With the disappearance of Metro’s Ride Free Area (RFA) set for September 29, Metro and city officials have just a month to tinker with plans to make up for the loss and to accept payment for a service that has been free for 39 years.
In the driver’s seat
The shuttle vehicles that will offer free rides in lieu of the Ride Free Area are ready to roll, said Doug Hodson, Metro’s rfa transition coordinator, but they won’t be driven by transit operators.
Hodson said he thinks vehicle operators from Solid Ground, a local nonprofit working to end poverty, will fill that role. “We’re following the assumption they’re going to be the drivers,” he said.
Solid Ground CEO and director Gordon McHenry, Jr. is working under the same belief.
“It’s my hope as CEO that the board will approve our recommendation,” McHenry said.
The Solid Ground board will vote on the plan Thursday, Sept. 6, a little more than three weeks before the rfa ends.
Shuttles will operate eight to nine hours Monday through Friday, with stops planned every 20 to 30 minutes, McHenry said.
The service will continue as a pilot program until the end of 2013, at which point Metro will evaluate the shuttle’s effectiveness.
Rick Sheridan, media spokesman for Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), said the stops and precise route for the shuttle have yet to be selected, but the route’s northern boundary will be Battery Street, and its southern boundary will be Yesler Way. Signage to identify the bus to potential passengers is still in the works as well.
Hodson said the final shuttle route and its stops will be based upon input from human service agencies and meet the transportation needs of low-income people.
“But it doesn’t mean that other people can’t ride if they need or want to,” he said.
Sheridan said that in the past, the city has kicked in $400,000 annually to Metro to offset the rfa. He said the same funding will now be used to pay for shuttle operation.
Riders, meet your “loader”
Along with the shuttle, Metro will institute a pay-as-you-enter system when the rfa ends. Most riders will have to enter through the front door to pay the one-way, non-peak fare of $2.25. (The rush hour, peak fare is $2.50.)
But beginning Monday, Oct. 1, some riders can pay at the back door. Metro expects that when the pay-as-you-enter policy first goes into effect, it will result in longer boarding times, Hodson said.
“We hope people will be patient,” he said.
Metro officials hope to expedite boarding by using “loaders:” people holding portable orca readers outside the rear door of buses at certain stops downtown. Riders will be able tap an ORCA card on the reader, then board the bus in the rear.
In the transit tunnel, loaders will accept ORCA card payments at Westlake, University Street and Chinatown/International Street stations from 4 to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.
On the surface streets, loaders will be positioned at the northbound and southbound stops at Third and Virginia and Third and Pine. They will also be standing by at the southbound stop at Second and Columbia. Surface street loaders will accept fare payment 4 to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Hodson said loaders will likely be at the Second and Third avenue stops for a couple of weeks. He said their short-term use on surface streets comes down to money: Metro has to pay each loader, and if that person also works as a bus driver, the loader would earn his hourly driver salary.
“But if it seems crucial to keep the flow,” Hodson said, “we’ll probably find a way to keep them going.”