Until recently, Tristan Isaac considered a bus ride an extravagance.

Since moving to Portland four years ago without a car, Isaac has found the cost of regular adult TriMet fare—$2.50 for a two-and-a-half-hour pass, $5 for a day pass, or $100 for a monthly pass—too expensive to be a daily option.

“If I had to go somewhere on budget, I’d use my bike, but if I were going somewhere special, I’d take the bus,” Isaac says. “Because $5 a day really adds up.”

Last November, Isaac’s bike was stolen. Having lost his job, he couldn’t afford a new one, but he knew TriMet had recently introduced a low-income fare program, wherein people who earn around $24,000 or less a year can qualify for a monthly TriMet pass for $28.

Isaac enrolled, and it instantly changed the way he gets around the city.

“I don’t worry about taking the bus anymore—it’s the last thing I think about,” he says. “It’s relieved a lot of stress.”

Isaac is an organizer with OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, an activist organization that focuses on the intersections of transportation and environmental policy. OPAL played a key role in pushing TriMet to adopt the low-income fare program, but its members are now eyeing an even more ambitious goal: a completely fareless TriMet.

That idea is just one piece of a new transportation platform—a sweeping slate of goals OPAL intends to campaign for—that the organization announced on June 19. Other goals include additional dedicated bus lanes, expanded transit service, and the return of a program to help riders navigate the system. But an enirely fareless public transit system is the most aspirational, big-picture goal of OPAL’s new platform.

Considering that about a quarter of TriMet’s current operating budget comes from fare revenue, any transition to a fareless system will require a lot of policy work. But given OPAL’s track record—in addition to pushing for low-income fare, the organization also campaigned for a longer transfer period for single fares, which TriMet adopted in 2014—their plan is getting serious attention.

“One of the broadest, and we think most effective, tools in the toolbox would be the solution of fare-free TriMet. It solves so many problems at once.”

Advocates of a fareless system see it as an important step to alleviating many problems faced by Portlanders: worsening traffic, displacement of low-income people, poor air quality, and climate change. They believe now is the time to add new questions to the public discourse around transportation in Portland: Should TriMet eliminate all fares? And, perhaps more crucially, could TriMet eliminate fares?

Aaron Golub, an OPAL board member and a public transportation researcher at Portland State University, is currently working on a policy report that will explore the potential benefits and economic feasibility of transitioning to a fareless system. Golub co-authored a similar report detailing a path to low-income fare in 2016.

“Our report for the low-income fare was actually fairly pivotal,” Golub says. “It actually urged TriMet to do their own study, which corroborated our work.”

TriMet rolled out the low-income fare program in July 2018, after receiving funding from a major transportation package passed by Oregon lawmakers. In January 2019, the public transit organization announced that it was already on track to outpace its first-year enrollment goal of 15,000 riders.

Advocates at OPAL are hopeful there will eventually be a similar success story about fareless transit.

“One of the broadest, and we think most effective, tools in the toolbox would be the solution of fare-free TriMet,” Golub says. “It solves so many problems at once.”

When Shanice Clarke imagines a fareless public transit system, she’s reminded of a quote from author and activist Audre Lorde: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

As an OPAL board member, Clarke is especially focused on the environmental benefits of a fareless system. Incentivizing transit by eliminating fares would likely increase ridership, bringing in riders who previously relied on cars. That, in turn, would lower Portland’s carbon emissions.

OPAL’s team also sees fareless transit as the most straightforward, effective way to make TriMet more accessible for every Portlander. Low-income riders would be relieved of any financial burden, and riders who could just as easily drive or take a Lyft would be given a new incentive to use TriMet instead. Meanwhile, occasional riders unfamiliar with the logistical workings of TriMet—like tourists or people who only take transit for special events—wouldn’t have to worry about the hassle of navigating a fared system.

TriMet, however, believes the system would be less accessible if it did away with fares. TriMet spokesperson Roberta Altstadt says Portland “would not have the transit system we have today if it was free.”

To run a fareless system, Alstadt says, “you’d have to cut way back on service.”

“It would have a really negative impact that I don’t know if people are necessarily thinking about,” she adds.

There is some evidence to back that up. From 1975 to 2012, downtown Portland had a “Fareless Square,” meaning riders who stayed in an area of about one-and-a-half square miles did not have to pay to use public transit. Despite the program’s popularity with both visitors and locals, TriMet killed Fareless Square when it changed the way it charges for single fares, converting from a distance-based system to a time-based system. At the time, TriMet also cited the need for additional fare revenue from downtown riders. In the years since, TriMet has successfully increased service in traditionally underserved areas like outer East Portland and the suburbs.

Jarrett Walker, a public transportation consultant and author based in Portland, agrees that instituting a fareless system could present a problematic dichotomy. He says that while he’s not necessarily against the theory of fareless transit, putting the onus on TriMet to fill in the funding gap would inevitably lead to service cuts—making routes slower and less reliable, and causing riders with other options to flee the system.

“The worst possible thing for low-income people is a transit system that only low-income people ride,” Walker says, “because that’s a transit system that not enough people care about, and a system that’s not significantly relevant to environmental demands or fixing congestion.”

Walker points to other countries, like Britain and Australia, that have had success subsidizing discounted fares through social services budgets, rather than putting the burden on transit agencies. He says a similar, government-led program could work for a tiered or fareless system in Oregon, because it would leave TriMet’s budget intact.

“Before we talk about making a transit system free, we have to think about where the access is and who has access to it.”

