Reeling from the bad press around two highly publicized attacks on TriMet riders, TriMet general manager Fred Hansen wants do away with fareless square during the evening, and possibly forever.
The reason? Because “Fareless Square provides a free ride for panhandlers, who go back and forth between downtown and the Lloyd Center, and drug dealers and rowdy gangs of young people, homeless people and drunks who are using the train as a shelter and a place to do their business,” Hansen told an audience at the City Club of Portland.
But the attacks occurred at stations, not aboard the Max. Other security proposals can address that concern. The reason for doing away with Fareless Square, even in increments, is money. The disgust at panhandlers and homeless people, even drunks for that matter, is something else. It’s scapegoating the popular punching bags to present another regressive attitude in the guise of a positive outcome. The goal: To have private security guards asking for proof of fares to initiate conversation among those who “raise suspicions.” You don’t even have to lift a finger to cause a problem for the courtesy interrogation. We already know that if you look homeless – especially if you’re seeking shelter from the cold and rain — according to Hansen’s own words, you’re in their sights.
Since when did suspicion of a fare violation trump the suspicion of drug dealing?
On the other hand, there are definitely positives in Hansen’s plans for security, which everyone can support, and for ensuring that fares are paid – which they should be. Fixing the faulty vending machines seems a no-brainer, but it will go a long way toward easing the minds of people who are forced to choose between risking riding without fare or walking miles home alone in the dark. Now that’s where TriMet can actually improve security.
And security on board the trains would be a benefit, provided they answer to TriMet, not private security interests. According to The Oregonian, Hansen says he would negotiate with TriMet's union to allow Wackenhut contract security officers to write tickets and exclude “unruly people” from the system. Any actions against citizens that exclude them from public transportation need to be conducted in a transparent accountability system. We don’t need any more guards enforcing public policies under the cloak of private business, particularly when a business contract and job security relies on a steady flow of people deemed “unruly.”
Fareless Square is a 30-year institution and a hallmark of our great city. It ferries people from the Southside into Old Town for a Chinese lunch, and back again within the hour. It is a conveyor for tourists who want to enjoy shopping, dining, entertainment and the sites in our bustling downtown. It sends people for a quick shop at Lloyd Center and back downtown for the evening meeting. It is lauded by environmentalists as a progressive alternative to the growing glut of polluting engines. It is a treasure to the poor, who often travel its width and breadth to reach services and needs, and yes, find shelter, as they should and have every right to. Its preservation should be at the forefront of everyone, from business owners to social advocates to consumers. But it doesn’t seem so important to TriMet.
Which brings us back to the money. TriMet has been crying for the end of Fareless Square for years to (end car prowls, stop drug dealing, protect against terrorism?) bring in more revenue. If TriMet wants to end the free rides on paid routes, put in a better system. The proposed gated entry points, fixing antiquated ticket dispensers, are all on the right track. But go further: Consider the Seattle model – where a much larger downtown is fareless — of having people pay as the leave through the front and only the front door.
We were innovative and progressive 32 years ago with the advent of Fareless Square. We shouldn’t be so shortsighted as to scrap such an asset for quick cash.