TERRENCE COLEMAN was dressed for a funeral. The senior citizen Portlander, a daily bus rider and veteran, stood at the front of a mock funeral along the bus mall near Pioneer Courthouse Square, stepping in slow time to a jazzy New Orleans dirge.

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Members of public transit advocacy group Organizing People Activating Leaders (OPAL) paraded under the hot sun on August 30, mourning the passing of "affordable transit" just before TriMet's fare hike and bus service cuts kicked in after Labor Day weekend.

OPAL—a grassroots group that's one of the few sharp-eyed watchdogs keeping tabs on TriMet—says the system-wide fare increase to $2.50, the tweaks to more than 20 bus lines, and the axing of the Free Rail Zone were not unfortunate-but-inevitable events. Not only could the fare hike and cuts have been much softer, the group argues, but TriMet's changes also discriminate, in particular, against low-income riders and people of color.

"We hope this is not the new normal," says OPAL organizer Jared Franz. "The reason they cut service and raised fares is that it's the easy thing to do. There's not enough resistance."

It's entirely likely that TriMet is unnecessarily preparing for a worst-case-scenario.

Late this spring, TriMet's board approved $12 million in cuts and revenue-raising measures, based on a handful of assumptions: 1) Its payroll tax revenue would come in $3 million lower than needed, 2) $4 million would be lost because of anticipated cuts to federal transit funding, and 3) TriMet's impasse with its union over lush healthcare benefits could eat up $5-10 million. But then, over the summer, the union fight was resolved in TriMet's favor, and the feds passed a transportation bill without a $4 million cut (though the money hasn't been distributed yet). As for the payroll tax, for the past two years TriMet underestimated the amount of money that would come in from the tax—low-balling the number by $7.7 million in 2011 and an additional $15.8 million in 2012.

TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch says TriMet is sticking with its budget cuts for the time being, in part because that $4 million from the feds probably won't come down the pipeline until spring at the earliest. "As we see the economy bounce up and down, we are closely monitoring the revenues," Fetsch says via email. If the agency winds up with extra cash, it will go to meeting ongoing obligations like fuel costs, and rising benefit and retirement costs. "Then when there are sustainable funds available, we would look to restore service," notes Fetsch.

But even if TriMet was right in tightening its belt to the extreme, OPAL drew up an "alternative budget" that would have closed the $12 million budget gap without cutting services so deeply. Among OPAL's suggestions are that TriMet scrap a $3 million donation to the Portland Streetcar, start charging for parking at Park & Ride lots, and increase its rainy day fund only by $5 million, rather than the $10 million it has planned to set aside

Meanwhile, the Mercury has learned that OPAL is looking into whether the service cuts and fare increase violate federal civil rights law. Under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, public transit agencies are banned from discriminating against low-income and minority groups.

The issue here is who's hurt the most by the hike to a $2.50 flat fare.

According to TriMet's demographic data, low-income and minority riders were more likely to purchase two-zone tickets than more expensive all-zone tickets. Last week, the cost of two-zone fares went up 19 percent (from $2.10 to $2.50), whereas the jump to $2.50 was only a 4.2 percent increase for riders who paid cash for all-zone tickets—a group less likely to be low-income and more likely to be white.

TriMet's federally required report on the impact of its fare increase found the increase of cash fares would have a "possible" disparate impact on low-income and minority riders.

The report also repeatedly notes that the steepest increase—a 23.5 percent fare jump—hits people who buy two-zone monthly passes (not people who pay with cash), a group that's wealthier and whiter than the usual cash ticket buyers.

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In response, TriMet says it took several steps to soften the blow of controversial moves like ending the Free Rail Zone, including distributing $1 million in discount tickets to Portland nonprofits, not increasing the cost of fares for senior citizens, and nixing its initial plan to make transit tickets good only one-way. The result is that the reduced service and increased fares likely don't violate civil rights law. But that distinction might not make a big difference to squeezed riders like Coleman, the funeral-leader.

Said Coleman, high-stepping down the bus mall: "We're going to have to schedule everything tighter. Shopping, entertainment, everything."

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