Our fare city
Could a low-income bus fare help Seattleites get ahead?
It is a misty Monday morning, and Clifford White is waiting to go home from the hospital. In his short-sleeved T-shirt and dark cut-off sweat pants, he looks as though he doesn’t feel the chill. But his hands rhythmically rub against one another, seeking warmth in the friction.
White, a cancer patient, takes the bus to Harborview Medical Center for treatments. Now 53, he said he has made the trip nearly every day since he was 16.
After losing a leg to the disease, White is now in a wheelchair, so his trips to the hospital are more difficult.
To get to Harborview, White uses the Solid Ground Circulator Bus, a free service run by the nonprofit Solid Ground. It is funded by the city of Seattle as a pilot program with $400,000 previously used for the Ride Free Area.
White said he rides the Circulator because can’t afford the $2.25 to $2.50 bus fare.
He’s not the only one. Since the closing of Metro’s Ride Free Area in Downtown Seattle, social services advocates have been looking for a way to soften the impact on the city’s most vulnerable bus riders.
One idea comes from the Seattle Transit Riders Union, a newly formed group seeking to promote access to transit. The group’s members are campaigning for a program that would offer a lower bus fare option for eligible individuals, putting bus rides within reach of more low-income Seattleites.
The idea has received some traction. On Oct. 9, 2012, the King County Council approved a Low-Income Fare Options Advisory Committee to look into the possibility of a reduced fare.
The committee will meet through June in order to identify and establish opportunities and recommendations for low-income fare programs by July 2013.
Katie Wilson, a Transit Riders Union founder and a member of the Low-Income Fare Options Advisory Committee, believes that a lack of transit for poor people can compound other problems.
“For people who have a really limited disposable income, you end up planning your day, planning everything you do, around what you can do most cheaply. And that includes ‘how few bus trips can I take today?’”
Seattle is not the first place to work for some sort of amenity for people with lower incomes. San Francisco, Lincoln, Neb., and Tucson, Ariz., have implemented similar programs. From funding woes to frustrated riders, each city presents some possible challenges that may lie ahead for Seattle.
Implementation has not been easy. According to Wilson, it will require a large amount of support.
“It’s not going to happen unless people really push for it,” she said.
On Dec. 4, 2012, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s board of directors unanimously voted to allot $1.6 million so children of low-income families could ride Muni free.
The two-year fight for reduced fare, led by a youth empowerment group and a coalition of adult supporters, erupted after the number of the city’s yellow school buses was cut in half due to recession-era budget cuts.
San Francisco Supervisor David Campos said the conditions were ripe for revolt.
“You have a perfect storm here,” said Campos, “with the recession and the number of school buses reduced to half. You then have families choosing between paying for lunch and paying to get on the bus.”
The city’s 16-month pilot program will run from March 2013 until July 2014. The money is coming from a $6.7 million grant from the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission. When the pilot program ends, funding has to be found if the program is to continue.
To keep the program going, program organizers suggest taxing large developers and corporations, increasing the impact fee on new development, creating a transit assessment district or taxing sports franchises for transit services. In other words, someone will have to pay a tax so that someone else’s child doesn’t have to pay a bus fare. During the pilot program, the city predicts it will serve 40,000 underprivileged youth.
In a typical month, Tucson’s Sun Tran, which serves areas in and around Tucson, provides about 25,000 discount passes to low-income riders.
For a long time, Sun Tran has offered an Economy Pass Program that provides reduced fare for low-income riders, senior citizens, Medicare Card holders and people with disabilities.
The regular single fare price is $1.75 while the economy fare price is 85 cents. A regular monthly pass is $45, and the economy equivalent is $15. Low-income riders use pay stubs and W-2 forms to show proof of eligibility.
In order to continue service, those who oversee Sun Tran have generally opted to raise bus fares instead of cutting services and routes. According to a statement by Sun Tran spokeswoman Michele Joseph which appeared in the Arizona Daily Star, the economy fare increased to 40 cents in 2000 and to 50 cents in 2012. In 2012, when the fare increased, administrators of the transit system limited the cost, meaning that the city had to come up with about $260,000 to offset lost revenue.
Transit system officials hope that with high gas prices, more people will choose to ride the bus rather than drive, which will help make up the difference.
The reduced fare on Lincoln’s Star-Tran transit has been in effect since October 2004. A 30-day reduced transit pass offered for $5; it is normally $35.
Since the program’s launch, one-third of the system’s 2 million bus riders have been low-income, according to Lincoln City Accountant Scott Tharnish. When all fixed-route service in Lincoln is included, low-income people account for about half of the ridership on Star-Tran.
People qualify as low-income if they are at 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. For the first five years, riders had to provide proof of eligibility when purchasing a low-income bus pass. Documentation of other programs such as Medicaid, food stamps and reduced lunch programs was used to show eligibility. In 2010, the program switched to a self-certify method, an honor system.
The community has embraced the low-fare program, and sales of the passes have grown steadily.
As in San Francisco, however, funding is a constant struggle. Many existing riders, who had been paying full price, were eligible for the low-income program. When they began to pay $30 less for their monthly pass, the difference created a loss of revenue for the transit system.
For the first couple of years, that lost revenue was reconciled through funding from outside agencies and nonprofit grants. Eventually, the pass costs were incorporated into the budget and lost revenue was paid by existing property taxes.
With tough economic times, however, more money was needed to cover maintenance and labor costs at Star-Tran. In November 2011 the pass price rose from $5 to $8.
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