Streetcar staff recommends leaving Free Rail Zone

Portland Streetcar at PSUTwo years after TriMet rejected a proposal to eliminate what was then the country’s largest fare-free transit zone, the former “Fareless Square” is dying by degrees.

Portland Streetcar staffers told their citizens’ advisory committee Wednesday that they recommend pulling out of the Free Rail Zone in September 2012, raising the base streetcar fare to $2.10 across the system and making central-city MAX the city’s only free transit service.

Last month, Seattle‘s King County agreed to eliminate its downtown Ride Free Area completely.

The new price of an all-you-can-ride streetcar pass would be dramatically higher than the current $8.33 per month. Streetcar Executive Director Rick Gustafson said Wednesday that he hopes it’ll be less than $45 per month, and added that it might be subsidized at first to soften the blow.

The new costs would fall hard on PSU students and residents of the South Waterfront, many of whom are annual pass holders, Gustafson said.

streetcar fare analysis“There’s a lot of risk of losing a lot of riders on the west side,” said Dan Zalkow, PSU’s planning and sustainability director and an advisory committee member. With the MAX so close, Zalkow said, “we will probably not be recommending (students) use the streetcar” for short trips.

Portland Streetcar, which is owned by the City of Portland, turned 10 last month. It’s got big plans for citywide expansion, and Gustafson says it wouldn’t be fair to keep downtown free while other areas pay.

The first Free Rail Zone decision will be made at an early November meeting of Portland Streetcar’s board. The Portland City Council will make a subsequent decision based in part on their recommendation, wrote board member¬†Chris Smith¬†in an email.

The group plans a public outreach process, to be conducted by Streetcar’s five-person administrative staff over the next seven weeks. It’s not clear whether they’ll hold public hearings on the issue.

Regardless of the public process, in Wednesday’s meeting city project manager Art Pearce called it “pretty definite” that Streetcar will leave the Free Rail Zone next fall.

Portland StreetcarAs today, TriMet riders could still transfer to Streetcar for free, and Streetcar passes would still be good for two hours on TriMet and all day on the Streetcar itself.

To learn more about the fare hike process or share your thoughts, contact Julie Gustafson, Portland Streetcar’s assistant community relations manager, at julie@sojpdx.com.

For complete details (including Portland Streetcar’s projection that it can boost fare revenue by 680 percent and reduce fare-jumping without hiring any fare inspectors) check out our new wiki page on the fare hike proposal.

(Full disclosure: As it happens, Portland Streetcar board member Chris Smith is also one of five people on the board of Portland Afoot’s nonprofit publisher. He was involved in this story in only two ways: he answered an on-deadline question about the board’s selection, and he set me straight post-publication on the need for a City Council action.

Speaking of which, correction: an earlier version of this post attributed too much decision-making authority to the Portland Streetcar board. It also included an incorrect title for Julie Gustafson, Streetcar’s assistant manager for community relations.)

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