The death of Portland's Fareless Square will have consequences

Mason Walker

Mason Walker, Sustainable Business Oregon

For 37 years Portlanders enjoyed free public transit rides in and around the city's downtown core.

That run ended this month as the Free Rail Zone fell victim to projected budget shortfalls.

TriMet — the transit agency serving Portland and surrounding areas — announced earlier this year an anticipated $12 million budget deficit for 2013. The agency cited a projected drop in revenue from payroll taxes, anticipated federal cuts and rising health care costs for union employees as the primary reasons behind the gap.

Fare increases and service adjustments — which also went into effect on September 1 — were planned to cover roughly $9 million in missing revenue. In an effort to make up the remaining gap, TriMet eliminated the Free Rail Zone under an assumption that it accounts for $2.7 million in annual lost fares. Asked about the elimination, Trimet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch emphasized the agency's fiscal obligations. "We're required by state law to have a balanced budget," Fetsch told me.

While the directive to close the gap is black and white, details of the actual budget gap are a bit murkier. Jon Ostar, executive director of low-income advocacy group OPAL, thinks the deficit claims are overblown.

"It's been a few months since the budget decision and it's apparent that ($9 million) of the $12 million in projected shortfalls don't exist," said Ostar. Ostar cited a discrepancy with the payroll tax and federal contribution figures that were outlined by TriMet earlier this year.

At this point the argument is a moot point as the FY2013 budget is long past considerations. But questions still remain about the elimination of the Free Rail Zone.

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