Transit and social justice groups want to decrease the proposed low-income Metro fare to $1 or less
The King County Council’s consideration of a proposed $1.50 low-income bus fare may run into an unexpected roadblock: Some social justice groups believe the fare should be $1 or lower.
The county council will hold a Feb. 18 public hearing on whether to institute a reduced fare on Metro for low-income riders. Eligible riders would have to earn less than 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines. For a single person, that equates to an annual salary just under $23,000.
County Executive Dow Constantine proposed the $1.50 low-income fare last month. If the county council approves the proposal, the fare would go into effect March 1, 2015.
But transit and social equality advocates worry that for some low-income riders, $1.50 fare is still too expensive.
“There’s a big difference between $1 and $1.50 when you’re talking about people who have low income,” said Katie Wilson, spokesperson for the Transit Riders Union (TRU).
Wilson said a $1 fare would benefit more people. A fare of 75 cents, she added, would be even better.
Rebecca Saldana, program director of nonprofit Puget Sound Sage, said that her organization also supports reducing the proposed low-income fare. The current proposal of $1.50, she said, seems an arbitrary figure chosen to gain support of all riders.
“It’s not based on need,” she said. “It’s not based on what [low-income] riders want.”
Saldana said that while Sage doesn’t have a position on what the low-income fare should be, riders should be involved in the process of setting the fare.
Community engagement is also an important aspect for Rich Stolz, executive director of the immigration advocacy nonprofit OneAmerica. Social justice groups should work together to secure the most equitable reduced fare, said Stolz. He added that transforming community effort into a less expensive low-income fare was the hard part.
“A path to a lower fare isn’t quite clear yet,” said Stolz.
Last year, the county council convened an advisory committee to examine low-income fare options. While the 21-member advisory committee supported a reduced regional fare for low-income riders, the committee didn’t suggest what the fare should be.
Low-income riders would pay the reduced fare using ORCA. Metro drivers would not accept cash.
The current one-zone, non-peak fare on Metro is $2.25.
TRU’s Wilson said that before the advisory committee first convened in January 2013, her group delivered a letter to the county council advocating a low-income fare of 75 cents. More than 25 social justice groups and unions signed on, including Real Change (“Unions, human service agencies press council on low-income bus and light rail fares,” RC, Dec. 26, 2012).
The groups chose the 75-cent fare because it was equivalent to fares for seniors and riders with disabilities.
It’s not yet clear how the county council will respond to the push to decrease the proposed low-income fare.
Cindy Domingo, chief of staff to Councilmember Larry Gossett, said she met with TRU members in early February to hear the group’s ideas for dropping the fare below $1.50. She said Councilmember Gossett hasn’t had time to review the information, so he has yet to form a position on the issue.
“We’re still studying it to see what the numbers look like,” Domingo said.
At a Feb. 4 county budget and fiscal management committee meeting, members never discussed decreasing the proposed low-income fare.
Instead, committee members listened as Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond informed them that Metro would need to preregister eligible low-income riders before the program launchs March 1, 2015, in case there is high demand.
Metro data presented at the meeting estimated the cost to the transit agency if the reduced fare was implemented. If 45,000 eligible low-income riders made use of the fare, it would cost Metro
$3.5 million a year. If 100,000 riders take advantage each year, it could cost almost $6 million.
Those figures, Desmond said, would amount to new operating costs for the transit agency. The county’s subsidized ticket program, which sells social service agencies bus tickets at 20 percent of cost, would continue even if the county council approved a low-income fare.
Metro officials have said that instituting a low-income fare would help maintain ridership levels, as general ridership tends to dip when fares increase.
Currently, Metro faces a deficit of $75 million. Unless the transit agency can come up with extra cash, Metro plans to cut 17 percent of bus service this fall — eliminating 74 routes and altering 107 others.
The reductions would come at a time when record numbers of people use the transit agency: Metro estimates that in 2013 it provided 119 million rides.
To stave off the cuts, Constantine proposed a transportation package amounting to $130 million in local taxes each year. The taxes would come from increasing the price of car tabs to $60 (up from the current $20) and increasing the county sales tax by 0.1 percent. The council approved the package Feb.10. Voters will have their say in an April special election.
tConstantine also proposed a Metro general fare hike of 25 cents. If approved by the county council, the hike would not alter the cost of the low-income fare.
Constantine’s proposals for the low-income fare, the general fare hike and the transportation package were announced in a January press conference. Though all three were proposed at the same time, the county council’s approval of the low-income fare is not tied to approval of the fare hike or transportation package.
TRU’s Wilson said that although it was good news the county council will examine a proposed low-income fare, her group and others still believe the fare should be less than $1.50. She said the loose coalition came to an agreement of sorts: that “to push to get it to a dollar was the right thing to do.”