Last December, TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen used his hour in front of the City Club's weekly luncheon to make a big announcement: He had Fareless Square, an iconic symbol of Portland's green and transit-friendly ways, in his crosshairs.
As part of a several-step plan to "deal with issues of fare evasion, loud and intimidating behavior, and criminal activity on the system," Hansen said, he would propose cutting back Fareless Square's hours to 7 am to 7 pm in early 2008, and follow up with a more comprehensive look at whether Fareless Square should be retained at all. Currently, Fareless Square operates without time constrictions.
But after two public hearings last week—where Fareless Square fans were out in force to protest the proposal—Hansen dropped his idea.
"After evaluating more than 700 emails, letters, and comments from two public hearings held earlier this week, one thing is clear: There is a lot of passion and strongly held views about Fareless Square," Hansen said in a statement on January 18. "Taking quick action on changing Fareless Square is obviously easier said than done. Over the next several months, as I announced in early December, we will establish a public process on how best to evaluate the future of Fareless Square, and address security issues in Fareless. It will be an open, thorough process that involves and engages the public."
If Hansen wants to re-evaluate Fareless Square, however, there are two big lessons to be learned from the short, failed process to curtail the fareless zone. For starters, attendees at two public hearings on January 16 were irate that no one from TriMet was at the front of the room, listening to public testimony. And the majority of those who testified were skeptical that Fareless Square had anything to do with safety and security on TriMet—especially since the recent high-profile incidents that prompted TriMet's new focus on security occurred in Gresham and Hillsboro.
At both a morning meeting in the Lloyd District, and an evening meeting in the Portland Building downtown, a stenographer took notes while a contracted facilitator called names of those who wanted to testify. One TriMet official welcomed the crowd at both meetings, but took a seat in the back during the testimony. Hansen and the TriMet board of directors—who will ultimately make the decision on what to do about Fareless Square—were absent.
"I'm embarrassed that there are no members of TriMet's governing body here listening to citizens," says city council candidate and transit activist Chris Smith at the evening session. Another man added: "Do [TriMet officials] plan on listening to audio tapes, or are we just here to talk to each other?"
Others who testified questioned Hansen's assertion that Fareless Square's hours had an impact on safety and security, and demanded that TriMet produce data showing the correlation.
"I would like to know, where are the preponderance of the incidents that are such a problem? Where are the crimes occurring? When are they happening?" asked Liam Zuk, testifying at the morning session. "And how would changing Fareless Square actually improve that? So far, TriMet hasn't offered any information on that."
But TriMet doesn't have any evidence beyond what they've heard.
"You're right, we don't have statistics on that," TriMet spokesperson Mary Fetsch says. "This is what we have heard complaints about from our riders. And the police have made comments, that the undesirable behavior happens later in the evening in Fareless Square."