OPAL recently announced its new campaign, but its more detailed policy report won’t be released until July. Fareless transit advocates say they would potentially be interested in passing a long-term funding mechanism at the state or regional level—like the $2 billion business tax passed by Oregon legislators this year to cover a school funding gap—to fill the resultant hole in TriMet’s budget.

“The idea that they would go fare-free and not expand service but shrink it—we wouldn’t want to see that either,” says Orlando Lopez, an organizer with Bus Riders Unite!, OPAL’s transit advocacy arm. “What we would want to see would be finding a new revenue, not shrinking TriMet.”

And increased service is another part of OPAL’s new transportation platform. Next year, people in the Portland metro area will vote on a multi-billion dollar transportation bond measure, and the Metro Regional Government—which oversees the tri-county region—is currently in the process of determining what that bond will fund. Because bonds expire, the measure probably wouldn’t be used to directly fund a permanent fareless transit system—but it could pay for transit-oriented infrastructure projects, like dedicated bus lanes or even a new MAX line, to help TriMet accommodate new riders flocking to a fareless system while making service cuts.

Metro Councilor Juan Carlos González, who represents Washington County, has been vocal about TriMet service disparities between Portland’s city center and its surrounding suburbs. He’s adamant that this issue needs to be addressed before any conversation about fareless public transit can begin.

“Before we talk about making a transit system free, we have to think about where the access is and who has access to it,” says González, who was elected to the council last year. “The transportation system in Washington County—you can make it free, but how much of an impact is that going to make in terms of drastically shaping ridership?”

A fareless system would also, by definition, eliminate the need for fare enforcement. TriMet’s fare enforcement system—in which contracted security workers TriMet staff and law enforcement officers conduct fare checks on buses, MAX trains, and MAX platforms—has been the subject of controversy in recent years. In 2018, a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge ruled that the agency’s fare enforcement tactics were unconstitutional because they include stopping people without reasonable cause for suspicion, an illegal practice for law enforcement officers.

“These dragnet searches violate the rights of all people who are stopped, whether or not they have proof of fare,” said Matt dos Santos, legal director for the ACLU of Oregon, in a statement released after the ruling. “This has an outsized effect on people of color, because it increases the already disparate impacts of over-policing and over-prosecution.”

TriMet recently changed its fare enforcement policies—rather than giving criminal citations to people found without valid fare, the agency now uses fines and community service orders to penalize those caught without a ticket. It also offers exemptions for people who qualify for, and subsequently enroll in, one of their reduced fare programs.

But for Oregon House Rep. Diego Hernandez, who recently introduced legislation that would outlaw fare enforcement, those measures aren’t enough. Hernandez, who supports fareless transit, points out that law enforcement tends to disproportionately target communities of color and low-income people—and that extends to fare enforcement.

“With a fareless system, all of these symptoms we see from a fare-based system would disappear,” Hernandez says. “In terms of good public policy, a fareless system just makes sense if your goal is to provide an equitable system.”

“If someone approached me with a whole different goal in mind—to support my experience as a transit rider, as opposed to jail me—it would have gone a lot differently.”

Part of OPAL’s larger campaign includes bringing back rider advocates, which were part of TriMet’s ranks until they became a casualty of budget cuts in 2009. Like fare enforcers, rider advocates used to be a fixture on TriMet vehicles, offering advice for people navigating new routes and using de-escalation techniques if disputes arose between passengers or between a passenger and a TriMet operator. Amalgamated Transit Union 757, the TriMet operators’ union, supports the return of rider advocates.

Ana del Rocío also supports it. A transit-dependent New York City transplant, del Rocío’s interaction with a fare inspector at a MAX platform prompted the 2018 ruling against fare enforcement. In March 2018, Del Rocío told a fare enforcer she had an annual pass but wasn’t carrying it with her that day. The officer asked for her full name, so they could look her up her annual pass information. When she failed to give her full legal name—which is different from the name she usually goes by—she was arrested for giving a police officer false information.

Del Rocío says that if she had been stopped that day by a rider advocate, rather than by a police officer, it would have made “a world of difference.”

“If someone approached me with a whole different goal in mind—to support my experience as a transit rider, as opposed to jail me—it would have gone a lot differently,” she adds.

TriMet’s Altstadt says the transit agency trains its fare enforcers to also assist riders with basic questions about routes and fares. She says enforcement is helpful not just for ensuring people pay fares, but also for upholding public safety. In June, for example, a routine TriMet fare check resulted in police arresting a man who was in illegal possession of a gun.

“They got a gun off the street, and hopefully made the community a little bit safer,” says Altstadt. “There are a lot of people that, if you can’t follow a simple rule like paying your fare, maybe you can’t follow other rules of society.”

The debate over fare enforcement is just one of many conversations about Portland’s transportation system. OPAL’s platform announcement came just one week after Chloe Eudaly, the city commissioner in charge of the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), announced that PBOT would be aggressively pursuing additional dedicated bus lanes throughout the city, which transportation experts hail as a cost-effective way to bring in new riders by making public transit faster and more reliable. At the same time, transportation activists and politicians are fighting an expansion of Interstate 5 in the Rose Quarter, pushing the city to make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists, and clamoring for congestion pricing, in which roads are tolled during high-traffic times.

Given the fluid nature of transportation policy in Portland, it’s not outlandish to imagine a future with fareless public transit, despite the need for more policy work to determine how that might come to pass. But for OPAL’s Clarke, this isn’t just a fight about funding—it’s also a campaign to reshape the way Portlanders think about public transit.

“Getting from Point A to Point B is a basic human right, just like access to education or health care,” Clarke says. “And it shouldn’t have a price tag on it.”