Kinoko Evans

IT'S A TIME of change for TriMet.

Portland's transit agency is set to give final approval to a series of staggered payroll tax increases this month, meaning they'll receive up to $43 million annually for projects that sat neglected during the Great Recession. Meanwhile, it's the efforts already underway that are giving watchdogs serious pause.

TriMet's in the middle of upgrading to a $30 million electronic fare system that it says makes financial sense. According to the agency, the system would pay for itself through efficiencies, and improve convenience for riders. That doesn't add up for the group OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, which says those changes could hurt people who need transit the most.

"E-fare is a huge change with lots of implications," says Jared Franz, the group's policy director, "and no one's talking about it."

Even if it doesn't know it yet, Portland is about to largely get rid of paper tickets for public transportation. TriMet's board of directors envisions an all-digital future where riders pay their way with the wave of a plastic card or handheld device. Last year, the agency awarded a Virginia firm a $14.3 million deal to design equipment for the project, including card readers, a web portal, and 1.3 million cards.

Masts for reader machines that will be used in conjunction with the new system are going up around the metro area.

During an average rush hour, TriMet has approximately 650 vehicles on the road, and provides an average of 320,000 weekday trips across a 533-square-mile service area. In the last decade, it's been rocked by fatal wrecks, criminal revelations about a veteran driver, and deep-seated budget problems. An audit ordered by the Oregon Legislature in 2013 pointed to the agency's turbulent relationship with its drivers' union as its most serious financial concern. It has about $1 billion committed to health care plans of the agency's current and future retirees.

With its $1.5 billion Orange Line light-rail project now in the rearview mirror, TriMet's set to begin internal testing of e-fare in fall of 2016. The agency hopes to go live in 2017, and believes the success of its mobile ticketing app (on which 5.3 million tickets have been purchased since its launch in September 2013) demonstrates that Portland is ready to embrace e-fare.

Once in place, the new system will allow riders two ways to pay—a credit/debit card, or the reloadable fare card. TriMet says the fare cards would be available in stores around town and would function basically like gift cards.

Cash will still be accepted on buses, but that was almost not the case. OPAL, which agitates for transit causes, claims credit for saving the cash option, despite early talk of going completely cash-free. It's a battle the group says is far from over. It's not known how long TriMet will accept money on buses.

There are other issues, too. OPAL's analysis reveals large gaps in the network of retail outlets that would carry the fare card, according to Franz. About 60 percent of bus stops are more than a quarter mile from the nearest e-fare retail outlet, and a third are more than a half-mile from one.

For a healthy young person, the group points out, a walk of 20 blocks is a workout. But for someone who's disabled or elderly or otherwise reliant on public transportation to live, it could be a terrible burden.

"Bus line #72 is a great example of this problem," Franz says. "It's a critical, heavily used, frequent-service bus that serves communities of color and low-income people along 82nd and North Killingsworth. Yet, there are very large stretches of 82nd that aren't served by e-fare retail outlets, and there's not a single outlet along Killingsworth in the Cully neighborhood."

Another issue for transit activists is that some of the retail outlets are payday lenders and check-cashing businesses, which are often accused of predatory practices. The cost of the e-fare cards also raises concerns. Each card would cost $3 and require a minimum fare purchase of $5. It's not much for a single person, but a mother of three ends up spending $32.

TriMet brushes the concerns aside. Spokeswoman Mary Fetsch says the agency plans to add around 400 more retail outlets to the approximately 130 currently signed up. She says it also plans to give away e-fare cards in the early days of the rollout. Ticket vending machines at MAX platforms will continue dispensing single-use tickets.

"Our goal is to have cards accessible to as many riders as possible," Fetsch says. "The initial cost of the card would be a small one-time fee, and the card is expected to last up to 10 years."

OPAL isn't done. It's currently pushing TriMet to add a low-income fare that riders could pay with their e-fare cards. The discount could be similar to the agency's Honored Citizen fare.

"It's taken five years to develop this system, and tens of millions of dollars," Franz says. "So it's disappointing and frustrating that they didn't seriously consider how low-income people would use it."

This article has been altered from it's original version to reflect the following changes: TriMet is installing readers for e-fare cards beginning this week, TriMet's planning to test the system starting next fall, and the transit agency will give away e-fare cards when it rolls out the system, not tickets.