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Transit For All: Does make Portland Oregon’s TriMet Unfairly Cut Service for the Poor?

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Photo by (cc) Flickr user buzzerblog

When city budgets are cut, public transportation is often on the chopping block. And routes and lines serving those who need the service most, can be the first to go. But from New York to Argentina, an emerging ‘transportation justice’ movement is standing up for people’s right to ride.

Thanks to contributing producers Jennifer Kemp, Eric Klein, Eilis O’Neill, Britta Conroy-Randall and to the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation for partial support of this show.

Featuring: Nick Persky, San Francisco Youth Commission member; Paolo Acosta, Balboa High School student; David Campos and John Avalos, San Francisco supervisors; Romeo Edmead, blind advocate in New York City; Lester MarksLighthouse International Government Affairs director; Laura Rodríguez, train rider; Edgardo Reynoso, Sarmiento Line Trainworkers’ Union organizer; Olga Vicente, Transportation planner; Adrián Lutvak, Student activist; Juan Carlos Cena, National Movement for the Recovery of Argentina’s Trains president; Julián Rebón, Universidad de Buenos Aires sociology professor; Suzy Thurston, Derek EspinozaTriMet riders; Cameron Johnson, OPAL member; Neal McFarlaneTriMet CEO, Khanh Pham, former OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon communications director; Jared FranzOPAL Environmental Justice Oregon transportation policy assistant

Does make Portland Oregon’s TriMet Unfairly Cut Service for the Poor?
When you think of modern, green, public transportation, a city that likely comes to mind is Portland, Oregon.  Portland has built a reputation worldwide, and for many people, it’s deserved.  But as reporters Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein found out, that world class public transit, doesn’t serve all members of the public equally.

Does make Portland Oregon’s TriMet Unfairly Cut Service for the Poor?

Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: We took the bus all over town talking to people about their commutes and asking what they thought about the transportation system.

Q: I go everywhere on the bus

JD: Portland’s public transit is amazing compared to what I had

Q: This is the best transportation system of uh uh all the of all the different cities that I’ve been in.

E: I think it’s a great bus actually and my son loves taking the bus

V: I’m very satisfied, it’s always on time, you know, at least around rush hour it is

V: the bus system in Philly is significantly worse – its infrequent, it’s dirtier – it’s cheaper though. The public transit in Philidelphia is some of the worst I’ve ever ridden and Portland is great for public transit.

Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: Portland’s public transportation works well for people that live close to the center of town. They have a number of different buses and trains to choose from, wait times are pretty short, and the price of bus fare is definitely cheaper than paying for car payments, gasoline, and insurance. But the farther away from downtown people live, the less satisfied they are with the bus system, and the less they feel like they’re are getting their money’s worth.

Jennifer Kemp and Eric KleinSuzy Thurston lives in southeast, but works all the way out in north Portland. The #75 bus is her lifeline, but she also has to transfer to the #72. Suzy usually passes the time reading
Thurston: when I go to work it takes me an hour each way. So if I ever didn’t have a book I would go nutty…

Jennifer Kemp and Eric KleinThe buses she takes to work are very dependable. The problem comes when she tries to go from her neighborhood to her doctor’s appointments across town. That bus linewas cut in 2012.
Thurston: there’s really no buses now that I know of that go to northwest. Except for the 77 which doesn’t even stop downtown and runs every half an hour

Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: The cuts came because the city’s transit agency, Trimet, isrunning on a tight budget. Thurston says she understands the economic pressures, but the agency risks losing passengers.

Thurston: if buses run too infrequently, then it’s just not convenient for people to take them.

Portland State University student, Derek Espinoza lives in Hillsboro, a city southwest of Portland where he says getting around by bus or light rail is a real challenge.
Espinoza: There seems to be more delays now, they’re getting trains backed up. The buses are more expensive, and they’re cutting routes. It’s not as much noticeable here in Portland, but in Hillsboro they’ve actually cut routes that I’ve used to take to places, so it’s harder to get to where I need to go, when I’m not going to school.

Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: He also finds himself with extremely long waits, making it difficult to get anything done.
Espinoza: Now the wait for the bus that I need to take is about an hour, uh, if I were to go anywhere I needed to go in Hillsboro. …Now I’m more asking friends for rides, or sometimes even just taking a taxi over there in Hillsboro

Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: And not everyone has the option of asking friends for a ride. Cameron Johnson is what you’d call ‘transit dependent’. Because he’s autistic, he makes frequent trips to the pharmacy. And Cameron lives in outer southeast Portland, where bus service is less reliable.

