King County approves free transit for youths

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Starting in September, buses, streetcars and the water taxi in King County will be free to people 18 and under. Here, a water taxi leaves Seacrest Dock in West Seattle. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Beginning Sept. 1, people 18 and under will ride King County buses, water taxis and streetcars for free.

On Thursday, the Metropolitan King County Council approved 9-0 a plan introduced earlier this year by Executive Dow Constantine. The yea vote kicks off a scramble to get as many ORCA cards into the hands of young people as possible.

“As we all know, it goes beyond the instant relief of having to not pay the fare and the increased convenience, but it helps build lifetime transit users,” said Councilmember Rod Dembowksi.

The new policy comes as the result of a nearly $17 billion transportation funding package passed by state lawmakers in Washington’s 2022 legislative session, with almost exclusively Democratic votes. While much of the measure will be rolled out over the next 16 years, elected officials wanted a component with an immediate impact. Enter free transit for youths.

The state transportation package includes $3 billion for transit, about half of which will only flow to local transit agencies through grants if they adopt policies to make rides free for youths. This includes local buses, as well as Amtrak trains and Washington State Ferries.

So far, every local transit agency in the state has indicated it will adopt free fares for youths in order to become eligible for state funding. Transit is already free for youths in Everett. Community Transit, Kitsap Transit, Pierce Transit and Sound Transit will similarly go fare-free for youths by the beginning of the school year.

King County is eligible for an estimated $31.7 million in new transit funding as a part of the state transportation package, which could go toward expanding bus service or improving facilities. The cost of making transit free for everyone under 19 is estimated to be around $10 million.

“We’ve had great debates about fare evasion for youth,” said Councilmember Dave Upthegrove. “All those debates and all that hassle goes away because young people can now ride transit whenever they need to beginning this fall at no cost.”

The state’s deadline for adopting free youth fares is Oct. 1, but Constantine said he wanted the policy to start near the beginning of the school year. The major logistical hurdle is how to supply every person under 19 with an ORCA card so they can tap on and off local transit. Metro has an existing relationship with Seattle Public Schools, but must expand those efforts to young people not in Seattle.

General manger of King County Metro, Terry White, said the agency will launch a “wave of advertising” to get more cards into the hands of the roughly 300,000 newly eligible young people. In the meantime, youths can use identification from their school while boarding. If a young person lacks an ID, they will still be allowed to ride for free.

David Kroman: 206-464-3196 or dkroman@seattletimes.com; . Seattle Times staff reporter David Kroman covers transportation.