WHILE CAR COMMUTERS sweated in rush-hour traffic last Wednesday, September 1, about 100 transit riders gathered at city hall to protest cuts to their own commutes. They griped about having to dig another nickel out of their pockets—TriMet's two-zone bus fare is now $2.05, as of last week—at the same time TriMet is cutting bus service to fill a $27 million budget shortfall.
It was hardly a display of might. Especially when you consider Portlanders take more than eight million trips by bus or light rail every month, and public transit is a major part of our identity as the greener-than-thou "city that works." But the city doesn't have a single public transit advocacy group.
Why was last week's protest, organized after TriMet's fourth round of cuts in 16 months, attended by a hardy several dozen rather than an outraged several thousand? Why has organizing bus and rail riders en masse so far proven impossible in Portland?
The answers mostly lie in a tangle of economics, politics, and demographics. But the simplest excuse is that, until recently, public transit in Portland was getting better and better.
"When both the rail network and bus network were growing, no one got very angry," says Planning Commissioner Chris Smith, a long-time transit activist who runs PortlandTransport.com.
Smith notes that in previous fights over transit, like when pushing for new light rail lines in the '90s, bus and rail backers joined with TriMet to battle against anti-transit groups. Now, TriMet's riders are turning on their onetime ally. At last week's rally, City Commissioner Amanda Fritz made it a point to remind people they should still support TriMet's $125 million tax measure this November, even if they're upset about the fare increase.
But transit riders also are a diverse and often lower-income group who are notoriously difficult to organize. Every few years, different upstart groups in Portland have tried to form transit rider unions, only to see them disappear within months.
"People aren't proud, per se, that they're transit riders, so organizing around those constituencies is much more difficult," says Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) Executive Director Rob Sadowsky. He moved to Portland this summer from Chicago, where he led a nonprofit, Active Transportation Alliance, whose mission included promoting bikes as well as transit and walking. In contrast, the BTA here is bikes-only.
And that points to another challenge for Portland transit activism, Sadowsky says: "People who love and breathe advocacy are the bicyclists. The people who tend to write checks are the bicyclists."
In Sadowsky's former group and in New York's bikes-transit-pedestrian group, Transportation Alternatives, 90 percent of the members are primarily cyclists.
While bike backers can work at the local level to score funding and improve infrastructure, winning cash for TriMet requires activists to deal with intractable higher powers: state and federal funding structures.
Only 18 percent of federal transportation funding goes to transit (80 percent goes to roads). And, on a state level, transit is financed largely by the wildly fluctuating payroll tax, whose payout to TriMet plunged by $31 million last year and $15 million this year.
Changing those budget pies will take a years-long campaign and upper-tier political support.
"I think there's a feeling among Portlanders that this is one of the best cities for its size of forging ahead with progressive transportation," says Chris Rall, the Portland organizer for national alternative transit group Transportation for America. "It's easy to look at the person closest to you and get angry at them." Transportation for America is backing three initiatives at the federal level to rework public transit funding, but doesn't dabble in local battles.
Coalitions of like-minded progressive groups, rather than one focused solely on organizing riders, might be the key to effective transit activism in Portland's future. Numerous progressive transportation leaders point to the work of OPAL, a Portland environmental justice group that spearheaded last week's rally after bursting onto the transportation scene only a few months ago criticizing TriMet for spending money on rail while cutting bus service ["Bus-ted," News, Aug 19].
"I think OPAL's got the organizational smarts to take it somewhere," says Smith.
The last time transit activism was really alive and kicking in Portland was 40 years ago, when a powerful neighborhood coalition called Sensible Transportation Options for People (STOP) successfully pushed politicians to kill the Mount Hood Freeway and direct the project's funding to light rail instead. But activism petered out after that, says old-school activist Jim Howell, who was part of STOP.
"The energy was gone after the win," says Howell. "It's easier to get people interested in stopping something than promoting something."