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Goodbye free rail zone, and everything you stood for

Street Roots editorial 6.22.2012

The free rail zone, once known as Fareless Square is gone.

In a city that prides itself on being green, innovative and equity driven, it seems odd that besides a few organizations and voices in the wilderness, losing the free-rail zone didn’t seem to matter much.

It sure wasn’t all that important to Tri-Met. Didn’t hear much from the city, or other government institutions on the issue. The business community didn’t seem to mind, and why would they. Most out-of-town visitors, especially those attending conventions, will have their ride subsidized with revenue from a visitors tax.

When Fareless Square began in 1975, and throughout the years, it was held up as a beacon in the movement of progressive economic development, helping curb air pollution and encouraging people not to drive.

Fareless Square helped divert car congestion, gave people an opportunity to ride freely to sporting and other cultural events downtown. And it allowed people to travel from one part of the city’s concentrated core to another — to shop, enjoy lunch and generate a vibrant commercial center — unencumbered by additional charges.

In neighborhoods like Old Town, it allowed downtown citizens, many elderly and low-income to travel outside of its food desert to buy groceries and other goods. It allowed service workers who can’t afford to live or park downtown to travel freely to their jobs from outside the downtown core.

It’s all gone. The reality is that new charges applied to rail service downtown — on lines that already cut through the heart of the city — will nickel and dime the students, the elderly, and the service class who rely on the zone to enable their already limited livelihood.

Of course, time will pass and the city will adjust. Gentrification will continue and Portland’s downtown demographics will continue to trend toward wealthy, white individuals and families, while middle-class and poor people will be pushed toward the city’s outer rings. That’s not to say that abandoning the free rail zone is at fault for this sweeping reality. But it is one more component in a long line of missteps over the past two decades that have tilted Portland’s urban core further away from being a diverse and innovative downtown for the future.

We get it: Times are tough and revenues are down. Portland is still thriving, compared to many cities. We are one of the leading cities for alternative transportation modes in the country, and banking our investments on streetcars and cycling programs will lead us into the future.

That’s not enough. Having a free rail zone coupled with these investments would uphold true innovation, ensuring a hub for commerce, entertainment and an equity in mobility that will never return.

TriMet, its union, local government, and the business community could have saved the free-rail zone. They didn’t. We will all pay the price, literally, and Portland will suffer for it.

Note: The free-rail zone is scheduled to end in September.