This July, TriMet debuted new fare machines on its buses—replacing driver-issued newsprint transfers with a 2-hour, computer-printed fare.
The regional transit agency celebrated the new fare printers as the end of confusion caused by transfers torn off and punched by drivers, and the start of a consistent system for single-fare riders.
Members of the local bus rider's union say the change did something else: It cut the value of a weekend bus transfer by an hour.
And organizers with Bus Riders Unite say that amounts to a quiet fare hike for TriMet's poorest riders in East Portland, who are no longer able to travel downtown and back on a single $2.50 bus transfer.
"They're stealing our precious time," says Nicole Johnson, youth organizer for OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, which runs Bus Riders Unite.
Johnson lives on Southeast 174th Avenue and Powell Boulevard—and says the change has doubled her transportation costs for weekend errands to $5, the same cost as a day pass.
"They're taking money out of our pockets," she says, "when they should be giving it back."
Here's the crux of the complaint: TriMet code says that transfers manually issued by drivers are "valid for one hour past the scheduled end of the trip time for the bus on weekdays, two hours on weekends."
That means weekend riders' transfers were good for 2 hours after they arrived at their stop, even if that trip took a long time. Riders starting a long distance from their destination—traveling from East Portland to downtown, say—would get a transfer that lasted as long as 3 hours from the time it was issued.
But the new printed transfers are good for just 2 hours from the moment they are issued, on weekdays and weekends.
Bus Riders Unite organizers say TriMet customers at the edge of the city now find their transfers have expired before they get downtown—giving them no time for a return trip.
"There's a lot of folks who are riding buses on the weekends, and their fares can run out on the second leg of their trips," says OPAL associate director Vivian Satterfield. "Their transfers are actually being cut, without any public notice."
TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch says that a transfer cannot run out while a rider is on a bus—it's good to the end of the trip. She also says the transit agency made plenty of announcements the new machines would deliver a standard 2-hour transfer.
"There had always been variability with manual-issued transfers," Fetsch says. "The tear-off transfers were not precise in showing the valid time of the transfer and some riders got more or less time than the designated two hours. The ticket printer equalized all fares for all riders across all modes."
Bus Riders Unite is seizing on the issue of reduced weekend transfer time as leverage in its nearly three-year campaign to make bus transfers valid for three hours after purchase, or all night after 7 pm.
Organizers say they don't think TriMet intended to penalize riders at the edge of the metro area.
"They just didn't think it through," says Satterfield. "But now that they know about it, they have a responsibility."
TriMet released figures this week showing ridership fell by 5 percent this summer after fare hikes and decreased service last fall. (Weekend ridership numbers, however, did not decrease last quarter.)
But Fetsch says TriMet is not considering changing the weekend transfer rules.
"The Board expressed its priority to restore Frequent Service [buses], as that benefits all riders, but especially low-income and transit dependent riders," Fetsch says. "At this point, we are not considering any measures that would decrease continuing revenues."