BETTER START DIGGING under your couch cushions. On June 25, the TriMet Board of Directors is voting on a rate increase—and they might raise fares by up to a quarter.

TriMet usually raises fares by five cents each year, to keep pace with inflation. But this year, with diesel prices skyrocketing—according to spokesperson Mary Fetsch, TriMet is $4.5 million over budget for the fiscal year that's about to end, thanks to fuel costs that rose from $2.12 per gallon last July to over $4 a gallon as of May 21—the board is poised to approve the biggest one-time fare increase ever. The board is "watching diesel prices" and will decide between a 20 or 25 cent fare increase—bumping a two-zone fare to $2.

At the same time, thanks at least in part to increases in gasoline costs, more people are hopping on TriMet's busses and trains. This past April, compared to April 2007, weekday boards were up 2.9 percent and weekend ridership up even higher, for a new record of two million trips each week. "Gas prices probably play a role in that," Fetsch says.

So why does TriMet need to increase fares? Aren't the new riders increasing the fares TriMet is collecting—and won't a steep fare increase risk reversing that trend of increased ridership? Fetsch concedes that "whenever you raise fares, you always have a little drop off [in ridership]. People say 'I'd rather choose other options.'" But the drop is "usually offset by the increased revenue."

Coinciding with the increased ridership, TriMet has collected more at the fare box—revenues increased six percent from May 2007 to April 2008, with two percent of that increase attributed to new riders. Unfortunately, fare collection hasn't kept pace with ridership increases, thanks to factors like people already having a TriMet pass and taking the bus more often, but not paying any more.

And it's not enough extra cash to cover TriMet's diesel bill. (If only that were the case: April's high ridership numbers meant 69,000 additional weekly trips. If you extrapolate that for a year, and every new trip carried a $1.75 fare, TriMet would pull in nearly $6.3 million in extra revenue—more than enough to offset the diesel price spike.)

"Diesel costs a ton," Fetsch says, ticking off "all the things we've done" to increase fuel efficiency before resorting to a fare increase, like making sure busses aren't idling, and fixing transmissions. "We have, we believe, the most fuel efficient fleet in the entire country," and TriMet has also dipped $2.5 million into reserves and eliminated 18 staff positions.

But the board still faces a tough vote on June 25—one that will help pay for fuel, but might turn away potential new riders facing their own fuel price crises.