TriMet now says it has ‘open mind’ on extending transfers to 3 hours

OPAL picket

TriMet says it may be willing to allow a basic $2.50 bus or rail ticket to last three hours – or all night after 7 p.m. – after all.

In a turnaround, the agency said Wednesday that it’s agreed to a new series of work sessions and meetings on the issue: a “new analysis based on new data,” as General Manager Neil McFarlane put it.

If approved, it’d be a major fare cut for people who pay for TriMet one ride at a time. For cash-paying riders, the price of a short daytime errand or evening outing would be effectively cut in half.

Last year, TriMet’s board had dismissed the proposal by OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, saying it would cost too much in lost fares – perhaps $2 million to $3 million – at a time when the agency couldn’t spare cash. But McFarlane said Wednesday that a year of continued advocacy and research by OPAL, plus the recovering economy, a new TriMet finance director and newly automated bus transfer printing machines on every bus, has changed attitudes inside the agency, which he said has a “very open mind” about the concept.

McFarlane said that if the agency decides to make a change later this year, it could happen in two months, thanks to the new ticket printers.

“That would be a huge task to communicate to 1400 bus operators,” he said. “Now it’s a simple programming change.”

TriMet: No decision until new data comes in

OPAL, which operates the leading local transit riders’ advocacy group, trumpeted TriMet’s shift as a milestone, even claiming in a press release that they had won “support from TriMet to extend transfer times.” McFarlane called that statement premature.

We will complete our analysis of the transfer policy at the end of June,” McFarlane said Wednesday. “I did not agree to an implementation date associated with anything.”

OPAL and TriMet plan to use the latest Metro travel data, gathered in 2011, to figure out how much the change would cost TriMet in lost fares.

After that, McFarlane said, his staff would make a recommendation to TriMet’s board on whether or not to extend transfer times.

Jared Franz, OPAL’s law and policy associate, said TriMet is no longer insisting that any changes to fare policy be cost-neutral.

“There seems to be a consensus in our conversation with staff that $2 million is really nothing,” Franz said. “And that’s how much they would be comfortable recommending. … They really have been clear in their support of the idea.”

Lower fares = More riders?

OPAL volunteers and staff praised TriMet’s new direction. It’s the latest step in OPAL’s two-year campaign to lengthen transfer times, which has been the young advocacy organization’s first multiyear initiative.

“Extending the time on a transfer is a low-cost way to encourage ridership,” said Bus Riders Unite member Eavan Moore. “I think that gets to a goal we all share.”

Franz said Wednesday that extending transfers was “an opportunity for TriMet to be a national leader, doing something innovative.”

“Even people as far away as Boston, national organizations, are asking the question, ‘Is extending transfers a way to improve service?’” Franz said, citing a Facebook comment from someone affiliated with Americans for Transit.

OPAL plans to rally bus riders to attend TriMet’s May 22 board meeting in support of TriMet’s possible fare cut.

“We want to have a celebration,” Franz said. “We have more money than we expected, and this is a way to give it back to riders.”

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