Applying the Brakes 

Mayor Wants TriMet to Restore Youth Passes, Free Rail Zone

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TRIMET CLAIMS its budget, newly revised as of last Wednesday, April 11, is pretty much a done deal. Say hello to drastic bus-service cuts, and goodbye both to the "free rail zone" downtown and the agency's popular free passes for high school students.

But Portland City Hall, quietly, is trying to nudge TriMet into changing its mind. Mayor Sam Adams revealed last week that his office and the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) have been in preliminary talks with the agency, gently pressing it to restore, at least in part, both programs.

Adams mentioned the negotiations during PBOT's budget workshop with the Portland City Council, also on April 11. TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch confirmed the talks to the Mercury, and Adams' office says discussions on those items—seen as a top economic priority for the mayor—have been held since at least last fall. But with the city and TriMet both facing multimillion-dollar budget deficits, it's unclear who would pay to restore the programs—or how. Adams, when asked by the Mercury, didn't have a clear answer.

"It's extremely important that these programs continue," says Catherine Ciarlo, Adams' top transportation policy adviser. "They both have deep roots in the city's unique transportation program."

TriMet, facing a $12 million deficit, turned to a mix of service cuts and new revenues to fill the gap. Eliminating free MAX rides downtown and out to Lloyd Center—the free rail zone—amounts to $2.7 million in additional cash. But Adams tells the Mercury he thinks it will hurt downtown's economy and make it harder for people who live and work downtown to "get around with ease."

The agency would also do away with free passes for Portland Public Schools high school students, a program started in 2009. While the student passes haven't been officially slashed, Fetsch says funds have "not yet been identified" for the upcoming year. For Adams, that's an even bigger concern.

"All of these cuts are painful," says Adams. "But this is more than transportation. It's wrapped up in our high school graduation rate. This pass allows students to have more and better access to after-school jobs, programs, and community college classes that they couldn’t get to otherwise."

Fetsch says the student pass program currently has a $2 million gap, leaving Adams' desire to continue the program a budgetary stretch.

"Obviously we don’t have the funds for it," Fetsch says, "but we are continuing to talk with partners involved."

Adams says he's looking into getting other school districts—there are five in Portland city limits—involved in the program to bring in funding. "The fact of the matter is that based on the numbers from TriMet, the youth pass program hasn't had to increase services or purchase additional equipment since its start," says Adams. "It's had a little impact."

Ciarlo says PBOT remains in talks with TriMet, in hopes of finding a way to keep the two programs afloat. But, she says, it will take some time to negotiate, maybe even after TriMet's 2012-2013 budget takes effect in September.

"It's not going to be figured out today, not next week," Ciarlo says. "But it is our priority to work something out."

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