TriMet is zooming ahead with plans to close a $12 million budget gap for next year by raising ticket prices, cutting bus service and ending the free-rail zone. The transit agency's board is set to approve the $458 million budget for 2013 on June 13.

While TriMet has heard a lot of complaints about its plan, the agency hasn't seen a serious alternative. Until now. 

A neighborhood organizing group that's become the city's de facto bus riders' union is offering a plan to preserve current bus service and blunt fare hikes. The group, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, says its alternative budget plan would increase ridership by 300,000 trips next year. (OPAL is an acronym for "Organizing People, Activating Leaders.")

In comparison, TriMet projects that its proposed budget could mean riders would make 1.1 million fewer trips next year—in large part because of the proposed fare increase.

TriMet wants to end its three-zone fare system for a flat $2.50 ticket; the agency now charges $2.10 for a two-zone fare. OPAL proposes keeping the two-zone fare but raising it to $2.25.

The transit agency turned aside a previous version of OPAL's proposal last month, though the agency did back off its plan to ban round trips on a single fare based on OPAL's recommendation. But the activists presented a revised budget to the TriMet board June 4, based largely on the transit agency's own projections and numbers.

OPAL executive director Jonathan Ostar says if TriMet pushes its budget through without considering an alternative, it can expect outrage among its ridership. "You're going to see a lot of people calling for a change," he says. "We're really worried about them cannibalizing the system."

OPAL's alternative budget closes only $11 million of the $12 million gap. Its plan includes slashing the agency's commitment to the Portland Streetcar and charging fees at park-and-ride lots, which it says are used by public transit's most affluent riders.

The group says TriMet can also save money by reducing the contingency fund the agency holds to cover unexpected costs from pending arbitration with its union. TriMet wants a $20 million contingency; OPAL suggests $15 million.

"Not many people on the street have the luxury of their own rainy-day fund," says Ostar. "There's a human element that's missing from [TriMet's] analysis."

OPAL plans to make its case at the June 13 board meeting, bringing a squadron of bus riders to testify.

TriMet says it will listen to OPAL's proposal. Spokeswoman Mary Fetsch says cutting the contingency fund "is not best practices," and that the agency is committed under a contract to its Streetcar payment. But she says TriMet is studying the park-and-ride fees. 

“There’s room for discussion,” Fetsch says.