Two-Tiered Transit

As most readers of this blog know, I have been a car-free, dedicated transit user for over a decade, something that to the outside observer ought to be easy and natural in Portland, America’s supposed sustainability Mecca.  The truth, unfortunately, is a little more complicated in this new era of austerity.  Like all public amenities, mass transit is currently under attack nationally as some sort of commie/UN plot, but here we are seemingly in flush times: our tourist-friendly streetcar will soon cross the Broadway bridge to the East side, and our wildly successful MAX light rail is being expanded to reach the teabagger-rich and ungrateful working-class suburb of Milwaukie, complete with America’s first modern car-free bridge to get there. (above)

All of this plays well with the national media, as transit advocates and envious politicians from around the country troop into town to dutifully marvel at the burgeoning expansion of the system that began in the 1970′s with the stopping of the proposed Mt. Hood Freeway in favor of light rail, which opened its first line to Gresham in 1986, and beat New York (!) in getting a train to the airport 25 years later.  Unfortunately, the opening of the Red Line, which turned a $50 cab ride to the airport into a $2.40 train trip for Portlanders and suburbanites alike, opened on September 10, 2001, that inconvenient date a fateful harbinger of things to come.

Nonetheless, back in 2007, Trimet was so emboldened by rapturous outside accolades, rapidly increasing ridership, a relentlessly gentrifying central city, and well-deserved international acclaim, that it made the bold move of drastically improving all of its services.  Its most popular bus lines were converted to “Frequent Service,” meaning that buses ran as little as seven minutes apart, and frequency was increased on even the less busy lines.  As you might expect, ridership skyrocketed, and a new “Transit Tracker” app was instituted, allowing the new and growing smartphone-equipped ridership to track arrivals in real time at every stop.  Even Republican Senator Gordon Smith (thankfully replaced in 2008 by the liberal icon Jeff Merkley) was eager to push through federal funding for MAX expansion even during the darkest of the Bush years.

Things started to head for the crapper when the rising gas prices of 2008 led Trimet to make disastrous future bets on fuel, saddling it with ruinous expenses long after prices collapsed in the recession, and the cuts began.  By this time, Trimet’s board, once a bastion of populist hippies, had become a peanut gallery of corporatists dedicated to the appearance, if not the reality, of a mass transit agency, dependent on federal financing and indifferent to the plights of its non-affluent users.  As you might expect, these business-friendly martinets made, and continue to make, a lot of awful decisions to cope with their newfound penury.

In every case, middle and upper class occasional users of MAX and the streetcar were favored over those pesky but reliable downscale bus riders:  the system remained FREE throughout downtown and the inner East side, even as fares were raised for everyone else, and “frequent service” became decidedly less, well, frequent.  As the recession continued, the transit union, with its relatively lush wages and benefits, was loudly and explicitly blamed for the agency’s budget woes caused mostly by its own forays into bankster-ish commodity futures trading and expansionary profligacy.

Worse, riders were serially punished with higher fares, declining service, and institutional indifference; people from affluent suburbs saved a couple twenties taking MAX to the airport, while daily riders had to cough up another dime or quarter for every slow and miserable trip on an increasingly shabby and crowded bus.

Now, Trimet has produced a budget for next year that amounts to, among other things, an explicit abandonment of its onetime mission, which will, by its own calculation, effectively price out 1.1 MILLION of its annual users.  Fares will be single-use only, eliminating the old perk of taking a fast trip someplace and riding home on the same fare within the previous two-hour limit; said fare will increase from $2.10 to $2.50.  Already too expensive monthly passes will top $100, a price worthy of New York.  Whole lines will not just be reduced as before to lengthy gaps, but dropped entirely.  Free bus passes for high school students will be eliminated, and cheaper fares for shorter rides will rise to the standard rate.  Two miles, twenty miles, it’s all the same price.  Perhaps the poor won’t be so danged fat, because they’ll have to walk a lot more.

When Trimet’s fancy new bridge is dedicated, I doubt anyone will be talking about these inconvenient truths.