Who Gets TriMet's $1 Million Fund for Low-Income Riders?

Buried under the tide of fare increases and service cuts in the budget TriMet passed yesterday is a sliver of good news for the transit agency's poorest riders.

Before approving a budget designed to fill a $12 million shortfall, TriMet's board of directors accepted an amendment from Southeast Portland board member Consuelo Saragoza to dedicate $1 million to a program designed to blunt the impact of fare increases on low-income riders.

The $1 million will be pulled out of the $20 million TriMet has set aside as a contingency fund—money the agency is holding in case it loses arbitration over benefits with its employee union.

But who gets the $1 million?

The money is additional funding for an existing program that gives discount fares—tickets and passes—to nonprofits, some of which work with the Department of Human Services. These groups, including Central City Concern and Cascadia Mental Health, then distribute these fares to their clients.

TriMet had already budgeted a $300,000 expansion of this program for next year, but Saragoza said agencies told her that wasn't nearly enough.

A swath of new groups are now likely to get receive not only discounted fares, but participate in a mini-grant program TriMet is still designing.

"There is not a full plan at this point," says Johnell Bell, TriMet's director of diversity and transit equity. "We are going to get our stakeholders together and see how we can get the biggest bang for our buck. How do we want to design this to be really meaningful?"

Those stakeholders include low-income and minority groups that don't currently get anything from TriMet: Latino Network, the Urban League, Native American Youth Family Center, and Self Enhancement, Inc.

OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon—the bus riders' union that spearheaded the protest of TriMet's fare hike—has proclaimed the mitigation fund a victory.

(Update, 4:15 pm: TriMet says OPAL wouldn't qualify for any discounts under current policy, since it's an advocacy organization, not a social services group.)

OPAL president Jonathan Ostar says the mitigation fund is welcome, but not the best plan.

"Depending on your perspective, a million dollars is a ton of money or absolutely nothing," Ostar tells WW. "We don't think it's the most efficient way. We think the most efficient way is to keep tickets lower for everybody."

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