Ruining a Reputation

Portland has a great reputation across the country. We tend to be thought of as one of the most livable, environmentally conscious, bike-friendly and generally affable cities in America. Much of this reputation is even deserved. Back in the early nineties I began hearing about Portland. The first time was when four or five friends and I were living in a ramshackle boat in a harbor in the Florida Keys called Toxic Triangle, tossing around road stories and opinions about ideal places to land for a while. Popular stops were towns like Flagstaff, Missoula, Santa Cruz and Eugene, but one brother, a stocky, blond-haired kid with a penchant for tight jeans and boots, basically shouted us all down. The best city in the country, he said, was Portland, Ore.

He listed a couple of reasons why that I’ve since forgotten, but the one that I remember, that stood out from the litany of benefits that accompanied the discussion of other likely towns (reasons like mellow cops, dog-friendly apartments, and the usual theogenic distractions), was the amazing public transportation system.

He told me that Portland had the country’s best bus system ?” and that it was free! In many ways, it can be argued that he was right on the first point, but the second (Fareless Square notwithstanding) is so far from the truth that I can only think back to this memory with a wry little grimace.

I’ve ridden a hell of a lot of buses ?” tens of thousands of Greyhound miles, dozens of hours at noisy bus stops off U Street in D.C., or huddled in the rain on Duval Street in the dripping shade of a banyan tree. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve certainly driven quite a bit, and have had access to cars a time or two over the years, but I have never owned a car myself. All this makes one a connoisseur of public transportation, and I’ve experienced the joys of such in cities from Arcata to Tank Island to New York.

So I have some experience and, all in all, I’ve had little complaint with our local transit system. There has been the occasional surly driver (you probably recognize him as the one who watches you sprint for two hundred yards, waving frantically, only to pull away when you are five feet from the door), filthy bus stops (my favorite being the time when someone had sat comfortably on the bench and shat down the glass behind them) and obnoxious high-school drunks, but indeed, even these are foibles shared by most transit systems.

But it sure does seem expensive. When I moved here in 2000, a bus ride cost around $1.25. I grumbled when it crept up to $1.35, but I got on anyway. Then the recent skyrocketing explained away by Katrina’s ravaging the Gulf Coast oil reserves. OK, OK, paying the extra fare felt like some kind of hurricane relief fund, and my mom lived through all three of those bastards last year.

But this most recent increase ?” of an unprecedented 15 cents to $1.65 [for a two zone fare] is a real kick in the balls. I guess it would have been silly to expect them to lower fares once gas prices fell and the storm had begun to be dealt with, right? But now, seemingly in response to rumors that prices are about to blow through the roof and approach $3 a gallon, Tri-Met’s jacked things up again, and now I have to carry not one, not two, but three coins in my pocket in addition to my dollar! It’s a bloody outrage!

I took a little look back at Tri-Met history – a good source is right there on their website – and found that the rabid increases in fare prices are not a new phenomenon to them. In 1956 Rose City Transit acquired the city routes of Portland Traction Company, named such in the 1930s, itself the descendent of an earlier utility formed at the turn of the century, Portland Electric Power Company, or PEPCO. The RCT takeover was in the midst of a huge decline in ridership which started in the 1950s.

In 1968 RCT applied to the city for a fare increase, which was denied because “fare increases above the present … level cannot reasonably continue – [and] possible future increases will result in such additional loss of patronage as to render the mass transit service within the city economically unfeasible and unreasonable.” Tri-Met is so confident they’ve got us by the short-and-curlies that they have this passage on their own site.

Lawsuits, threats of driver walkouts, and abstruse 11th hour agreements between the city and RCT ensued, and on Nov. 19, 1969 they proposed turning their operations over to the “City and Tri-county Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon.” The costs involved in painting this on a fleet of buses loomed, however, and the fleet began running on Dec. 1, 1969 under the name Tri-Met.

Here the website’s history ends, and the number 44 line to Multnomah Village begins (although in truth, that didn’t start running until April 1, 1982, in response to strident public pressure after the fabled “Summer Squash Strike” of that spring). But history has left me inconsolable, and here I am, left to paw through piles of crumpled transfers, loose sticks of gum and worn-out batteries just to find yet another coin to line Tri-Met’s coffers.

Yeah, the Max line to the airport is hot, and the groovy sculptures along the new line to Mississippi Ave. are just the tits, man, but a dollar sixty-five for a ride to PSU?!

That’s fucking highway robbery, and not nearly as good a time.