On one of her marathon bus commutes, DiJonnette Montgomery-Thompson watched a mother with three small children in tow get kicked off a bus and left on the side of the road because their transfers expired before they reached their destination. They had no more money to pay another fare.

It’s a problem that Montgomery-Thompson, a 39-year-old student getting a degree in social work, can run into when she and her daughter string together errands on the bus to buy school shoes, fill a prescription, or hit the library.

The two-hour window they’re now allowed to transfer to other buses or rail lines after paying their collective $4.15 fare seems like it should be long enough to get a lot done. But because her main bus line in suburban Beaverton, Oregon, only runs once an hour on weekends, a one-way trip to the grocery store and one other stop can easily eat up that time. If that transfer window runs out, she ends up paying again to finish her errands and get home.

The Portland metro area’s transit agency has dealt with recent revenue shortfalls by cutting service five times over four years, which has been particularly hard on the region’s low-income, minority, and transit-dependent population. As Montgomery-Thompson explains:

I use the bus to do everything I need to do, but the reliability and service isn’t what it used to be. Because we don’t have frequent lines in the suburbs, cutting back service has been extremely hard. You see a lot of people at the transit stations just waiting for an hour during any given day. There’s nowhere to get children a drink of water, there’s nowhere to use the restroom.

This mother had an infant and two small children on a bus that runs once an hour, and her transfer expired on her and everyone got pulled off. To me, that doesn’t seem fair. You’re waiting and waiting and your transfer expires before the bus takes off and they say too bad. The least they could do is extend the time.

Riders like Montgomery-Thompson, who’ve been asked to pay more for less service, want something in return. They’re asking TriMet for a relatively small change that they argue would make a big difference in their lives: extending the transfer window that permits travel on a single fare to 3 hours during the day and until the end of service after 7 p.m.

That would arguably make Portland’s transit transfer policy the most liberal in the country. TriMet has agreed to consider the idea, and is currently crunching updated data to estimate how much it would cost. Depending on the assumptions used, previous figures have run in the neighborhood of $1 to $4 million, some of which would be offset by increased ridership from people who would be more inclined to take the bus.

(Update 7/22/13: TriMet has released this updated financial analysis of the 3 hour transfer proposal, estimating that losses from extending that window could range from $2.1 million to $4.1 million. Advocates have “have begun a facilitated dialogue with TriMet brass about the details and methods behind their numbers,” according to OPAL.)

For an agency that has spent the last five years backfilling budget holes, one could argue that this is a luxury it can’t afford. But recent revelations that the agency last year gave its executives undisclosed pay raises at the very time it claimed to be broke tend to undermine that case. And transit users with Bus Riders Unite argue it’s a relatively low cost way for the agency to begin restoring some of the value that customers who buy cash tickets have lost and acknowledge that recent service cuts and fare hikes have caused real hardship.

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  • This chart from Portland Afoot shows TriMet has raised fares by nearly 70 percent (when adjusted for inflation) over the last 15 years. Last year, the agency eliminated its fare zones that allowed riders to pay less for shorter trips. That change represented a larger fare hike (40 cents vs. 10 cents) for single-ticket riders who take shorter trips (who are more likely to be low-income or people of color) than for suburban commuters who travel longer distances.

    According to TriMet’s analysis of who would be most affected by the changes that went into effect last year, the group of riders with the highest proportion of low-income and minority riders had the second steepest fare increase (behind 2-zone monthly and annual pass purchasers).

    In other words, here’s how Jared Franz, policy associate for OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon—the group that has organized riders and championed the transfer changes—describes the current situation:

    A 3-mile trip to the grocery store for someone living in a food desert now costs the same as a 30-mile trip taken by a suburban commuter. There is the very definition of an inequitable fare structure.

    Even in Portland, a region widely praised by outsiders for their transit system—because people are hypnotized by sexy, shiny trains—and a region often characterized as one of the whitest major cities in America, transit decisions have had a major disproportionate impact on people of color and low-income individuals.

    When OPAL first started talking to people in Portland’s working class neighborhoods and communities of color and asking what issues they most wanted a voice in, transit quickly rose to the top. And extending the transfer window was one of the highest priorities.

    It’s a plea that Teresa Keishi-Soto hears all the time. Because she turned 65 recently and now uses a discounted senior pass to get to her job as a Head Start center assistant, she wouldn’t directly benefit from a longer transfer window. But she hears a lot of anxiety among people in her Southeast Portland neighborhood who clean offices in Hillsboro or landscape in Lake Oswego or work other faraway jobs. If there are accidents or traffic, certain bus routes fall apart and it can take them more than two hours just to travel one way, she said:

    You’re cutting service and connections are missed constantly. People are already under such stress—you need to do something so they can take a breather and make it to work. I constantly do run into people who are going in one direction who tell me that they can barely get there.

    It appears that this message from riders has gotten through. While previous discussions about extending the transfer window petered out, TriMet now appears to be seriously considering the idea. Here’s what General Manager Neil McFarlane said publicly when the agency earlier this year agreed to take a second look at granting 3-hour transfers and a free return trip after 7 p.m.:

    No question, riders throughout the region are experiencing longer wait times, more crowded buses and missed connections. Wherever I go in region, riders ask for more service, particularly to get access to jobs. Rightly so, transit plays a critical role in our local economy. We are committed to increasing service.

    TriMet’s recent switch to automated ticket printers on buses would make the change easier. Already, the agency has implemented a two-hour transfer window that eliminates much of the uncertainty and inequity in the transit agency’s old transfer system. (Previously, bus riders officially got 1.5 hours while rail riders got two hours. But, in practice, it was really up to the discretion of bus drivers as they pulled off paper tickets. The new policy may, in fact, hurt riders who previously benefited from generous drivers who gave out three- or four-hour transfers just to be nice.)

    So the math that TriMet has to do in deciding whether to extend the transfer window is threefold:

    1. How much money will it lose from people who previously paid twice or bought day passes and who would now be able to complete their trips within three hours?
    2. How many new riders might be encouraged to hop on the bus, instead of drive or walk, if they had a longer window to complete their travel?
    3. How much good will would it generate and how much fairness would it restore in communities hard hit by previous cuts, and how much does the agency care?

    To help answer some of those questions in our next post, we’ll look at two other communities—Minneapolis and Dallas—with transit policies that allow longer windows for people to get around on single, affordable fares.