the way the Highway Trust Fund spends its money. "It’s very unlikely that a wholesale revision of the highway trust," says Kahl. "Voters of Oregon have had a half dozen opportunities to bust the trust fund and use the dollars there to pay for other things and they haven’t. Oregonians seem to feel pretty strongly that their gas tax dollars should go to fixing roads and that’s it."

Other transit experts are ambivalent about the change. Chris Smith, of Portland Transport, thinks the issue of eliminating free bus service has been blown out of proportion. “What we want to look at is mobility in the central city,” he says. “The change is relatively small.”

Get your free rides in now—the fareless bus service ends as of January 2010.

— Post co-written with Rachael Marcus.