Johnson: I actually am bi-polar and autistic so relying on the bus is something that both helps my mental wellness and helps me get medication that I need to maintain that. So technically I qualify for an honored citizens’ card because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to afford the bus and I would be homebound.

Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: Johnson says relying on the bus has affected his job opportunities.
Johnson: there have been jobs that I couldn’t take because the bus simply wouldn’t be able to get me there in time to start

Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: He says a temp agency found him a job in Beaverton, a city west of Portland, but the bus he would need to take to get there started running at 6:30 am
Johnson: they wanted me to start at 6:00 so there’d be no way I could feasibly make it in time without leaving at 4:00 and getting there twenty minutes late

Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: Cameron isn’t just a transit dependent rider though, he’s also deeply involved in transit activism. He’s an active member of the transit justice group OPAL Organizing People Activating Leaders- volunteering to organize bus riders into a collective force to influence TriMet’s policies.
Johnson: we started working on making the service better for transit dependent people – like myself – and I realized that a lot of what is going on isn’t just unfair – it’s a lot of B.S. going on there.

Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: TriMet, who didnt make anyone available to be interviewed for this story uses fare increases and service cuts as a way to balance their budget, which has had persistent shortfalls since 2009 because of the faltering economy. Heres’s TriMet CEO Neal McFarlane speaking on Oregon Public Broadcasting in February 2012 February about what he calls a “budget crisis’ projected for 2013.
McFarlane: over the last 4 years we’ve actually reduced our budget trajectory by 60 million dollars – that was through the Great Recession – so we’ve had to make some reductions of both bus and MAX service over those last 4 years and I think people are generally telling us enough is enough related to service cuts. But they did tell us that there is some tolerance for increased fares. So our recomendations rely more heavily on fare increases than service reductions

Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: But TriMet also predicted a budget crisis the year before. Khan Pham, who is now working towards her doctorate in Urban Planning at PSU, was the Communications Director of OPAL last year. A disclaimer–She also worked for this radio program before moving to Portland. Pham says Tri-Met was caught bluffing in 2012.
Pham: the budget crisis that they projected, never materialized, they were basing it on projections that didn’t turn out to be true. And those super conservative projections, ended up being the, ended up having to be born by the most vulnerable people, by the people who couldn’t afford the fare cuts, it turned out we didn’t need.

Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: And the 2014 budget, which came out in early March, shows that TriMet received $28 million dollars more in revenue than they had predicted in 2012. And even though TriMet management told the public that they were in the middle of a three year pay freeze, TriMet executives are receiving pay raises totaling almost a million dollars. On the positive side, there wont be any new service cuts, but service will not be returned to pre-2012 levels.

Johnson: throughout my work at OPAL I have become both very jaded to what TriMet does and very empowered to what the people can do.
Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: OPAL brings bus riders like Cameron Johnson together in their transit justice program, Bus Rider’s Unite, to protest fare hikes and service cuts. They reach out to poor people and people of color, who are most likely to be affected by service changes.

Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: Last June OPAL had dozens of members testify in front of the TriMet Board to demand it reject planned cuts to service.
Jared Franz is the transportation policy assistant with OPAL.
Franz: “in talking to bus riders and members of the community, not only do people have a hard time getting where they’re going, on a single ticket, especially people like single mothers who have to make a multiple stop, maybe they’re taking uh having to drop off a child at day care before getting back on the bus to go to work, but TriMet has been cutting bus service for years. Since 2004 they’ve cut over 170 thousand hours of bus service, so its getting harder and harder for people to make their connections”

Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: Franz says Tri-met has raised fares 70 percent over the same time period as they’ve made all those cuts to the service. A trip to the grocery store by bus that takes longer than two hours now costs 5 dollars.

Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: OPAL had proposed their own alternative budget for Tri-Met, which would leave bus service at 2012 levels. Although it was rejected, they’re now working to retain a city wide program giving Portland Public School students free bus passes to get to and from class, which is in jeopardy of being cut. They’re campaigning to get transfer times extended from two hours to three. And they’re trying to re-invest in outer southeast Portland.

Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein: Again OPAL activist and transit dependent bus rider, Cameron Johnson:

Johnson: People need transit, people need to have reliable transit and people need to stop having to have worse transit because TriMet knows that they’re a captive audience. They know that they can cut bus service and people will just be forced to stick around and that’s something that I’m not ever ok with and I’m not ok with people misunderstanding. I think Transit dependant people need a voice and TriMet needs to recognize that and everyone needs to recognize that.

For Making Contact, with Eric Klein, I’m Jennifer Kemp, in Portland, Oregon.

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