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Grassroots Movement Wins Millions In Fare Reductions For Portlanders

By Shawn Fleek - Inequality.Org, February 7, 2018

An Oregon environmental group secured its new discount program for low-income riders by organizing in the communities most likely to face barriers to civic participation.

Policymakers often overlook the people they’re meant to serve. When people aren’t fairly treated or meaningfully involved in the decisions which impact them, it leads to environmental injustice.

We see environmental injustice frequently in Portland, Oregon. The city is in a housing crisis of rapid gentrification, skyrocketing rents, and a record numbers of evictions. Portland’s transportation system is in critical condition, as a booming population chokes streets with traffic while transit ridership declines. We have some of the worst air quality in the country, and regulators seem less interested in cleaning it up than making polluters happy.

Yet OPAL, our small grassroots group in Portland, has spent the last ten years winning millions of dollars for low-income people and people of color, changing federal, state and local policy, and directly confronting environmental injustice. In January, we saw our biggest win to date: a fare reduction program that will save $10 million for low-income bus riders in the city. The program will serve individuals who earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line, providing a discount of more than 75 percent on the cost of a monthly bus pass, and 50 percent off an individual ride.

How do we do it? Grassroots organizing in the communities most likely to face discrimination and barriers to participation in civic life. Since 2010, OPAL has organized Portland’s transit riders under the banner Bus Riders Unite (BRU). At OPAL, organizing means bringing together the people and resources to win campaigns.

“At OPAL, low-income people and people of color make the rules,” says Executive Director Huy Ong, who leads OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon. “Our staff are all people of color from low-income backgrounds. We organize our communities to achieve a safe and healthy environment in the places where we live, work, learn, pray, and play.”

“We get on the buses and ask people about their experiences, not to meet a quota of signatures but because we genuinely care about these stories. We help people see that telling their stories to decision makers can change the decisions.”

BRU’s most recent victory became official on January 24th, 2018. BRU launched a campaign in late 2016 demanding a fare reduction for low-income people. TriMet, the regional transit agency, recently installed $22 million worth of new electronic fare equipment. BRU found out about the plan — which added costs to bus rides, limited ticket options in certain areas, and proposed to eliminate cash transfers — and fought back, hard.

TriMet quickly agreed to preserve the use of cash, and to hand out hundreds of thousands of free electronic fare cards to make the transition smoother. BRU then launched a campaign demanding a fare reduction for low-income people, based off of similar programs in Seattle and San Francisco.

BRU volunteers produced a report on how the program could be set up and and funded, and delivered the report to TriMet’s offices. Never missing an opportunity to waste money, TriMet hired an outside consultant to produce a report, which came to the same conclusions as BRU. TriMet agreed to implement a low-income fare program, and at their recent board meeting, made the program a part of their upcoming budget.

These victories are only possible because of OPAL’s commitment to transformational organizing. “We build relationships with bus riders,” says Bus Riders Unite Organizer Orlando Lopez. “We get on the buses and ask people about their experiences, not to meet a quota of signatures but because we genuinely care about these stories. We help people see that telling their stories to decision makers can change the decisions. Rider testimony was huge in winning the low income fare, just like the extended transfer time.”

Orlando is referring to BRU’s incredible track record of successful advocacy. We’ve changed the structure of TriMet Board Meetings, won rider-identified bus stop improvements, and created the Transit Equity Advisory Committee within TriMet to oversee civil rights implications of policy changes. In 2015, Bus Riders Unite won the three-year Campaign for a Fair Transfer, which fought to extend transfer times for bus riders, especially those affected by gentrification. BRU won a $1.5M Low Income Rider Mitigation Fund by creating an alternative budget, changed federal transportation policy through a complaint about TriMet to the FTA, and expanded free student transit passes to East Portland’s majority-minority schools.

Our members aren’t done. We recently announced a focus on bus service, safety improvements, and restorative justice in schools. At the beginning of 2017, OPAL launched a new alliance to bring together people who are organizing across Oregon. The Oregon Just Transition Alliance (OJTA) is OPAL’s statewide response to the crisis of climate change, and the environmental racism and economic exploitation that threaten global stability. OJTA Organizer Maria Hernandez proclaims, “We’re building a new way for decisions to be made. But we have to build the movement to get there.”

And meanwhile, OPAL continues to push for a bold vision of the future. Our Executive Director Huy Ong says plainly, “this work will never be done. In order to win justice for frontline communities, we have to keep fighting.”

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