Everybody knows the cost of gas and oil has gone up enormously. That's no different for TriMet, which runs 643 buses and will use 6 million gallons of diesel fuel this year. When they forecast gas prices in their 2007 budget, TriMet figured on $2.31 a gallon. Last week, they were paying $4.
So it's not surprising that the transit agency is increasing fares by 14%. But is it the right thing to do?
The Oregonian seems to think so. An editorial in today's paper says the agency is "headed down the right road with its plan to raise transit ticket prices." Their argument was basically that the agency will be in massive debt if they don't. The editors also cite the other source of TriMet's funding, a payrolll tax levied on employers, which actually accounts for 57% of the transit agency's budget. "But the Oregon legislature has long since capped the agency's payroll tax rate, so here in the short term fare increase looks like the only answer."
Am I the only one thinking this just isn't a good enough justification?
In a time when America is choking on the cost of petroleum, TriMet is creating a financial deterrent to taking the bus. For people like me who live close in and can walk or bike places, it doesn't matter much. But there are scores of thousands of commuters who each day face the decision of whether to get in their car and have an easier, faster time of it, or to get on the bus and get there much slower with a full load of passengers, some of whom don't shower regularly or take manners hints from Heloise.
Maybe the Oregonian editors are correct that there's no other short-term solution for TriMet than an appalling counter-intuitive fare increase that will hit the poorest Portlanders first. But instead of acting as apologist for this disappointing move, I'd rather see the paper advocate for a new funding mechanism. After all, affordable transit, to put it in the paper's language, is 'How We Live'. (Also known as 'Living'.)
Several years ago I was having my taxes done when the H&R Block accountant pointed out the payroll tax I was paying, which was probably about $50. Since about half of the agency's funding comes from this tax, he argued, If TriMet would double the fee, everybody in the city could ride buses for free.
I'm not necessarily suggesting we should double the employer tax. There's probably a more equitable way to raise those funds. But at the fare box on buses and trains shouldn't be the way. Is the Portland metro area really so impotent in its ability to properly fund TriMet that it has to raise prices to the level where it doesn't make sense for individuals to take the bus anymore? How about a city gas tax? A fee levied on registration for automobiles selling above $25,000?
If Portland is really the greenest city in America, we can do better than pricing our prized mass transit system out of the range of fair fares.