Although TriMet says the correct bus fare is required for anyone riding the bus, about 1 out of every 100 riders refuses to pay and most get off scot-free. Bus drivers press the fare evasion button but that data just gets sent to TriMet.
“It’s demoralizing,” said Gary Hernandez, a TriMet bus driver and union representative.
Riders are also frustrated by evaders.
“Everyone should pay their fair share,” said bus rider Dwight Hagan as he stepped off a bus in downtown Portland.
Last year, drivers pushed the fare evasion button more than 421,000 times – an average of about 35,000 times a month, or 1,100 times a day. TriMet said it provided about 60 million bus rides total in 2016.
Some evaders paid a partial fare. But TriMet doesn’t track individual payments, so the organization has no way of knowing exactly how much money was lost.
With bus tickets costing between $1.25 for seniors, kids and people with disabilities, and $2.50 for everyone else, that adds up to between $500,000 and $1 million in lost bus fare if these evaders were to actually pay. It's a small but not insignificant fraction of TriMet's $1 billion budget.
“That’s the people’s money. We’re a public entity,” said Hernandez. “The guy that gets on the bus that doesn’t pay his fare – he’s stealing.”
And that’s just on the bus, where riders actively decline to pay. On the MAX, unless riders are caught by TriMet “supervisors” who run intermittent enforcement missions, they can choose not to pay without anyone knowing the wiser.
A 2016 PSU study found 14.5 percent of MAX riders evaded fare.
With 101.5 million rides given last year, that shakes out to about 15 million instances of MAX fare evasion, costing TriMet as much as $36 million, again if the evaders were somehow forced to pay.
TriMet issued about 25,000 citations, warnings or exclusions last year, mostly on the MAX.
TriMet says a higher rate of MAX fare evasion isn’t surprising.
“The likelihood of an individual trying to cheat the system increases when an operator or other employee is not there to check fare at the door,” said TriMet spokeswoman Roberta Altstadt.
On buses, fare evasions are trending even higher this year.
In January and February, riders evaded fare about 36,000 times – on par with last year’s numbers. In March, the instances of fare evasion climbed to 48,995. In April, they were 54,429.
Last month, riders refused to pay for bus tickets more than 57,000 times.
Maps of fare evasions between January and April 2017 show people evaded fare across the city but some bus stops were bigger targets than others. Hundreds of riders at bus stops in downtown, the Rose Quarter, inner Southeast, 82nd Avenue, Cesar Chavez Boulevard and Division Street evaded fare every month.
The uptick in fare evasions isn’t random. In March, TriMet toned down the language drivers are instructed to use when riders refuse to pay. The agency made the change in response to increasing driver attacks, most of which were over bus fare.
Background: Why are attacks on TriMet drives increasing?
TriMet calls that language “Standard Operating Procedure,” or SOP. Instead of telling riders “I need to see your fare,” they now say, “Fares are required on TriMet buses.”
“It kind of depersonalizes things,” explained Altstadt.
TriMet admits the rise in bus fare evasion is likely due to the new driver policy. The agency is glad drivers are pushing the fare evasion button instead of engaging with people who don’t want to pay.
“We believe the increase in button pushes from March on reflect the changes to our SOP,” said Altstadt. “We continue to reinforce with operators that they are fare informers and that they should report fare evasion to avoid potential confrontations stemming from fare disputes.”
While TriMet’s fare evasion losses snowball, drivers say TriMet’s new policies still put them, and riders, at risk of attack.