Corvallis buys into fareless transit

A black bag covers a fare box on a Corvallis bus parked at the city’s Public Works campus on Tuesday, July 24, 2018. Even though Corvallis eliminated fares in 2011, older buses still have their fare box. (Sage Sinnott)

On a Wednesday morning after an early shift at Starbucks, Connor Laurion spotted his bus pulling into the downtown Corvallis transit center. He walked aboard — and continued right past the fare box, which is covered with a black bag.

Corvallis stopped collecting fares on buses in 2011, joining a small number of U.S. cities that don’t charge riders to board. The city saw a sizeable increase in passengers after the program took effect, and other cities have looked to Corvallis as one example of how fareless transit can work. Yet few have since followed its example.

Most transit agencies rely on fares and tax dollars to fund public transit. Corvallis, however, replaced its 75-cent fare with a monthly fee on utility bills.

Residents pay at least $1.90 for an apartment or $2.75 for a house, an amount that rises or falls based on the average gas price per gallon. Businesses pay a larger fee based on the number of vehicle trips to and from their establishments.

The experiment showed immediate results. In the first full year of fareless transit, ridership jumped by 38 percent. In the last year, the transit system gave 1.1 million rides.

A local environmental group led the push for the change in an effort to curb pollution from cars. Tim Bates, city transit coordinator, said fewer cars on the road also means the pavement stays in better condition and requires less maintenance.

“The more people we can get on the bus, the better it is for the entire community,” Bates said.

Christy Follis, 60, said the system is part of the reason she moved to Corvallis two years ago. Follis, who doesn’t own a car, walks, bikes or uses public transit. But after a bike crash, she relied more on buses, particularly because they’re fareless.

“It encourages me to get out more,” Follis said.

A Line 6 bus pulls into the downtown Corvallis transit center on the morning of Wednesday, July 25, 2018. Most bus lines come once every hour or 30 minutes. (Lily Caporael)

Bates said the fareless transit system works in Corvallis in part because the city is relatively small and a college town.

Oregon State University students alone make up about 42 percent of the transit system’s ridership. Students also pay an additional fee of 90 cents per term that goes to the transit system.

Other college towns, including Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Missoula, Montana, have also adopted fareless transit. Missoula’s switch came four years after Corvallis, and Bates said officials there looked to the Oregon city as one example.

Some major cities have made elements of their transit system free. In Calgary, Canada, low-income riders can receive a free bus pass. In Pittsburgh, the rail system is free downtown.

Connor Laurion rides the bus home after an early-morning shift. Laurion says he learned about Corvallis’ fareless transit from the bus stop outside his apartment.

The Portland area’s TriMet similarly operated a fareless zone in Portland’s downtown core from 1975 to 2012. Spokeswoman Tia York said that the agency ended the “Fareless Square” because it cost about $2.7 million a year and contributed to an additional $1 million to $2 million in losses from fare evasion.

Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy for the American Public Transportation Association, said he doesn’t see fareless transit becoming more mainstream. Fareless transit systems, he said, can result in abuse, including riding for shelter or comfort.

“The user should pay some, rather than expect others to pay,” he said.

Lane Transit District, which serves Eugene and surrounding cities, has often considered dropping fares, spokeswoman Therese Lang said. But there’s not enough public support or political focus on public transit, she said. Ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft have taken a toll on ridership.

In Corvallis, there’s no sign fareless transit is going away. The city, which like most other transit systems is expecting an influx of money from a state transportation funding bill passed last year, could use the money to pay for more service hours and frequent buses.

A short-lived effort to put the fareless system to referendum when it was first approved didn’t make the ballot for lack of support.

“Now, it is such an ingrained part of Corvallis,” Bates said. “It’s kind of become what we’re known for.”

— Lily Caporael, Parkrose High School

— Sage Sinnott, Gladstone High School