People inside a TriMet bus
The pilot program is expected to serve 30,000 low-income high schoolers in the Portland-metro region. TriMet

An estimated 30,000 Portland-area low-income high school students will receive free TriMet bus passes the next two summers through a new pilot program.

“This program reflects a service the community has been asking for many years,” Maia Vásconez-Taylor, an organizer with advocacy group Bus Riders Unite, said. “Ultimately we see this as a positive step towards the pathway to fareless [public transit], but of course TriMet cannot stop here.”

TriMet has received approximately $12 million annually from the state since 2018 to operate its low-income fare program, which allows people who make up to twice the federal poverty income rate to pay $28 for a monthly bus pass—as opposed to the usual $100.

However, during the pandemic, TriMet’s ridership dropped by over 60 percent. Because some riders who were enrolled in the program weren’t riding the bus during the pandemic—coupled with the fact that many of the community organizations who helped people sign up for the low-income fare program closed their offices due to COVID—the transit agency was left with approximately $6.3 million in unused low-income fare funding.

In order to keep those funds invested in Portland’s low-income riders, TriMet and its equity advisory board decided to reinvest the money into a pilot program that will give students from households that qualify for the low-income fare program free bus passes for the summer. High school students in Portland Public Schools (PPS) already receive free bus passes during the school year regardless of income level due to a partnership between PPS and TriMet, but those passes end a few days after the final day of school. The summer pilot will also be available to qualifying students in any of the 18 school districts in TriMet’s service area.

It’s unclear how reliable TriMet’s service will be this summer. The agency announced on Twitter this week that it has had to regularly cancel buses and MAX trains during the day due to its ongoing driver shortage. According to the Oregonian, TriMet has canceled almost 900 bus trips and approximately 100 MAX train trips over the past 31 days. There have only been two days in the past month that TriMet has not had to cancel any buses or trains.

TriMet is currently offering $25 per hour and a $7,500 signing bonus for new bus drivers.

Despite TriMet’s hiring woes, Vásconez-Taylor with Bus Riders United hopes that the agency prioritizes finding the funding to make the summer pilot permanent and, ideally, expand it to include middle school students and students of all income levels as well.

Details on how to apply for the summer bus pass program will be available on TriMet’s website later this month.