Unions, human service agencies press council on low-income bus and light rail fares
Transit advocates, backed by more than 25 social justice organizations and unions, want the county council to push for a low-income fare program on Metro and Sound Transit.
On Dec. 12, the Transit Riders Union (TRU) delivered a letter to Councilmember Larry Gossett that stated there is a pressing need for low-income fares on the county’s transportation systems. Twenty-seven other groups, including El Centro de la Raza, the Statewide Poverty Action Network, Teamsters Local 117 and Real Change, added their names as signatories. “We believe that, if done well, this program will be an achievement that King County can be proud of,” the letter stated.
The groups advocate for a fare of 75 cents, which would be equivalent to the cost of regional reduced fares for seniors and people with disabilities. They also recommend a low-fare monthly pass.
Low-income fares are already on the agenda for the county council. Councilmembers voted in early October to create an advisory committee that would investigate developing a program for Metro’s low-income riders. Councilmember Gossett was one of five councilmembers who co-sponsored the legislation.
The committee will begin meeting in February and will provide the council with recommendations in July.
The county committee was charged with examining fares only on Metro, but TRU organizer Katie Wilson said her group believed incorporating Sound Transit into a low-fare program was necessary as well, since the recession has impacted bus and light rail riders. “Lots of people who consider themselves middle class are low-income,” Wilson said.
Metro’s current one-zone, off-peak fare is $2.25 cents. Fares on Sound Transit buses range from $2.50 to $3.50, while the light rail costs between $2 and $2.75.
Bus riders saw regional transportation become a front-burner issue in 2012. In September, Metro ended the Ride Free Area (RFA), which provided free bus service 13 hours a day, seven days a week throughout downtown Seattle. The RFA began, in a less comprehensive form, in 1973. TRU staged a mock funeral to mourn the program’s termination.
Days after Metro discontinued the RFA, the nonprofit Solid Ground began a free downtown circulator shuttle system that runs roughly nine hours a day on weekdays. The City of Seattle pays the nonprofit $400,000 a year to operate the pilot program, which will be reevaluated at the end of 2013.
Nationwide, the implementation of low-income fares may be gaining traction. The San Francisco Examiner reported last month that Bay Area transportation agencies were examining discount fares based on need.
Wilson said that in Lincoln, Neb., riders can purchase a low-income monthly pass and can do so without providing income information. Tucson, Ariz., operates a low-income fare program as well, though the city’s transit agency requires income verification.
But those programs don’t offer clear models for how King County might fund its own low-fare program, Wilson said. The letter submitted to Councilmember Gossett suggested the council could petition the state legislature for funding, perhaps as a portion of a motor vehicle excise tax. It also proposed the council consider a county-wide employer tax.
Wilson admitted that while the cost of instituting a low-income fare program is unknown, the program would provide immense benefits to low-income riders. It could also pave the way for other cities in the country to implement their own programs. “If we started a really good program here,” Wilson said, “we’d be on the cutting edge.”
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