Should Seattle-area passengers ride public transit for free?

Advocates in Seattle have called for eliminating the $2.75 fare for King County Metro buses and the $2.25 to $3.25 fares for Sound Transit light rail.

Those calls grew louder after Sound Transit data showed black passengers get cited and punished disproportionately for evading fares compared to other racial groups. Sound Transit is reviewing its fare-enforcement policies. (You can share your fare-enforcement experiences with Traffic Lab at st.news/fareenforcementsurvey.)

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, Kemper Development Co., NHL Seattle, PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company and Seattle Children’s hospital. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

Seattle already provides free transit passes to public high school students and to about 1,500 Seattle Housing Authority residents. The ORCA LIFT program offers reduced fares for people who make lower incomes, and the Regional Reduced Fare Permit program provides lower fares for riders over age 65 and those with a disability.

But free transit for all is still a novel concept. In 2013, the Estonian capital of Tallinn, with a population of 400,000, made its transit system free. Paris began researching a free-transit plan last year.

The Chapel Hill Transit agency in North Carolina has been fare-free since 2002, and the idea has been floated in Denver and Salt Lake City. In Washington’s Thurston County, officials at Intercity Transit have also proposed to make bus rides free starting Jan. 1.

King County Metro Transit used to provide free bus rides in downtown Seattle but ended the program in 2012.

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This month, the Kansas City, Missouri, City Council’s transportation committee approved a resolution that includes eliminating fares for Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) bus service within the city limits.

In our latest Traffic Lab Ask An Expert Q&A, we spoke with Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, a sponsor of the resolution, about the idea.

Kansas City and King County are not directly comparable. In September, King County Metro served about 9.7 million riders and Sound Transit about 2 million, while KCATA served about 940,000, according to the Federal Transit Administration database.

Metro’s fares are an important source of revenue, covering about 30 percent of operating costs in recent years. Metro collects about $141 million in fares per year while KCATA collects only $8 million, according to the database.

And after Washington state voters this month approved Initiative 976 to cut car-tab taxes to a flat $30 and repeal city authority to charge additional fees for transportation projects, Metro could face service cuts.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

More from this series | Ask An Expert

Traffic Lab: What was the motivation behind free transit?

Quinton Lucas: A few years ago in Kansas City, we brought back our streetcar system. It’s a short route that runs into downtown. We made all rides free. The area where the streetcar is is a higher-income, majority white, gentrified area. That started the talk of why are we subsidizing free rides to people making good money, but the clientele on the bus system in the largely black parts of town are still forced to pay?

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From there, the Kansas City Area Transit Authority offered free bus fares to veterans, various nonprofits and public schools. We saw hardworking people for whom the $2,000 a year for [$1.50] fares could be a huge challenge in getting opportunities. (The head of Kansas City’s bus system, Robbie Makinen, has long advocated for free public transportation.)

Traffic Lab: How do you expect to make this plan feasible?

Lucas: Fares cover about $8 million a year, but we lose $1.5 million in collecting fares. The shortfall is about $6 million, and we can find that in the budget. The streetcar took $2 million from buses to [get the project started]. It was necessary startup funding in 2014, but in 2019 and 2020 it’s not.

The other step is improving how we spend money to stimulate economic development. After the recession, national firms came to us and said we’ll invest in downtown, but in exchange we need real guarantees and asked us to subsidize parking-garage costs. [In the last 10 years] taxpayers spent about $100 million subsidizing parking garages for these companies.

I think we’ve gone too far. We can find cost savings if we took $2 million out of that budget.

Traffic Lab: One study found that when Austin provided free bus rides in 1990, the number of “joy-riding youth and inebriated adults” increased. Have those concerns come up? If so, how have you dealt with them?

Lucas: I don’t think we should mischaracterize an entire class of people as disrupters. I would hope we recognize riding the bus is not a scary thing. We do have a few safeguards. At the termination of a route, everybody has to get off the bus so people can’t ride all day. We’ll also have police on the bus.

Traffic Lab: What makes Kansas City’s approach to free transit different from what other cities have tried?

Lucas: We’ve crunched the numbers. Finding a few million in a large city budget is not that hard. We can wax poetic about fairness and equity in workforce opportunity, but there’s nothing more clear to me than saying, “Let’s help people, for many of whom $2,000 will make a world of difference.”

Traffic Lab: What advice would you have for other cities interested in pursuing this idea?

Lucas: I grew up experiencing homelessness. My mom caught the bus, and I saw that it was a lifeline for her. We found ourselves in the right position. Not a lot of cities have done it, but I don’t see why we can’t be the ones to figure it out.

Do you know of an expert you think we should feature in one of our Q&As? Nominate them at st.news/submitanexpert.