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TriMet feels its own squeeze

With fares up and service down, agency must proceed with caution to keep riders from returning to cars


In 2003, Portland’s regional mass transit agency, TriMet, printed up paperweights and T-shirts, each bearing a chart that showed how the agency’s light-rail system could branch out over the next two decades.

The blue line would extend from Forest Grove in the west to Mt. Hood Community College in the east. The yellow line would stretch from Tigard to Vancouver, Wash. An orange line would branch out to Milwaukie, and the green line would loop all the way to Oregon City.

To transit advocates, such a system would seem to represent the best of all worlds a comprehensive, interconnected series of light-rail lines that would serve the region’s needs for decades. The trouble is, TriMet does not have the money to build it all and even fans of the agency are increasingly questioning whether it has the money to operate the system it has now.

Though fares are up, they still haven’t kept pace with rising costs so bus and train service has been cut back. Existing trains and buses are becoming increasingly jammed at rush hours and, combined with recent fare increases, may be close to pushing some riders back into their cars.

City Commissioner Sam Adams, who oversees the Office of Transportation, calls the trend on downtown transit commuters “alarming.” And Hillsboro Mayor Tom Hughes says that if TriMet bus and train crowding continues, it “is going to put us all out (driving) on the roads which is not a trend we want.”

More than many government agencies, TriMet and its progress have tangible, visible impact on most Portlanders even for those who don’t use mass transit. By keeping some drivers off the road, the agency makes it easier for others to get around, regardless of whether it’s by car, delivery truck, scooter or bicycle.

While TriMet remains a nationally renowned transit agency, many signs point to a system under strain. Even as the region keeps growing, TriMet ridership seems to have pretty much flatlined despite gasoline prices surging past $3 a gallon.

TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen says the agency he’s run for more than seven years remains on track. “Overall it seems to me that we are still seeing (growth),” he says, albeit “not the levels of growth we’ve had but I think there are still untapped markets.”

Mass-transit fans and urban planning advocates have long thought that Portlanders would be less vulnerable to rising gas prices thanks to the city’s transit-friendly nature. But what if TriMet can’t keep pace with the demand?

Disturbing trends noted

At a TriMet board meeting in February, Hansen focused on the good news the imminent spread of light rail downtown thanks to the transit mall revamp on Fifth and Sixth avenues. As is customary, he also presented the latest report on ridership. It showed monthly totals from January that were down from the year before a drop that Hansen reassured his board was probably due to heavy rains that month.

Any board member who took the time to read the report, however, found a more pessimistic explanation.

“January represents the third consecutive month of declining weekly boardings,” wrote TriMet staffer Nancy Jarigese in a cover letter that summarized the report. “It appears that the combined effects of service cuts and fare increases are beginning to depress ridership.”

Since then, the heavier-than-usual rains of January have gone away, but TriMet’s ridership numbers have not improved much. In February, ridership was slightly down from February 2005; ditto for March. In April, the numbers were up from the year before by only 0.3 percent. Not until May did TriMet’s overall ridership pick up, according to the agency’s preliminary statistics.

How could ridership be flat while crowding is up? Simple: because trains and buses are spending less time moving passengers. In the 12-month period ending in April, TriMet reduced hours in which buses and trains were in service by 4 percent over the year before, according to its April ridership report.

Meanwhile, to pay for rising fuel costs, TriMet’s fares have been going up. After typically raising fares just 5 cents a year, TriMet raised its fares three times between last April and January, for a total of 25 cents. Another nickel fare increase has been proposed, and still another will kick in in September if diesel prices rise further.

The situation has sparked concern among some transit advocates. On the local transit blog called Portlandtransport.com, architect Nathan Koren recently expressed concerns of a downward spiral, saying that “if ridership has actually gone down despite the rise in gas prices, then that is a very bad sign indeed. It means that TriMet fares are now on the wrong side of the price-demand curve, which is a very bad place to be. It’s a negative feedback loop. This means that if TriMet raises fares further, the resulting fall in ridership (could) offset any increase in revenue.

“With gas prices the way they have been, they should be having a windfall,” Koren told the Portland Tribune.

Hansen, however, rejects the argument that TriMet’s fare increases could lead to a downward spiral. He says that history has shown that ridership is fairly “inelastic,” meaning it is not affected by fare increases.

Passengers pack it in

So what else could be going on? One explanation is increased crowding on TriMet trains and buses. As its costs have gone up, the agency has tried to cope by shifting service to where it is most needed. This means more crowding on other lines.

According to an analysis by the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates, between the fall of 2004 and fall of 2005, the average number of passengers on a train headed west at Goose Hollow in the peak hour of 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. jumped from 154 to 191 passengers. With 128 seats split between the two cars of the typical light-rail train, that means more than 60 passengers are standing. In March, a columnist for The Oregonian’s Metro West Neighbors section, Jerry Boone, recounted complaints from passengers distressed by increased crowding even to the point that one was considering going back to his automobile.

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