Michael Mitarnowski

At Friday's City Club luncheon, guest speaker Fred Hansen—general manager of TriMet—made a big announcement: In January, he plans to ask TriMet's board of directors to limit Fareless Square's hours.

In a speech focused on safety and security issues on TriMet—largely in response to the early November beating of Laurie Chilcote, whom a suspected gang member knocked out with a baseball bat at a Gresham MAX stop—Hansen argued that downtown's Fareless Square "provides a free ride for panhandlers, who go back and forth [on transit] between downtown and Lloyd Center, and drug dealers and rowdy gangs of young people, homeless people, and drunks who are using the train as a shelter and place to do their business.

"This type of undesirable behavior—that intimidates our riders and leads to crime—is being subsidized by regular TriMet riders," Hansen added.

TriMet's seven-member board, appointed by the governor, meets on January 23. At that meeting, Hansen plans to ask the board to cut back Fareless Square's hours, cutting the fare-free hours downtown and at Lloyd Center from 24 hours a day to 7 am to 7 pm. And after the board considers limiting Fareless Square's hours, Hansen will launch a public process to determine Fareless Square's ultimate fate.

"It's a broader discussion," says TriMet spokesperson Mary Fetsch. "Fareless Square's been around for 31 years. It's an icon in the community. But it's also something that impacts the business community—you have to have a conversation" before ditching the fare-free concept altogether or making other changes.

Indeed, a pay-per-ride system gives transit operators and security an easy way to kick off someone who's being obnoxious and hasn't paid. But is TriMet jumping the gun, and limiting Fareless Square before thoroughly discussing the issue?

Portland has examined the opposite scenario—eliminating fares system-wide—in the past, at former Mayor Vera Katz's behest. That study, done in 1998, looked at three cities—Denver, Austin, and Mercer County, New Jersey—who tried going fareless, and concluded that safety problems increased when those transit systems were free.

But TriMet's evidence about its own fareless system is largely anecdotal, and doesn't make a clear case that limiting or eliminating Fareless Square will make the system safer.

For starters, Fareless Square is used by a wide variety of people—not just panhandlers, drunks, and gangs—who would be impacted by new fares.

"We think that riders tend to use it more for shopping, dining, personal business, and to some extent to get to hotels/lodging," Fetsch says. "Fareless is also likely used for work-related purposes, but probably not at levels that are any higher than anywhere else on the system."

The fareless area is also used for special events, Fetsch adds, at the Rose Quarter and Convention Center.

As for safety problems on TriMet, the high-profile Chilcote beating in Gresham—at the 14th MAX stop beyond Fareless Square—prompted TriMet to convene two safety summits, in Gresham and Hillsboro. At those summits, held far from Fareless Square, TriMet heard "customers mention rowdy youth, panhandling, and drug dealing," Fetsch says.

But the connection between those problems and Fareless Square is unclear. In the Chilcote beating, the suspect, Abel Antonio Chavez-Garcia, boarded in Rockwood, Gresham—just a few stops before exiting the train, and miles outside of Fareless Square.

Non-violent but annoying behaviors could be tied to riders who haven't paid—but that's a case for cracking down on fare evasion (which Hansen has also pledged to do), not necessarily cutting back Fareless Square.

"TriMet crime stats do not indicate that crimes are higher in Fareless Square," Fetsch says, adding that the crime data may be low due to "the inability for officers and supervisory folks to interact with customers by asking for proof of payment."

Customers, however, interact with other customers whether they have a reason to or not—and they don't seem to be noticing a disproportionate problem with Fareless Square. In the past 11 months, TriMet has received 18 comments regarding the fareless area—half complimenting it, and half suggesting it be reduced or eliminated "based on complaints about drug dealing, homeless, and panhandling on the train," Fetsch says.