Honor our Honored Citizens on public transit

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Later this spring, you’ll get a fantastic podcast episode with Jared Franz and Keith Scholz from OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon. So I’m going to leave the longer description of that organization for the post that goes up with the podcast. What I’m writing about today relates to OPAL because they work long and hard on transit justice. And there is some new transit injustice in my city I want to write about.

Honored Citizen here in Portland refers to people 65 and up and disabled people of any age. That status gives you a reduced fare on public transportation. I wouldn’t say many of us truly feel honored. It’s hard to feel honored when wheelchair users are called “wheelchairs” as they board and leave, when older adults have to ask teens to move from the priority seating, and when a “normal” looking person like me could hold up my HC pass and still have to ask multiple people if anyone would be willing to give up a spot so that I wouldn’t fall down. But I’m not writing to complain about that name. I’m writing to complain about a proposed increase in the HC fare. Jared has helped me understand some of the problems with increasing the fare.

If you want to read TriMet’s technical language, click here for a draft of the proposal. Is the draft accessible for screen readers? Nope! I checked! That’s right, not accessible. Sure, they can say they made it available to the public. But it’s only for members of the public who have a certain level of vision. I’m feeling like the Department of Diversity & Transit Equity should not post inaccessible documents. Oh, silly me, it’s only transit equity, not equity in general. Including people so they can read about decisions that will affect them. Where do I get these ideas?

If you are able to access this document, you’ll notice that even though HC fares include people with disabilities, their analysis of whether the fare increase will disproportionately burden people looks at minority riders (race and ethnicity) and low-income riders. Again, help me understand. Where is the analysis of whether and how a fare increase has an impact on the disability community, where many people don’t drive cars? The word “disabilities” shows up nine times in the document, so we’re not completely left out. But why doesn’t this part of the population get an analysis?

Here’s some of the technical info that Jared helped me with. First off, their equity report did find that the increase will have a negative impact on low-income riders–63% of HC fare holders–but not riders of minority ethnicity. (If you read deeper into their report, you see that a lot of people of color aren’t taking advantage of the HC reduced fare that they would qualify for. You have to wonder if they did, would the equity analysis then show that minority ethnicity riders would have a negative impact from the fare increase too?)

Also, TriMet says that someone is “low-income” if they make 150% of the Federal Poverty Level. Using that number to decide who’s really low-income is outdated and not accurate at the local level. In fact, if you use this number, then you could be so poor that you qualify for Section 8 housing, but TriMet would not consider you low-income. Let’s put it in real numbers: If you’re a household of one making $24,300 a year in Portland, you could get a Section 8 housing voucher because you can’t afford rent on your own. But for TriMet to consider you low-income, you’d have to make only $17,505. That means if you earn $18,000 a year, the federal government would consider you being in poverty, but TriMet wouldn’t. And so TriMet won’t count you as someone who would have a negative outcome if your bus fare went up. Where does that leave this equity report? They said the fare increase will burden low-income riders, but they didn’t even count them all.

Also, OPAL received confirmation from TriMet that this increase in HC fares would raise around $650,000 a year. Its operating resources in the coming fiscal year are estimated at about $539,000,000. So the $650,000 represents only 0.1% of their revenue. It’s such a small number that it won’t have any meaningful impact on their ability to increase service or any of the other promises they are making.

Why am I writing about bus fares on a disability arts blog? Because I rely on public transportation for most of the traveling that I do because I can no longer safely bike commute or drive due to TBI disabilities. That includes loading all my recording gear on my back and hauling it to film shoots by bus. And on my nearly daily commutes, I’m surrounded by all types of folks carrying Honored Citizen passes. Public transportation is crucial for disabled people and older adults to get to work, medical appointments, school, volunteering, shopping, leisure activities, and really we shouldn’t have to explain the many reasons we leave the house. They’re all the same reasons young and non-disabled people leave the house. But because so many older adults, disabled people, and people of color live in poverty, and/or are on fixed incomes, public transportation is a lifeline. Raising the fares when it won’t really benefit the agency is poppycock.

Stay in touch with OPAL on their website or the OPAL Facebook page to find out how you can get involved in grassroots level work to let TriMet know that we know this is poppycock and sign on to a letter to the TriMet Board before they meet to decide on this on Wednesday, April 22nd.

TriMet says they want to raise the HC fare so it’s even with the Youth fare. Then we’d only have two fares. Well guess what? How about you lower the Youth fare to match the HC fare, and we’ll call it even? Transportation justice will only happen when the people who rely most on transit (too young to drive, can’t afford a vehicle, or can’t drive due to disability or aging) aren’t bearing more burden to use transit than those who can use transit whenever they want or not.

Transit justice is an integral part of social justice because without access to affordable transit free from profiling and discrimination, a lot of people are pushed further to the margins and into isolation. Some people criticize the disability community for not working hard enough or being productive. Chip away at our transit opportunities, and you’re going to limit our access to being productive in all kinds of ways. That is not the fault of disability. That’s ableism and classism.

We love our transit drivers who spend most of their waking hours dealing with traffic, each protecting the lives of hundreds of people every day, and skipping bathroom breaks to try to keep as close to schedule as they can. And we Portlanders are well aware of how fantastic our public transit system is compared to some other large cities. What we need is for fewer non-transit users to keep making decisions for us and at us. They need to allow us regular transit users and transit-dependent riders to voice our concerns. Raising this fare? This is a big concern even for more reasons than I wrote about today.