Last week, when I read this report from Joseph Rose at OregonLive about the recent – heavily attended and raucous – TriMet board meeting, I was prompted to reflect on my own growing up in Portland and on the significance of public transit to my mobility, independence and sense of place in the city. The decision to eliminate the Free Rail Zone, in particular, got me thinking about my reliance on TriMet buses, and later Max, for getting around the city as a teen, and how less accessible the system is becoming with each round of service cuts and fare changes.
For me, learning to navigate the bus system was an important coming of age moment. The first time I went downtown on the bus without adult supervision stands out in my memory more vividly than getting my driver’s license.
I began using TriMet in middle school, but it was in high school that using the bus became an everyday part of my life. I lived in north Portland, on the east side of the Willamette River, but attended school downtown, on the west side, and the city bus is how I got to school each day.
More than that, the bus was freedom. Freedom from having to rely on my parents to get places. Freedom from feeling like I needed a car of my own. Freedom to explore downtown after school (and sometimes during). Fareless Square (later the Free Rail Zone) was an important adjunct to that freedom because I, and my friends, could traverse the free ride area together before heading off to our respective homes. I have no doubt that this sense of freedom is one reason why I delayed getting my driver’s license. I was already mobile and I am sure now that my years using TriMet are why I can still navigate the city with ease even though it has been almost ten years since I last lived in Portland.
It is tempting to see the current retrenchment by the transit agency as an artifact of the recession, but the roots go deeper than that.
High school was not only when I was getting around the city by foot, bus, and train, but also when anti-tax activism was coming to be expressed in property tax limitation measures modeled after California’s Prop 13. I graduated high school in 1987, and the first state property tax limitation, Measure 5, did not pass until 1990, but my high school years were marked by earlier, unsuccessful, attempts to pass such legislation by referendum.
One effect of 1990s-era tax limitation in Oregon was to shift the burden of funding local services from cities and counties to the state general fund, which is dependent on income tax. Even leaving aside irrationalities in that system, like the kicker, Oregon’s economy just isn’t that big. There is no way that an income-tax fueled state general fund was or is going to make up for shortfalls at the city and county scale. As a result, local services have been degraded over the course of the last couple of decades, and would have been with or without the current financial crisis and recession.
I also think that there has been an important cultural effect to property tax limitation, and resulting increase in demands on state revenues: many voting adults have come to believe that even basic services are too costly, never mind that many of those services, like, say, accessible and reliable public transit, are things that many could, and did, take for granted as kids and young adults. The fact that we can’t pay for them now is, yes, partly the result of a declining economy, but more significantly is the result of setting arbitrary limits on the ability to pay for services.
Oregon in the 1980s, when I was an adolescent and teen, was a place of moderate population growth, particularly as compared to the next two decades. So, to the extent that I enjoyed the benefits of services like a robust transit system, and extracurricular activities like drama, Model U.N. and speech and debate without having to pay substantial costs above and beyond what my parents were already paying in taxes, was not due to some quirky prosperity, but to a tax system that allowed services to be paid for as deemed necessary by voters and their representatives.
The paradox here is that property tax limitation finally succeeded at the ballot box during a period of relatively high prosperity for the state, and for the Portland metro area in particular. Arguably, that prosperity worked to mask what was happening at the local level because gaps could be filled through a combination of state money and institutional efforts (e.g., teachers bringing in their own supplies). Today, of course, the state money part of that equation has been in decline. More critically, public scarcity is seen as a natural condition.
But public scarcity isn’t a natural condition. In Oregon, specifically, it stems from political choices made in the 90s, choices that previously had been resisted by voters.
When I see reports like the one I started with, about TriMet, I think of how different the political culture is in Oregon now as compared to when I was a teen and how life at the same age for me today would be materially different than it actually was as a consequence.
Maybe I would have biked more. Or maybe I would have felt a stronger push to have a car. In any case, my sense of independence and my relationship to the city would not have been what it was without TriMet. And while the current round of cuts and hikes are hardly tantamount to eliminating transit in Portland, these changes do make the service less effective and less accessible. And I can’t help but think that the place is a little less free than it used to be.