TriMet Life

I rode for three days and 242 miles on public transit. Here's who I met.

The No. 6 bus is doing just fine until the wheelchairs show up.

A soaking Tuesday has cleared into afternoon blue skies. The southbound No. 6 leaves Jantzen Beach at 3:22 pm, so empty that passengers have rows to themselves.

But at Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Killingsworth Street—the busiest stop on the route, where it intersects with the packed 72 line—an old man in a wheelchair, an oxygen tube running below his nose, waits for a lift. A woman in the priority-seating area has to move, and her handcart snags on the pink and purple pants chains worn by a huge kid in a "Tapout" ball cap. Another 15 people wait to board. The stop takes five minutes. 

At the next stop, another wheelchair. This one is ridden by an obese woman with an orange flower in her hair and a soda in her hand. The wheelchairs perform a spastic motorized ballet as they create a traffic jam inside the bus.

"Man," someone in the back laughs, "that is messed up."

The woman with the handcart shakes her head. She's been working 10 days straight and commutes on the bus, three hours a day. She lives in Camas, Wash., out in the country.

"That sounds lovely," says another woman, with sunglasses and a hint of whiskers. "Except for the transportation issues."

"Transportation issues is right," the woman with the cart says as she gets off the bus.

I've been riding TriMet for three consecutive days. I've ridden for 242 miles on an essentially nonstop journey on 21 trains and 26 buses, from the Buckhorn Family Restaurant in Troutdale to Pacific University in Forest Grove, and from the lottery casinos in Jantzen Beach to the public library in Tualatin.

This transit agency is in deep trouble, and I want to understand what's at stake as TriMet, in an effort to survive, hikes fares, cuts service and makes it harder for hundreds of thousands of people to use its trains and buses. I hopped on the bus and MAX trains to see what I might discover.

Bleary from my journey, still wondering what to make of it all, I watch the woman with the cart as the bus pulls away. "It sounds like a tough commute for her," I say.

The woman with the whiskers nods. "I'm not going to complain," she says. "We have one of the three best transit systems in the country. People come from all over the world to study it."

It's easy to hate the bus.

If you're driving a car, there always seems to be a bus slowing you down as you race to work. They cough out pollutants and grind down our roads. And if you're on one, they can be noisy and smelly—even demeaning. And soon, because of TriMet, more expensive than ever to ride.

But TriMet—covering Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties—over the years has been ranked among the top transit agencies in the nation. 

The buses arrive mostly when they are supposed to—and now an elegant iPhone app called PDXBus tells how TriMet can get us from one place to another, as if building a path right before our feet.

TriMet is available to all, including the poorest and most dependent people, linking places otherwise abandoned, offering a bridge for the isolated. On TriMet, you see more colors and hear more languages than anywhere else in the city. The bus and train do not discriminate.

But TriMet has issues.

The transit agency is projected to spend $458 million next year—$12 million more than it will have. TriMet blames the deficit on lower-than-expected receipts from its tax on employer payrolls, and federal funding cuts.

TriMet's board—appointed by the governor—is looking at some of the most dramatic changes in years to help the agency make up the shortfall.

Under the proposal now before the board, TriMet would do away with its three-zone system Sept. 1 and create a flat, two-hour fare of $2.50—that's 40 cents more than a two-zone, two-hour ticket now. 

That same day, TriMet would end what's left of the old Fareless Square—a stretch from downtown, through Old Town and across the Willamette River to the Lloyd District—where riders can ride MAX trains for free.

It's basing its budgets on models that show fewer riders, but an $8.7 million increase in revenue from increasing fares and fining freeloaders.

But TriMet acknowledges that eliminating the fareless zone and hiking the cost of a ticket raises barriers for many people. An estimated 1.8 million rides a year will no longer be taken on the agency's buses or trains.

Even if the plan works, TriMet still faces a financial meltdown.

A 2010 audit showed the agency was $816 million short of meeting its long-term obligations to its current and future retirees, thanks largely to a 1994 transit union workers contract that guarantees extensive health-care coverage to retired drivers. The Oregonian recently noted these obligations are piling up. TriMet tells WW the agency would need to set aside $75 million a year for the next 30 years to close the gap. 

