Homeless people and social-service advocates told King County officials Wednesday that a plan for two free minibuses would be inadequate to serve poor people when the downtown Seattle ride-free zone ends this fall.

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King County Metro Transit’s strategy for ending the downtown ride-free zone will leave Seattle’s homeless and poorest citizens stranded, several people told politicians Wednesday.

Starting Sept. 29, the bus agency will require riders to pay on entry, repealing a free-ride system established in 1973.

Metro is supposed to gain $2 million a year. Besides the income from daytime users who can pay, transit managers expect less fare evasion by riders who board downtown and then flee without paying in outlying neighborhoods.

But that leaves the question of how financially stressed people move between apartments, medical centers, food banks, counseling or work downtown.

The county suggests a pair of free minibuses that would circulate nine hours a day, five days a week, 30 minutes apart, including a stop at Harborview Medical Center. That requires $400,000 a year — to be paid by the city of Seattle instead of the $400,000 it now pays Metro toward the ride-free service.

Human-services advocates told a Metropolitan King County Council committee Wednesday that at a minimum, the shuttles should operate 12 hours a day, seven days a week, 20 minutes apart. That would require about $1 million, the county says. Some speakers criticized a so-called “poor bus,” or said Martin Luther King Jr., the county’s namesake since 1986, would be outraged by increased segregation of the poor.

“The free-ride zone is not a privilege but a right, and it should be something Seattle people should be proud of having,” said Whitney Knox, caseworker for Catholic Housing Services. To her, the repeal “seems kind of mind-boggling, with all the wealth we have in this country.”

Knox described a low-income client who expected to miss medical appointments, then would have to call an ambulance for acute problems.

The council last year voted to stop the free-ride zone as a precondition for raising car-tab fees $20, to preserve bus hours countywide. But a $2 million gain from fares is only one-third of 1 percent of Metro’s $643 million operating budget.

Mike Rushing, who said he lives at Tent City, said money gained would be eroded by an expected increase in bus tickets to be distributed through social agencies, costs of policing the new policy, and spending to study long-term alternatives.

It’s common for someone to need five bus trips a day, said Kate Joncas, executive director of the Downtown Seattle Association, a business-advocacy group. “If you’re committed to social equity in your present system, providing two vehicles to give free rides in downtown does not meet that need,” she said after the hearing.

Councilmember Larry Phillips, from Magnolia, called the testimony compelling.

“I think there are some things we might be able to do to make the existing plan work better to serve those who are the most vulnerable on Seattle streets,” he said.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom.