There Is No Such Thing as a Free Ride

By Steve LaFleur

Why should taxpayers be disappointed with TriMet right now? Between 2004 and 2008 TriMet’s revenue increased 60%, but they actually reduced their level of service. As taxpayers, and consumers, we want to get our money’s worth.

The one proposal from TriMet taxpayers should be happy with is the proposal to eliminate Fareless Square for bus services. While Fareless Square seems like a “green” initiative, it is far from it. Fareless Square doesn’t discourage people from driving. It discourages them from walking. Many people who otherwise would walk bog down the transit system instead. This slows down buses and causes overcrowding.

Fareless Square also makes it easy for people to evade fares by boarding for free and continuing on to further destinations without paying. But public transportation isn’t free. If TriMet isn’t collecting fares, then it has to rely on other funding, like the payroll tax (which provides over 50% of TriMet’s budget).

Businesses paid over $215 million in payroll taxes to fund TriMet last year alone. We should not tax employers to ensure that people don’t have to walk a few blocks in Fareless Square downtown. If people really don’t want to walk a quarter of a mile, they don’t have to, but taxpayers should not foot the bill. There’s no such thing as a free ride.

Steve LaFleur is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. (TriMet photo by John M. Vincent of The Oregonian.)

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Posted by at 06:00 | Posted in Measure 37 | 23 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Maximillion

    I depend on the fareless square to get around town. What am I going to do if they charge me for it? I need my money for lunch, not for getting places. What is this world coming to if I can’t even count on Tri-Met for a free ride?
    I am deeply saddened by this plan.
    I hope they rethink things.
    If it is not free I most likely won’t ride.

    • Gee you might have to forego your latte

    • Richard

      If you will not ride because it is no longer free then it is safe to assumed it not a necessity for you to ride tri-met in the first place.

    • Taxpayer

      Start paying your way sponge!

    • Anonymous

      The Tri Met riders that pay, only pay 20% of the operating cost of running Tri Met, and none of the capital construction.

      So if you have to pay to ride in in downtown, you are still nearly getting it for free because the rest of the taxpayer are paying 100% of the capital construction and 80% of your fare.

      It is time for all of the Tri Met users, to pay the full cost of transit, by way of the fare box.

      • Michael M.

        Why should Tri-Met users pay the full cost of “transit” when no one else does? There is no mode of transportation in this country that is fully, or even close to, self-supported — as in, paid for only by people who use that mode of transportation. Tri-Met is no different in that respect.

        • Rupert in Springfield

          Sigh, this is so tired. Other forms of transit, such as cars etc. are reasonably self supporting despite your assertion to the contrary. Tri Met and a lot of other forms of mass transit in Oregon are not.

          They day I see a line on your tax form to support my car payment Ill go along with this nonsense that you subsidize my driving as much as I subsidize mass transit.

          • Michael M.

            “Reasonably self-supported”? The last figures I saw from the FWHA said 92% of federal highway funds come from user fees and 92% of local road funds come from property, income and sales taxes. This was all pre-stimulus, which represents another massive and whopping non-user-fee subsidy overwhelmingly given over to road projects. But even if you discount the stimulus, that’s still 8% of federal highway funding and 92% of local road funding coming from general-fund sources, not user fees. What is your evidence for asserting that your driving isn’t subsidized?

            See this UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies analysis from 2008, which put the total tax subsidy to U.S. motor vehicle users between $19 – $64 billion per year:


            You could certainly make a case that these subsidy levels are reasonable and appropriate to Americans’ preferences for travel, but you can’t make a case that driving a car everywhere is even close to “reasonably self-supported.” We all pay for the privilege, whether we drive our own cars or not, just like we all subsidize Tri-Met whether we use it or not. The driving subsidy just costs us all a lot more.

          • Rupert in Springfield

            Well, from what I was able to find, by going to the ODOT site, it looks like the Oregon highways are mostly supported by direct user fees. Local roads and such are supported less directly by property taxes and the like. However even if you don’t drive, you get plenty of use of those local roads. I’m not sure how you would get garbage pick up, mail, or visitors without them.

            Generally when I investigate further, I tend to find that the taxpayer subsidies to cars/roads tend to be calculated by arguments about the tax structure of petroleum companies, or ascribing some sort of subsidy value to the old catch all term – “externalities”. Those sorts of things are pretty vague, and certainly all of them would apply to mass transit, at least non electric forms.

            Basically whatever “externality” tax angles, or property tax funding of local roads one wants to get into would be used just as much by mass transit as they would be by cars, so I’m not seeing how you ascribe the liability to only one form of transportation.

            However, one has to remember that mass transit pays no registration fees or weight mile taxes, so the subsidy is probably greater to them than to cars.

            Add to that the fact that there is no line on my tax form making a direct payment to someone else’s car loan, but there is a line right there that’s a direct payment to Lane Transit District and it starts getting real hard to argue I’m subsidizing mass transit less than I am other peoples cars.

            You get rid of that line on the tax form, or start taking having mass transit passenger fares start paying for some bike paths, or take into account the “externalities” of mass transit and you might have something. One big “externality” we have here is mass transits energy hog and pollution aspects when compared to cars. We have giant articulated busses here that run all day, they generally carry a half dozen or so passengers unless its during peak hours.

          • Michael M.

            You seem to be relying on fuzzy logic, anecdote, and unsupported assertions to bolster your claim that motor-vehicle transit is somehow less subsidized than mass transit. One implication of your argument is that more expensive forms of mass transit, like electric streetcars and more electric light-rail, would be preferable, even though buses are much cheaper and more affordable for everybody. Sorry, but I’m not convinced. I found the UC Davis study pretty thorough and self-explanatory in terms of what it takes into account.

            I have no issue with the notion that roads are necessary for all of us, whether we drive or not. I don’t drive a big rig, but I don’t know how the grocery stores I shop at would keep themselves stocked without them. At the same time, I have no illusions that we aren’t all paying big bucks for the privilege of building and maintaining the network or roads that move goods and enable mobility and commerce — and were doing so long before Pres. Bush & Obama decided to give away billions of tax dollars to the auto industry. I do have an issue with simplistic and antagonistic double-standards that hold, for whatever reasons, that one group of public good users should be massively subsidized while another should be “self-supporting.” The cost of the entire Springwater Corridor conversion from Portland to Boring was equivalent to the cost of one interchange upgrade on Highway 26. Given that people use Springwater for recreation as well as transit, given the boost to tourism that Portland’s cycling infrastructure provides, given the road congestion it and mass transit relieves, I can’t see making a case that mass transit users alone should fund bike paths. Nobody comes here to experience our freeways or highways; lots of private organizations and businesses draw people here for cycling events like Seattle-to-Portland and Pedalpalooza. When you look at where we’re getting value for our dollars, mass transit (when done right, and I don’t think electric streetcars are anywhere close to being economical) and better cycling infrastructure come out way ahead of more roads, more pollution, more cars. Imagine the kind of infrastructure improvements we could make in the whole region for a fraction of the cost of the $4.7 billion proposed for the new Columbia River Crossing. Imagine how much more congested our roads would be, and how much more time and money we’d be wasting, if all those MAX and bus riders and all those cyclists on the Hawthorne & Broadway bridges were in cars instead.

          • Anonymous

            Tranit supporters only pay 20% at most at the fare box for Operations Only.

            Not capital construction or bus replacement, bus stops road modifications or anything related to anything except operations.

            Much of the transit subsidies come from auto and truck user fees.
            Gas taxes, registration fees license fees, weight and mile taxes and parking fees on autos and trucks.

            Nearly 100 % of freeways are paid for by user fees.
            City and county roads and housing developments are mostly paid for by developers and then turned over to the city and county after they have been brought up to city and county standards. It is really hard to own a piece of property if it is landlocked, and you have no way to get to it.

            Freeways and roads are paid for by user fees unlike transit which drain income taxes and auto and truck taxes and diverted to transit.

        • Anonymous

          transit doesn’t even come close to paying operations,
          let alone capital construction.

          The users only Pay 20% of the operations of the systeem

    • Your solution is at hand. Pack your lunch.

  • Michael M.

    Fareless Square never made any sense to me — I wish they would get rid of it altogether, for MAX as well as buses. Furthermore, I wish they would get rid of “zones” and just charge one ticket price for everybody. The frustrating thing about Tri-Met’s whole ticketing & fare structure is that it is difficult for anyone not using it for one specific commute pattern to know what they need. In NYC, you buy a MetroCard, you use that MetroCard to go anywhere in the city. At any time, you can add money to your MetroCard at any subway station or ticket machine anywhere in the city. It’s easy for residents who commute regularly, for residents who don’t, for tourists, for everybody, to figure out what they need at any given time. With Tri-Met, you might need two-zone tickets, you might need all-zone tickets, and you probably won’t be able to find a working ticket machine when you find you don’t have what you need. It’s a stupid system that just rewards those who already live in more expensive areas close-in on the backs of those who can’t afford to.

  • Joe

    Well, to run Tri-Met in a way that made any sense would be impossible. These fools need to justify their jobs.
    Everything they do is crazy. Like running Max trains to the airport without anyplace to put luggage.
    These people are lucky to be able to make it in to work each day on their own.

  • Terry Parker

    Fareless Square should be totally eliminated, and not just when riding the busses as proposed. Not only will charging fares in downtown Portland significantly cut down on fare evasion, but it should be viewed as the first step to make transit service in Portland financially self-sustainable. The unsustainable trajectory of state and local taxpayer funded subsidies to transit must be reversed. This requires establishing a step by step goal setting process to make all public transit services financially self-sustainable in the future – 60% financially self-sustainable by the year 2020, and 100% financially self-sustainable by the year 2035, if not sooner.

    For TriMet to become financially self-sustainable, fares must be increased, including charging for freight on transit such as transporting bicycles. Totally eliminating Fareless Square also must be part of that fare increase. Downtown Portland is a 20 minute walkable neighborhood and should not receive any special privileges other neighborhoods in Portland do not receive, including the immunity from transit fares. Additionally, the Portland Streetcar must also become financially self-sustainable by significantly increasing fares instead of raiding motorist paid parking meter revenues and the general fund to subsidize operations. 100 percent of all parking meter revenues should be going only to pay for street maintenance and repair .

    • Michael M.

      Well, Terry, to you as well I ask, why should Tri-Met be self-sustainable when no other form of transit is? (See discussion above, beginning at #1.4.)

      • valley person

        Public transit is a service provided to the public funded in part by taxes, in part by user fees. There is no compelling reason to demand that it be 100% fee supported unless one thinks every public service be 100% fee supported: police, fire, parks, libraries, prisons, and so forth. The higher transit fees are, the fewer people use transit, the more cars on the road, and the more congestion or need to build wider roads. Use logic folks.

        • Anonymous

          Public transit use is dropping nationwide
          It is not much of a public service

          transit use over the years

          1900 —100.00%
          1915— 79.33%
          1920— 50.25%
          1925 —28.91%
          1930 —21.06%
          1935 —14.20%
          1940 —35.00%
          1950 —18.26%
          1955 —10.43%
          1960 — 7.11%
          1965 — 5.19%
          1970 — 3.63%
          1975 — 2.90%
          1980 — 2.82%
          1981 — 2.68%
          1982 — 2.51%
          1983 — 2.46%
          1984 — 2.48%
          1985 — 2.42%
          1986 — 2.40%
          1987 — 2.32%
          1988 — 2.23%
          1989 — 2.06%
          1990 — 1.90%
          1991 — 1.86%
          1992 — 1.76%
          1993 — 1.67%
          1994 — 1.72%
          1995 — 1.71%
          1996 — 1.67%
          1997 — 1.66%
          1998 — 1.70%
          1999 — 1.74%

          United States Urban Transport Statistics: A Compendium 1

        • Anonymous

          Portland, Oregon (3-County) Transit Urban Travel Market Share Compared to Before Light Rail



          Transit Share:
          Change from 1985 = 0%

          Motorized travel
          Data from US Department of Transportation & Texas Transportation Institute
          Assumes national automobile occupancy rate of 1.6

  • Jim

    Public transit is like the public library. No longer needed.

  • TriMet Sucks

    As a small business owner in Portland for over 20 years, I find the pathetic arguements of public transit supporters – most of whom pay little or nothing for transit use – mostly just self-serving. When the day comes that you jerks write a $400-500.00 check to TriMet once a year, we’ll talk turkey. Until then, you are just a bunch of cheap-ass self-serving losers. TriMet is a very poorly run operation that depends upon business owners like myself to keep it afloat. It is the only major city transit system that I know of that doesn’t have some type of turnstyle system that requires users to pay to board light rail or the streetcar. The simple fact that they don’t have such a system in place shows they are not even remotely motivated to collect fares. And as such, they are losing millions of dollars in revenue that should be used to support the system. Instead, they are going to try to raise the tax on businesses once again. It’s bad enough this will happen. What is worse is that it happens without any sort of representation; as the TriMet Board that sets budgets is nothing more than a bunch of politcal appointees made by Governor MORON.

    • Anonymous

      I think the legislature already raised the Tri Met business tax,
      in the session.

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