PORTLAND Facing a $17-million shortfall this year, TriMet's latest budget proposal includes a switch to flat fares, rate hikes, eliminating the free zone and cutting back some routes.

Those choices would make up the shortfall when coupled with internal changes such as streamlining and layoffs, TriMet officials said Wednesday.

The agency would also do away with the free-ride zone downtown for MAXlight rail. That would save an estimated $2.7 million.

The public will be allowed to speak out about the proposals at a series of public hearings starting 1 p.m. this Saturday at the Beaverton Library. More: Public comment times

TriMet said accountants anticipated the shortfall last year, and blamed lower tax revenues, cuts in federal funding and an ongoing union contract delay.

We heard very clearly from the public that there is a willingness to pay more if we were able to limit the cuts to needed service, TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane said. We also want to restructure the fare system to make it easier to understand and more equitable.

Instead of a sliding fare scale based on travel routes, the new adult 2-hour ticket would be flate rate of $2.50 for any trips across town. That's $.10 higher than the present fare. The round-trip pass would remain $5. More:Fare scales

TriMet explained the flat fares make transfer times uniform for buses and trains.

The current zone system was created 30 years ago to charge for trips from the suburbs to downtown Portland, TriMet said. That kept fares low for low-income and minority riders, a demographic which has shifted since that time, officials argued.

In addition to restructuring the fare system, proposed cuts included 26 bus lines, MAX light rail service frequency and $400,000 in cuts to the streetcar budget. More:Which bus lines?

TriMet said cutting bus services and MAX services is the last place the agency looks to save money. Lines considered are those that overlap or have much smaller ridership rates. MAX lines would be cut down to 20-minute arrivals for trains at all times except for rush hour commutes.

A revised proposal was set to be released in early March. Changes would go into effect in September.

The public was invited to provide input here:

503-238-RIDE (7433), option #5

Fax: 503-962-6451

Mail: Budget Feedback,TriMet MK2, 4012 SE 17th Ave., Portland, OR 97202

Or call: 503-238-5811 (7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays)

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