Feast and Famine 

TriMet Unveils the New MAX Line, but Nixes Fareless Buses

THIS WEEK TRIMET painted two conflicting pictures. The first celebrated the premiere ride on the brand-new MAX Green Line, a state-of-the-art $575.7 million project that finally brings light rail to the city's outer Southeast neighborhoods. In the second, TriMet announced plans to kill free bus service in Fareless Square and reduce bus line frequency to patch its crippled budget.

The confetti cannon exploded 25 minutes behind schedule at the grand debut of the Green Line train on Tuesday morning, June 30. But TriMet staff, senators, and transit wonks still ooh'd and aah'd as the colorful rice paper chunks floated down from atop a new 750-car parking garage at Clackamas Town Center, the end of the rails for the Green Line.

Local politicians dreamed up plans for swift Clackamas commuter transit more than 30 years ago, when local officials demanded the I-205 construction include a dedicated transit lane. Finally Tuesday, after decades of bickering and fundraising, TriMet, the City of Portland, and other transit partners proudly allowed journalists and politicians a sneak peek at the eight new stations, more than 2,300 new commuter parking spots, several miles of bike paths, and fancy new trains before the line officially opens in September.

The Green Line trains have bigger windows, more seats and a yellow color scheme that creates a "light, warm, modern, creative-class feel" in the words of TriMet Communications Director Carolyn Young. Catered strawberries and lemonade marked the special occasion.

"This will have a wonderful green impact on our communities," announced US Senator Jeff Merkley.

"It's going to be a godsend for this corridor," said US Representative Earl Blumenauer. "You are all part of the most aggressive transit initiative in the country," he said, adding that the average Portland family saves $2,000 a year because they are "trapped in their cars less frequently."

Federal money covered 60 percent (that's $334.4 million) of the much-lauded new line, with state and local money rounding out the rest. One of the funding clinchers came in the 2007 legislative session, says TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen, when state politicians voted to increase the payroll tax, the main funding source for TriMet.

But this year, when unemployment jumped and payroll taxes plunged, TriMet has also been forced to make service cuts to cover a $13.5 million budget hole. TriMet's unique funding structure, which relies primarily on payroll taxes, means that when times are good, TriMet is rolling in green. But when many people lose their jobs, public transit loses its budget right when Portlanders desperately need affordable transportation.

As income sank this year, TriMet nixed five bus lines altogether and reduced frequency on several others. It also has a bigger proposal on the chopping block: ending the policy of free bus rides downtown. A $35,000 study commissioned in 2008 found that though Fareless Square buses provide a good service for students, downtown business people, tourists, and the homeless, it lost TriMet up to $3.26 million a year.

Unlike the bold new light rail, Fareless Square and frequent bus service are not sexy projects. This year the legislature agreed to allow an increase in the payroll tax to help patch TriMet's budget, but is only allowing the tax increase after the economy picks up again. For now, TriMet can only access its shrinking piggy bank.

Since the public comment period on the Fareless Square change opened last Wednesday, June 24, 368 people have let TriMet know what they think, according to TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch. Two-thirds of those people support making Fareless Square only include free MAX rides. The other third are split between those who want to get rid of Fareless Square altogether and those who want to keep it as it has been for over 30 years.

To try and soften the blow for low-income, elderly, and disabled people who live downtown and rely on free bus service, TriMet's Carolyn Young says one idea in the works is to launch a new low-income pass. With that pass, low-income downtown residents could pay $25 or $30 to ride the buses all year. Those individuals will likely be rubbing elbows with some brand-new suburban commuters.

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