The end of TriMet’s failed Fareless Square experiment

by Eric Shierman

As this month comes to an end so too will end Portland’s 37-year experiment in fare-free public transportation. The last vestige of Fareless Square, known today as the Free Rail Zone, will come to an end. Perhaps TriMet’s culture of tolerating fare evasion will come to an end as well.

Fareless Square was a unique experiment in publicly subsidized wasteful behavior. TriMet’s heated and air conditioned buses became homeless shelters. Commuters trying to get out of downtown Portland had their trips delayed as mobs of street kids randomly boarded a bus only to get off at the next stop. Pan handlers boarded too, walking down the bus and train isles asking for money, cigarettes, or your signature on some astro turf supported ballot measure petition.

Drivers’ productivity and sanity became undermined by the many fare evaders who would board for free in Fareless Square and travel out to Gresham and Hillsboro, increasing TriMet’s costs while denying it revenue. This dovetailed nicely with MAX’s honor system of sporadic rider payment. In June, the TriMet board voted to end its MAX Free Rail Zone to help fill a $12 million budget hole and Portland Streetcar followed TriMet’s lead with plans to end its own free-ride zone.

Starting September 1st, affluent residents of the Pearl District will no longer be able to ride to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on the streetcar for free. It remains to be seen how elastic this demand for downtown rail ridership is.

Eric Shierman lives in southwest Portland and is the author of A Brief History of Political Cultural Change. He also writes for the Oregonian’s My Oregon blog.