When the civil engineers of the world convoke to discuss earthly travails, they seldom bother likening driving in downtown Portland to sorting screws or gnawing on iron shavings. That much is obvious. Nor do they labor to compare parking here to rebuilding transmissions or taking a soak with a coffee grinder. But if they did discuss these things, they would immediately conclude them grueling and inadvisable.
Of course, it doesn’t take a civil engineer of grand repute to make such observations – most Portland State students know this well enough. Traffic and parking are burdens many assume daily. Aware of the irritations associated with driving, many choose to take the bus. Car or not, the bus is a convenient and practical means of transportation. Unfortunately, this may not be the case for long.
As it stands now, a monthly pass for Tri-Met costs $32, up from $27 one year ago. Thus an average quarter now costs a somewhat manageable $96 for three months on the tin longhouse. An undiscounted Tri-Met pass, by comparison, costs a grizzly $56 a month, up from $54 last year. At the full rate, a student would pay nearly $170 a quarter, close to the price of a quarter parking pass.
My most astute readers would surely scoff at the suggestion that taking the bus could be almost as expensive as parking. “This is an urban campus,” they would rebut smugly, “clearly we can’t encourage driving over busing.” As ludicrous as the proposition may sound, it may soon be a reality for Portland State commuters.
To better inform myself of the arrangement between Portland State and Tri-met, I met with Dan Zalkow of the PSU parking office. According to Zalkow, Tri-Met declared recently that it acknowledges no relationship between the number of students riding and the price of tickets. Following this logic, the same quantity of students would ride if tickets were $24, $32 or $56 dollars a month. In the same statement Tri-Met also announced its intention to phase out subsidies to bus passes over a four-year period – three years of which remain. If Tri-Met follows up on this, their subsidies will drop from $11 this year (down from $14 last year) to $8 next year, $4 in 2003-2004 and to nothing in 2005.
Before this announcement last year, the Transportation and Parking Office (TPO) had matched subsidies with Tri-Met almost evenly. During the 2000-2001 academic year, the TPO paid $13 to every $14 that Tri-Met discounted, and funds from the TPO held for 2002. Unfortunately, Dan Zalko argues, the TPO cannot make up for the funding withdrawn by Tri-Met. Therefore, bus tickets in the next few years are going to increase at the normal rate plus the amount Tri-Met withdraws. As such, tickets are likely to climb to $37 next year, $43 the year after that and $49 for 2004-2005. Thus students finishing up their freshman year now would pay about $150 a quarter for a bus pass when they are seniors (assuming a four-year track).
While these figures are all tentative, it is clear that bus rates are rising at a faster pace than previously, and if these trends continue, students could soon pay around $150 a quarter for bus service in three years.
While the quarterly rate of $96 this year is high, an increase in the order that current trends project is ridiculous. At $150 a quarter, students with cars would have no incentive to take the bus, and those without cars would probably have difficulty finding the $50 a month for a pass. Surely, such an arrangement is unacceptable, if not beyond hope.
Student senator Joshua Morris, who based his campaign around this issue, first drew my attention to this predicament. Morris believes there is a solution in student fees funds. “This is a project the student government should be pursuing,” he remarked. “A [cheap] bus pass is a very realistic goal.” Morris envisions an arrangement wherein Portland State students receive stickers on their IDs that function as an annual pass.
PSU faculty enjoys a similar arrangement, paying a much-reduced rate for a yearly pass. In this scheme, tickets are bought with the understanding that an estimated number of people will ride and pay a nominal fee every quarter. If instituted, Portland State would cover the tab, and students would only have to pick up their sticker and pay a small amount.
Zalkow maintains that the Parking Office had considered such an option, but that the funds needed for such a relationship simply aren’t available. Since the TPO receives all its money from parking passes and tickets, the funds needed for a venture like that cannot be guaranteed. Zalkow, like Morris, suggests that the greatest potential for more funding lies in student fee funds. Student fee money could be given to the TPO, which could then divert the funds to bus passes, parking lot maintenance, and other areas that would benefit all commuters.
Senator Morris is confident that student government has the means to resolve the problem. “This is ridiculous,” he reproved. “Passes should be free. Portland State students represent the largest ridership potential for Tri-met. If I couldn’t at least get a sticker, I would try to get passes down to a reasonable level for students.”
As Morris pointed out, everyone stands to benefit from depreciated bus prices-riders, drivers, and pedestrians. Downtown congestion is a nasty brand of annoyance that we should, indeed must, address. Truth be told, I loath to see Tri-met withdrawing its funds for student passes and gladly heap abuse on the whole business of inflated bus fares. But that aside, Tri-met has no obligation to students. Portland State, on the other hand, does.
The university and student are bound by a similar contract as a citizen and state or resident and municipality; the student pays tuition in return for classes, council, facilities, etc. In a rural or small-town school, the expectation that students can walk or drive to school is more realistic than at Portland State. Herein lies a grand irony-an urban university that doesn’t pay a dime for bus service (current subsidies come from parking-related costs).
I agree with Mr. Zalkow and Mr. Morris that we must look to student fees as a source of funding for bus passes; the TPO already contributes its maximum, and the university budget wears an increasingly over-tight belt. Portland State has a number of obligations to its students, and prominent among these is ensuring that students have a viable means of getting to school.
Similarly, the student government is responsible to the students it represents. The issue of bus fares is relevant to all students. I urge the next student senate, administration, and fee committee to support Mr. Morris in investigating and pursuing the reduction of student bus fares. As Mr. Morris observes: “It can be done, and it would be an extreme accomplishment for the students.”