A TriMet fare enforcement press event held last year.
A TriMet fare enforcement press event held last year. blair Stenvick

TriMet fare enforcers issued fewer citations for people riding without a ticket in April than in any month in the last five years.

TriMet board member Ozzie Gonzalez didn't give the exact number during at a Wednesday morning board meeting, but said there had been a “dramatic” recent drop. (The Mercury has submitted a records request for this data).

He said the reduction in citations could likely be attributed in part to TriMet’s general drop in ridership—during the week of May 10, ridership was down 67 percent compared to February 2020, before the pandemic began.

But Gonzalez noted that “the approach of the fare enforcers” has changed in recent months. He called that change “fare informing, not fare enforcing.”

While the agency isn’t ceasing its fare enforcement practices, TriMet is offering more leeway to some riders. TriMet General Manager Doug Kelsey said at Wednesday’s meeting that TriMet’s fare enforcement is “very much more of an education process right now.”

There’s particular flexibility for riders accustomed to using cash to pay for their fares. TriMet suspended the use of cash on its buses in March, citing health and safety concerns as the reason for doing so. The agency now faces a lawsuit which claims it violated state law by not involving members of the public in that decision.

Now, the only way for people to pay fares onboard is by using a Hop card from TriMet’s electronic ticket system.

“Many people didn’t have time to get a Hop card before [suspension of cash payments] went into effect,” TriMet spokesperson Roberta Altstadt wrote in an email to the Mercury. “TriMet bus operators, who are directed to be fare informers not enforcers, have let riders surprised to see the farebox blocked off, ride without paying until they could get a Hop card.”

It's unclear whether the “fare informing” paradigm is being used in other situations aboard TriMet buses and MAX trains. During a public comment period at the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting, several commenters said they were concerned TriMet wasn’t being transparent about its current fare enforcement priorities.

Richa Poudyal, the advocacy director at local transportation advocacy organization the Street Trust, told the board that they should “let [riders] know that fare enforcement is not a priority right now.”

Gabriela Saldaña-López, an organizer with local environmental advocacy organization OPAL, said that the leeway given to riders without Hop cards “is not clearly stated.”

“People are hurting right now,” Saldaña-López added. “Two dollars and fifty cents is not something people can even afford right now.”

Kelsey addressed these concerns later in the meeting.

“This is not a free transit system right now,” Kelsey said. “The enforcement side has been trying to be educational [about Hop cards] … Yes, we know many people are struggling. We do have the low-income fare program.”

“The citations—there are some examples where those tools need to be available,” Kelsey added. “We have been softer on communications, because this is not intended to be a ‘Please come ride for free.’”

Kathy Wai, another TriMet board member, suggested at Wednesday’s meeting that fare enforcement citations could be put on hold until the pandemic ends. This move has already been made by transit agencies across the country, including C-Tran in Vancouver, Washington.

“A lot of our transit dependent folks really have no option else,” Wai said. “Essential workers, many of them have to keep taking transit to be the backbone of our pandemic response right now… Having additional stressors of having someone coming up to you and questioning payment, and going through the citation process, can be very detrimental.”

Kelsey said fare revenue is necessary for TriMet to continue to provide its current level of service, and increase service in the future. TriMet recently received $185 million from a federal COVID-19 relief package, but there are restrictions on how those funds can be used.

“The string of enforcement and collecting revenue is our financial oxygen,” Kelsey said. “But we want to do so in a delicate and reasonable manner.”

TriMet’s proposed 2021 budget includes funds for hiring eight new security workers who will be able to perform fare checks. The budget needs to be passed by July 1, and TriMet will hold community budget sessions in June.