The agency has for years cut bus lines and reduced service on others—a downward spiral that the agency won't be able to reverse any time soon, in the opinion of many.

"Honestly, these fare hikes are peanuts compared to the crisis TriMet is currently headed for," says Michael Andersen, editor of monthly transportation magazine Portland Afoot. "Almost every government agency has failed to save for retiree medical benefits, but TriMet's problem breaks the chart."

Andersen says TriMet's history makes these changes even more painful. "TriMet has been a really, really good system for 20 years," he says. "Arguably, it's been better than Portland can actually afford. But the upside of this is that it created a city full of people who feel entitled to excellent transit service."

I've been thinking about how much the city depends on TriMet. We are inextricably linked with it—not just connected by it, but bound to it. 

The agency’s slogan is the strangely passive “See where it takes you.” 

So I have—but not to discover a destination alone. What I want to know is, who's taking it? Who needs it most? And where do they want to go?

I begin my journey Sunday at the Goose Hollow station, and ride the MAX Red Line east two stops to Jeld-Wen Field. 

This is where Gary Radford is so busy issuing citations to Portland Timbers fans who didn't pay their fares he almost doesn't notice the kid sneaking on the train.

Before each Timbers game, TriMet sets up what amounts to a corral around the MAX stops at the stadium. Fans get off the train into an area fenced by metal barricades. Fare inspectors won't let fans out until they show they've paid for their ride.

As TriMet scrapes for money, the agency has ended its leniency to fare dodgers. Tough enforcement has already brought in $267,000 in the past nine months—over $100,000 more than the previous year. 

The scene at the Timbers game has the feel of a sting, even though fans have been faced with the barriers all season. 

TriMet isn't just trying to scrape in a few extra coins. It wants to change, by force, an entire mentality of taking the system for granted. It has decided education doesn't work. Punishment works.

When people think they can get away without paying, the tougher enforcement adds a sense of justice to the system. A ticket for fare jumping—as Timbers fans are learning—runs $175. And violators are also required to buy a return ticket at a booth by the barricade gate.

Radford—who has just written a citation to a sheepish family of four—says he's sick of TriMet employees getting blamed for the agency's woes.

Radford believes strongly in paying your bills, immediately and completely. He thinks passengers aren't doing that. He thinks the agency itself isn't doing that. He says TriMet employees are doing their part. It's somebody else's turn to pay.

"I've been here since God was a child," he says. "They're trying to cut us out of a piece of the pie. People down here are spoiled because they don't know how good this is. Go down to Phoenix and try to ride transit. You'll dehydrate and die in a shelter waiting for a bus."

He spots movement at the far end of the stop.

"Larry!" he yells to another fare inspector. "Guy in the red jacket! Larry! Getting back on the train!"

Radford runs on the MAX and emerges with a kid, wearing a South Carolina Gamecocks pullover, who had snuck under the metal gates and hopped on the train.

"You think we can't see you?" Radford shouts. "You think we're stupid?"

The kid's name is Harrison. He's 15. The faces on TriMet are often young. The agency's studies show that 16 percent of riders are under 25. Most don't try to duck fares, but kids are what people complain most about as I ride the rails. The kids on the MAX are disrespectful, other riders say. They're rude and vulgar. They don't give a damn about the rules, and they make other people feel vulnerable and afraid. But in my long ride, I rarely saw any of that. 

And Harrison doesn't look tough or dangerous. As the national anthem begins to play in the stadium, he looks like he is going to cry.

"Harrison, why do you think that's acceptable behavior?" Radford asks more softly.

"I don't," Harrison whispers. "I'm sorry."

Radford writes Harrison a 30-day exclusion from TriMet but lets him take the MAX home.

"I cut that guy all kinds of slack," Radford tells a fellow employee, Julie Monroe, who runs the return-ticket booth. "He got real humble real fast."

"We were all 15 once," Monroe says.

"We were all 15 once," Radford echoes. "I was 15—43 years ago."

TriMet both frees and cages people. And the cage is often the clock. 

