Is fare enforcement worth the cost?

Dear TriMet,

Your news release yesterday trumpeted, “March’s fare enforcement report continues 13-fold increase,” like that was some kind of awesome victory. But setting aside the suffering of all the poor and working-class people who will now have to pay $175 fines or be excluded from transit for 90 days, TriMet, have you done the math on this?

Thanks to your new strategy of increased enforcement, according to the press release, you expect to bring in revenue of $250,000 from citations this year. Six new supervisors hired last summer bring your team to a total of eighteen full-time fare enforcers (plus additional hours of fare enforcement by other field supervisors). Dividing $250,000 of revenue by the 18 full-time enforcers, you get just $13,889 of revenue a year per enforcer. You must be paying them a lot more than they’re bringing in, TriMet, because they’re only bringing in $6.68 an hour, and that’s less than the minimum wage.

So explain this to me. In a time when you claim to have a budget hole of millions of dollars, when you are cutting service and raising fares for the umpteenth time, why would you want to throw money away on a misery-generating program like that? Money you could be spending on transit service instead? I fear you are on the road to a Pyrrhic victory, TriMet. The day may come when, at last, not a single person evades their fare – because not a single bus or train still runs.

Think how much you’d save if you abandoned fare enforcement and went to a pay-what-you-will or suggested-donation honor system. Fare dodgers could dodge in peace, some folks would pay a little less and others a little more – and most importantly, more people would ride! I’m not convinced your total revenue would drop at all. With the money you saved on fare enforcers and tickets and ticket machines and transit police, you could increase service. The more frequently the buses ran, the more people would ride, and the more people rode, the more frequently the buses could run. Think of it: abundance, instead of scarcity!

Or we could just fund the whole system through sufficient taxes, since a transit system is good for everyone. That would make sense too. But let’s stop squandering money on enforcing fares. What a waste.


Alexandra Bradbury


About Al Bradbury

Labor journalist by day, singer-songwriter by night, Odonian at all hours.


  1. I can answer this one probably faster than TriMet will get back to you. I don’t know where that “6 new fare enforcers” number comes from, and there are not 18 full-time fare inspectors (there are far, far fewer). Offhand I don’t remember the last time new full-time fare inspectors were added. A few years ago a lot of the ones who WERE full-time fare inspectors got shuffled to be either road supervisors or rail supervisors, leaving only a few people as full-time fare inspectors because TriMet gets more bang for their buck that way. A supervisor can get pulled out of doing fare inspection & other code enforcement to go fix a bus or train, act as an on-site liaison in case of an accident or emergency, ensure that operators are fit for duty, etc. A fare inspector, on the other hand, will spend the entire shift doing code enforcement and won’t do vehicle troubleshooting in the field or any of the things a supervisor can do.

    If you want to know more about the work fare inspectors do and road/rail supervisors (particular rail, since that’s my area of focus), I’ve written about this before because a lot of people have the same questions you do since the press releases are kind of confusing as far as how many people are doing fare inspection & what kind of work they do:

    • Thank you for the clarification and for the link to your thoughtful, thorough blog! The TriMet press release is certainly misleading; it says “TriMet moved to a stronger stance on fare enforcement, six new supervisors were hired bringing the fare enforcement team to an equivalent of 18 full-time fare enforcers. The dedicated fare enforcement team is augmented by all other field supervisors spending an hour a day checking fares.” You can see how I understood that to mean there were now 18 full-time fare enforcers plus an unspecified number of additional supervisors. But it’s a good lesson for me in being more careful about leaping to conclusions in areas where I am not the expert.

      (A related point of ignorance for me: Can a “supervisor” in TriMet parlance be a union member? I assumed it was a manager-type job, outside the bargaining unit, though I understand either way they could be doing front-line work.)

      I think my argument still holds, though, that money and time would be better spent on transit service than on fare enforcement. I’m definitely not trying to rag on union workers or gripe about their salaries; I hope my letter didn’t read that way. Workers, union or not, unfortunately don’t generally have much of a say in the big structural decisions like whether fares are good for transit. Philosophically I think it is penny-wise and pound-foolish to expend resources on limiting people’s access to public services.

      • All supervisors are union members. They are not managers.

        Regarding the number of “fare inspectors”, it’s confusing because there’s a large group of people (the supervisors) which can and do get assigned to check fares, but a) don’t have “fare inspector” titles and b) may only spend a minority of their time checking fares.

        Moreover, I believe TriMet also considers increased revenue from people who decide to pay because of the increased enforcement, and possibly the value of the additional presence.

  2. Jason McHuff

    Also, I should add that when completely free service has been tried in large transit systems, vandalism and other security issues have overshadowed any increase in ridership.

  3. “To make sure the citation numbers go up, TriMet has mandated that road supervisors do the
    following three things that have supervisors upset: 1) Not issue warning tickets, no matter how
    reasonable the passenger’s explanation; 2) Meet a quota of 35 passenger contacts in one hour
    resulting in 4 to 9 citations; 3) Focus on the Yellow Line into and out of North Portland with an
    emphasis on the Albina/Mississippi and Killingsworth/Interstate stations. The two named Max
    stations serve predominately low income and minority passengers.”

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