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Mayor Adams goes to the line for YouthPass

Mayor Sam Adams speaks to future high schoolers in downtown PortlandAs he nears his last six months in office, Portland Mayor Sam Adams is leaving no questions about his loyalty to the embattled YouthPass program.

YouthPass, which used free universal transit passes to introduce thousands of high schoolers around the state to low-car life, died in the 2011 legislature after nobody except a small group of teens associated with Adams’ office prioritized saving it. With no mainstream media attention to the issue, most Portland families never knew about the state-level change until it was too late.

After six months of local life support from TriMet and the city, TriMet has been publicly declaring its intent to pull the plug on YouthPass, saying it can’t afford the program. This has made Adams angrier and angrier.

Now, the Oregonian’s Brad Schmidt reports, Adams is playing serious hardball on behalf of the program for Portland Public Schools teens: he’s proposing to essentially force TriMet’s hand by funding YouthPass himself … using $2 million strong-armed out of TriMet by way of an “8,000 percent fee increase to TriMet for benches and shelters.”

TriMet’s spokeswoman says this could mean “more fare hikes and service cuts.” Adams says it’s his way of holding the agency to what he describes as a “handshake agreement” that he claims TriMet’s top executive reneged on.

Whatever the backstory, this is an important, startling development, and there’s no telling where things could go for PPS high schoolers. OPAL Director Jonathan Ostar, who’s expressed doubts before about the current YouthPass program, worried to the Oregonian that Adams’ idea for saving it might be a “Band-Aid.” At Portland Transport, Scott Johnson makes a forceful case against Adams’ action:

Local governments around the country have been suffering under the combined weight of loss of federal support, decreased tax revenues due to the recession, increasing pension and healthcare expenditures, and increasing levels of anti-government activism. … If the response of governments to the funding crises is going to be to try and screw each other over, nobody is going to win.

Almost nobody in Portland disputes the virtues of YouthPass, which is used by 80% of PPS students once a week or more, gets 25% of PPS high schoolers to an after-school job, and costs less than a comparable yellow-bus program.

Here’s why the free passes are endangered anyway: Until this year, YouthPass had found no single powerful person willing to stick out their neck to save it.

For better or worse, that much has obviously changed.

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