The Gresham Transit Center is not the last stop east on the MAX Blue Line, but it's the final place you can get off to transfer to a bus. A young woman named Rae has just missed a line 9 bus by one minute. Rae, with close-cropped hair and wearing a black leather jacket, is trying to get to her job at an assisted-living facility. She lights a cigarette, caught in what's an unavoidable trap of mass transit—the frustrating time kill between the buses.

Living Room

Living Room has become notorious as a local party spot for teenagers and twentysomethings. It's 10:30 on Sunday night, and a tall, thinly bearded man with a Chicago White Sox cap and heavy plastic earrings in his stretched earlobes is freestyling hip-hop rhymes.

"If we stay here for more than five minutes, they'll throw us out of here, throw us in jail," says the rapper, whose name is Anthony. 

"They'll toss you to the wind, man," says Brandon, a long-haired blond whose jeans are barely supported at his hips by a belt with a huge gold buckle. He's sitting on the couch.

Public transit exerts a magnetic pull for people on the fringes of society. It represents motion and escape and possibility—even if they're not taking the opportunity. That may explain why young people who aggressively project despair so often hang out on TriMet. It offers direction and movement. It offers hope.

Anthony goes to Mt. Hood Community College, and recently began interning with a tattoo artist. Two nights ago, he got drunk with his mentor and got his first tattoo. He rolls up his sleeve to reveal a purple cartoon of a turd, carefully detailed with splat marks, stink lines and two flies.

"He was like, 'What do you want?'" Anthony recalls. "I was like, 'A pile of poo.' So I got a tattoo of a pile of dookie on my arm. For my girlfriend."

"That's love," Brandon says.

Part of the TriMet experience is being thrown together with strangers. Rae and the young men are around the same age, but are riding different paths. 

She watches the men distractedly until AJ, a bald kid on a lowrider bicycle, asks her for a smoke. "I just got bitched out by my girlfriend for handing out cigarettes," she says. "Can't do it anymore."

Rae keeps checking the time on her phone. She calls her boss and explains that she missed her bus; the long silence on her end says she's getting lectured. She was due at work eight minutes ago.

She hangs up. "Oh," she says, "the glory of public transit."

Although I've seen few open confrontations during my trip, I've always felt the low-level threat that anyone could, at any time, decide they want to make me a target of mockery or menace. At the risk of sounding oversensitive, few times on TriMet have I felt completely safe.

In my three days on TriMet, I witness no crime except fare jumping. It's not that I haven't tried to find it: I loitered for over an hour Sunday night at the Gateway Transit Center, which TriMet lists as by far the most dangerous over the past four years, with an average of 68 reported crimes annually.

But it's on Monday afternoon that I see two people making some kind of deal.

I've reached the No. 72 bus, which runs the length of 82nd Avenue south to Clackamas Town Center.

The No. 72 is known colloquially as "the Jerry Springer" because it's infamous for a motley collection of passengers. Today there's the wheelchair-bound man with gold-plated recording-studio headphones and oversized neon-green plastic glasses, like the ones you buy at a theme park. There's the woman holding a helplessly shivering pug named Leah. And there's the woman running her finger along a laminated card with a prayer to St. Anthony.

Around Southeast Foster Road, a woman in her 20s gets on. She has a pink plaid purse, white bedazzled sunglasses, bubblegum lipstick, pink pajama pants and a white sweatshirt emblazoned with "LOVE" across her chest.

She gives an enthusiastic greeting to man in his 60s, with thinning hair parted down the middle, a wispy mustache and two hearing aids. 

“Guess I’m getting in the back!” she says to him. “Back party!” 

They don't speak to each other for about 20 blocks, until the bus crosses the Clackamas County line and stops at Southeast Otty Road.

The man gets off the bus—then a second later steps back on and gives the girl in pink a curt nod.

"Yeah?" he asks.

She shrugs, gives a closed smile, and follows him toward the Town & Country RV Park.

People on the bus and train tend to share. I overhear many sad stories. It's like logging onto a Facebook page where every status update tells of disaster. Some of them are voiced directly to me, usually as a prelude to asking for money. (Or a cigarette. Or a bus transfer.) But I also overhear snippets of woe, because many of the people riding the lines are desperate and dependent, and there's nothing they can do but talk about it while they travel to the next place.

