January 22, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 4


A fare deal

By Rosette Royale / Assistant Editor

Metro could roll out a low-income bus fare next year

Riders board a downtown Metro bus on Third Avenue. Low-income riders may get a break on bus fare beginning in March 2015.

Photo by Jon Williams / Arts Editor

If the reduced fare passes the King County Council, low-income riders will pay $1.50 to ride a Metro bus.

Photo by Jon Williams / Arts Editor

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Starting in March 2015, low-income people in Seattle may get a break on bus fare. It would cost $1.50 to ride Metro.

King County Executive Dow Constantine announced the proposed fare Jan. 14. If passed, Metro would become one of a handful of transit agencies nationwide that offer a low-income fare.

“It definitely is a victory,” said Transit Riders Union (TRU) spokesperson Katie Wilson, a member of the advisory committee convened by King County last spring after the county ended the Ride Free Area (RFA). To mitigate the effects of that decision, the committee recommended county officials institute a low-income regional bus fare.

The council will likely vote on the proposal in late February.

The fare would apply to riders who earn less than 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines. To be eligible, a single person could earn just under $23,000 a year. For someone in a family of four, the annual household income threshold would be $47,100.

People who participate in federal assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides food stamps, and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) would also be eligible.

“It really represents the people who could be considered the working poor,” said Metro General Manager Doug Hodson.

The low-income fare would remain constant during non-peak and peak hours.

Hodson said low-income people would pay their fare with an ORCA card, which could hold funds for a monthly pass or accept monetary additions as part of an “e-purse.” Having low-income riders use ORCA would help reduce stigma, he said, because “they can get a card that will look like other cards.”

Some of the finer points of the proposal still need to be worked out, Hodson said. Metro officials envision riders who are clients of social service agencies may be able to get cards there. People not associated with those agencies could buy the card at Metro’s downtown office.

Low-income riders would need to reapply for eligibility every two years.

The rollout of the proposed fare would coincide with a planned fare increase for general ridership, Hodson said. In March 2015, Metro fares would increase $0.25. The county council must also approve the proposed fare increase.

The current Metro fare for a non-peak, one-zone trip is $2.25.

Metro spokesperson Rochelle Ogershok said that when fares increase, ridership tends to drop. Introducing a reduced fare, she said, not only benefits low income riders: It benefits Metro.

“This would help retain low-income people,” Ogershok said.

Low fare, large deficit

Metro offers a number of fare programs, including a $0.75 fare for seniors, riders with disabilities and those on Medicaid. Young people aged 6 to 18 pay $1.25. These fare categories aren’t affected by the low-income proposal, though these fares would increase $0.25 under next year’s proposed fare hike.

A subsidized bus ticket program, which provides social service agencies with tickets for their clients at 20 percent cost, will also remain in effect. No changes are proposed for this program.

Last year, when the King County Low-Income Fare Options Advisory Committee explored a possible reduced fare, its 21 members agreed county riders needed a low-income option. While some members pushed for a $1 fare, the committee as a whole felt it didn’t have enough information to propose a specific fare.

Committee members left that decision to county officials.

Katy Miller, program manager with the county’s Homeless Housing Program, said the proposal to implement a $1.50 fare next year is good news.

“I’m so thrilled that it’s a priority for the [county] executive,” Miller said.

Miller, who also served on the advisory committee, praised Metro for considering a reduced fare while confronting serious budget issues.

“It’s an important challenge to take on,” she said.

Currently, Metro faces a $75 million deficit. Transit officials and local advocates had hoped state legislators last year would pass a transportation package to help the transit agency. The legislature never agreed on a package.

With the financial outlook dim, Metro is planning to cut 17 percent of bus service this fall — eliminating 74 routes and changing 107 others.

The reductions would come at a time when record numbers of people use the transit agency: Metro estimates that last year it provided 119 million rides.

To avert the cuts, Constantine proposed his own transportation package amounting to $130 million in local taxes each year. The county executive wants to increase car tabs to $60 (up from the current $20) and increase the county sales tax by 0.1 percent. If approved by the county council, the package would come before voters in an April special election.

Though Constantine proposed the transportation package and the low-income fare at the same press conference, the county council’s approval of a reduced fare is not tied to approval of the transportation package.

In the vanguard

The push for a low-income fare gained momentum in the fall of 2012, when Metro ended the RFA, a roughly 130-block section of downtown where passengers rode free from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week.

Active in some form for almost 40 years, the RFA was considered an important service by many low-income and homeless people.

To mitigate the loss, the city of Seattle initiated free circulator service, a one-way, fixed-route shuttle system through downtown. A pair of 15-passenger vehicles operates nine hours a day, five days a week. The service, initially a pilot project, received the funding to continue through the end of this year and may eventually include weekend hours.

The county council responded differently to the demise of RFA: It convened the advisory committee in 2013 to examine low-income fares.

Wilson said an outcry from community members and transit advocates showed the council the loss of the RFA extended beyond Seattle’s borders.

“It was bigger than just the downtown core,” she said. “It’s a countywide thing.”

If King County enacts a low-income fare, it will be in the vanguard of national transit agencies.

In March 2013, San Francisco’s transportation agency, known as Muni, began a reduced fare program for children of low-income families. The

$6.7 million pilot program is funded by a grant and will expire this July.

The Sun Tran system in Tucson, Ariz., offers low-income riders a monthly pass that costs $15 or charges a single fare of $0.85. The agency sells roughly 25,000 passes a month.

In Lincoln, Neb., Star-Transit offers a monthly reduced bus pass for $5, one-seventh the normal cost. Since the program began in 2004, more than 2 million people have been identified as low-income riders (“Our fare city,” Feb. 27, 2013).

Closer to home, Kitsap Transit charges low-income riders, students, seniors and people with disabilities $1. All other riders pay $2.

Metro’s Dodson said that while transit agencies in Kitsap County and San Francisco provided information, the proposed local low-income fare is based largely on the advisory committee’s recommendations

“That’s really the basis for this program,” Dodson said.

Wilson, of the advisory committee, said now it’s up to the King County Council to decide whether or not Metro’s low-income riders will pay $1.50. She has a good feeling about the outcome, she said, since the council voiced unanimous support of the advisory committee.

“I’m pretty optimistic,” said Wilson.



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