A year and a half after public outcry quashed TriMet's plan to limit the hours of Fareless Square, the newest proposal to eliminate the free downtown bus service has received much less opposition.
TriMet's board is set to consider on Aug. 12 killing the 34-year-old Fareless Square service for buses while retaining free rides in the square for light rail and streetcars. The transit agency got 553 comments in emails and letters regarding the proposal.
More than half—53 percent—supported the idea, which would take effect in January. And only 20 percent opposed the change, with the remaining 27 percent suggesting different boundaries, reduced rates or a broader elimination of Fareless Square that would kill free rides on MAX.
When TriMet proposed at the end of 2007 to limit the schedule of Fareless Square service for buses and light rail after a spate of highly publicized attacks on riders, the numbers were 66 percent opposed, 30 percent in favor and 4 percent backing some other option.
TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch says much has changed since that earlier proposal, including the upcoming addition of more rail lines through downtown for people to ride free.
"Thirty-four years ago [when Fareless Square started], it was a different system. There was no light rail or streetcar system," Fetsch says. "I think the public sees that it makes sense."
The Portland Business Alliance, many of whose 1,400 members hold a large stake in downtown transit, is among the groups who think a rail-only Fareless Squares makes sense once the Green Line begins service Sept. 12.
Not everybody agrees.
The Transit Riders Union says it has gathered more than 1,000 signatures of opponents to present at the Aug. 12 meeting. The group plans to picket the meeting and get public figures to take a stand at a news conference the day before.
"This just continues the trend of privatization and the cutting back on public service," says group president Lew Church. "Fareless Square is important on so many levels, from transit equity to supporting sustainability, and not just rhetorically."
John Charles, president of the free-market Cascade Policy Institute, takes a different approach. He'd like all of Fareless Square eliminated.
"Not charging [in Fareless Square] accounts for $2.7 to $3.3 million in lost revenue a year, and TriMet acts like this isn't important," Charles says. "Someone is paying for it."
A majority of TriMet's operating budget—about $200 million—comes from a tax on employers within TriMet's service area.
"If people think it's worth something, make them pay for it," Charles says of charging riders in Fareless Square. "TriMet is sending a message that its service is worthless. Not even worth a penny. What does that say?"
Church calls this a straw-man argument.
"Why don't we charge for K-12 education, then?" Church says. "People in democracies shouldn't have to pay to participate in society."
The TriMet board meeting takes place at 9 am Wednesday, Aug. 12, at the Portland Building, Room C, 1120 SW 5th Ave.
This week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority stop collecting fares to help speed up notoriously slow crosstown buses. Bloomberg said that any revenue loss would probably be offset by reduced operating costs from fewer buses, thanks to reductions in travel times.