Like the teenage girl on the 57 line west of Hillsboro, telling a former high-school classmate that she no longer goes to school, not after her dad went to jail. "Look at my hand, dude," she says. "I got a piece of glass in it and I can't get it out. It hurts like crazy."

And the young man with headphones sitting at the Washington Square Transit Center, explaining how he got kicked off a bus for using profanity. "She said if I didn't get off, she would call the cops," he says. "So of course I had to spit on the bitch."

Or like the chain-smoking man with piercing blue eyes waiting at the 82nd Avenue MAX station for the pay phone to ring. He carries clothes in a Tillamook Cheese Factory shopping bag and says he lived in Europe for 23 years. "My only mistake," he says, "was coming back home."

But mostly I hear people talking about work. Buses and trains serve as a connection to their jobs—to their future.

On the 9:33 pm Red Line pulling out of Portland International Airport, I meet Shanda and Ashley, who both work at the airport's Capers Cafe et Le Bar. Shanda, 33, is a bartender who carries the night's receipts in a tin Night of the Living Dead lunchbox. She and Ashley, a dishwasher, are single moms.

Ashley, 26, says riding MAX every day saves her $500 a month in gas. "This the best transportation anywhere," she says.

Shortly before midnight, on the last No. 6 bus from Jantzen Beach, I meet Giovanni, who packs 10 pallets a day of Doritos, Fritos and Cheetos at DePaul Industries. "Bus fare is going up, up, up," he says. "We have to spend like $5 a day, just to get to work."

I ride until nearly 1 am, and six hours later I hop on a MAX Blue Line toward Hillsboro. The train—taking commuters to Intel, Nike and other corporations west of Portland—slips into the Robertson Tunnel beneath the West Hills.

The train is library quiet. Most of the commuters—including many in spandex, their bikes hanging nearby—read books. One man has a Kindle, but at least half a dozen are absorbed by hardcovers: The Catcher in the Rye, To Hell on a Fast Horse, Questions by the Sages. And one man unwraps a paperback edition of The Charterhouse of Parma from a protective cloth.

I ride from Beaverton to Tualatin and back into Old Town. At noon, on the MAX Red Line rolling east over the Willamette River, I meet a 22-year-old man named Travis, a security guard heading home to Gresham after a 12-hour shift at the Rose Festival carnival rides, then under construction.

He tells me it's the first job he's had that he's proud of. But the graveyard shift is lonely. "You want to cry at nights," he says.

My journey shows me how dependent so many people are on such a basic system—and how tenuous the links are. The transit agency's services offer tangible opportunity and hope to every person that lives within its reach. If the agency fails, we are essentially quitting on our belief that everyone gets the same shot to change their lives. The American dream is only as near as the next bus.

It's around 2 pm on Tuesday when I meet Mariya.

She's eating a slice of 7-Eleven pizza at a covered shelter at the intersection of Northeast 82nd Avenue and Sandy Boulevard. She's wearing a gold necklace with a Turkish emblem above a black-and-blue striped dress. She doesn't say much, until she hears me trying to make conversation with two elderly Vietnamese women, one of whom carries two bananas.

"I speak six languages," she tells me.

Mariya speaks English, Turkish, Russian, Azerbaijani, Tatar and Ukrainian. She was born in Uzbekistan, and arrived in the U.S. as a refugee from Russia in 2004.

She takes the 12 and 72 buses on Tuesdays and Thursdays to attend nursing classes at Portland Community College's Southeast campus. Now she's heading home to play with her 18-month-old daughter, Naira.

"I have so many more opportunities here," she says after we board the No. 12 heading east. "In America, everyone is equal. Everybody gets a chance."

Mariya and I travel northeast along Sandy Boulevard—out past the Grotto, beyond the 14300 block of Sandy where the sidewalk ends in a field of upturned mud.

A black kid in a yellow construction company ball cap laughs and makes a "call me" hand gesture at a girl. A Latino man stares out the window. An old white man's trucker hat features a grizzly bear with a rainbow shooting out its mouth.

Outside it's pouring, and the bus' blue floor glistens from the tread of wet shoes.

“No one’s separate here,” Mariya says. “That’s why I like it.” 

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