TriMet needs to tighten security, dump “honor system”

by Dave Lister

I just completed our payroll taxes for the fourth quarter. Seven-tenths of 1 percent of our gross payroll will go toward funding the TriMet system. Seven-tenths of 1 percent of the payroll of the seafood broker next door, the medical clinic around the corner and the electrical contractor across the street will also go to funding the system. Fifty-seven percent of TriMet’s operational funding this year will come from the payroll tax assessed on all employers in its service district. In this economy, it’s a burden for most businesses, but we have an obligation to the community to fund the system. Despite arguments over the virtues of rail versus buses or the location of lines, there is no argument that an efficient public transportation system is a necessary component of modern society.

There should also be no argument that those using the system have a reasonable expectation of personal safety while using the system. Unfortunately, recent events have shown what many riders have known for years: When it comes to TriMet, that reasonable expectation is not realistic.

My 31-year-old son has never owned an automobile. That makes him, in the Portland ethic, a model citizen. The reward for his model citizenship while riding TriMet’s rails at all hours of the day and night has been intimidation at the hands of roving gangs of youths, subjection to aggressive panhandling and the annoyance of dealing with the extremely intoxicated intruding into his personal space. Although his observation that most of the troublemakers are riding without paying fares is anecdotal, I tend to think that it is true.

TriMet has responded to the recent beating of a teenage girl on the MAX line, the assault of a teenage boy on a MAX platform and a fight on an east Portland bus in its typical fashion.

First, TriMet ramped up its public relations machinery to insist these incidents, compared with the total number of trips, are statistically insignificant. Technically, that is correct, but I’m not sure that provides any comfort for the victims.

Second, TriMet has insisted that anyone engaging in crime on the system will be apprehended. There have been arrests in two of these cases, but prosecution after the fact is no replacement for prevention in the first place.

Third, TriMet is pledging it will heighten security on the system by providing more officers, both uniformed and undercover. If TriMet’s heightened security measures go the way of its occasional fare enforcement stings, it will be short-lived. There will be some highly publicized arrests, more press releases for a time, and then things will slide quietly back to the status quo.

Residents in communities of future planned light-rail lines have good reason to have serious public safety concerns about the projects. In 2007, before reaching an agreement with TriMet to provide better security, Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis ordered his own police officers to ride the line within Gresham’s city limits because the crime was so out of hand. It’s no wonder that Lake Oswego is now rejecting the streetcar from Portland and Clackamas County residents are pushing back on the Milwaukie line.

It’s time TriMet finally acknowledges the failure of its “honor system” fare policy. A teenage gang member will be as little inclined to buy a ticket to ride as he will be to respect an exclusion order or show up in court on a citation. Not only would secured boarding eliminate a good portion of the criminal element, but increased fare recovery might even let government shave that payroll tax rate a fraction of a point.

Dave Lister is a small-business owner who served on Portland’s Small Business Advisory Council.