King County Council members took a step toward offering free transit passes to some riders with low incomes Wednesday, an acknowledgment that even Metro’s often-celebrated discount bus fares remain out of reach for some in a region grappling with homelessness and income inequality.
But the program could come with a significant loophole. Sound Transit has not yet decided whether to participate, meaning the passes would cover the cost of rides on Metro buses but not on light rail that many of the same riders may use.
A Metropolitan King County Council committee Wednesday approved a plan to offer fully paid yearlong bus passes to people who already qualify for other state programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
People who make less than 80% of the federal poverty level, or about $21,000 for a family of four, and enroll in those programs would qualify. About 54,000 people would be eligible this year, according to Metro.
“I would be able to use transportation; I would be able to get around safely,” said Esmeralda Hernandez, a Real Change vendor.
Hernandez, who is blind and receives some of her income from SSI, can ride Metro’s regular service using a discounted Metro fare for people with disabilities, but she has trouble affording the $63 monthly pass for Access, Metro’s door-to-door service for people with disabilities that would also be covered by the new program. So she walks to bus stops, often at night.
“The sidewalks aren’t level, some cars barely miss me or I can’t see the stoplight and sometimes the curb, so I’ve fallen a couple times,” Hernandez said. “Door-to-door is really important for me, but I haven’t been able to pay the 60 bucks.”
Under the program, participants would receive ORCA LIFT cards, which Metro today offers to people with low incomes for a discounted fare. The cards would be loaded with a pass that would fully cover rides on Metro buses, Metro Access, the Monorail, Seattle streetcars, the King County Water Taxi, Trailhead Direct and Via shuttles.
Riders would still pay a fare — though it would be discounted in some cases — on Kitsap Transit, Community Transit, Pierce Transit, Everett Transit and Sound Transit. That could cause confusion if riders aren’t sure which agency runs which bus or train.
Sound Transit says its staff is still considering whether to participate.
“We are aware that a very low-income fare could pose challenges with transfers to and from services provided by our regional partners,” said Sound Transit spokeswoman Rachelle Cunningham. “We would work closely with these partners to implement the program effectively and educate riders.”
Much of the on-paper cost of offering subsidized passes is offset because Metro is essentially buying the passes from itself. The agency expects the program to cost about $6 million this year and between $9 million and $10 million annually in the future. King County has already set aside $10 million for the program in this year’s budget; future funding hasn’t been determined.
The full County Council will vote on the plan, but a majority were at the committee meeting Wednesday and voted in favor. The program is expected to begin in July.
The proposal comes as transit agencies face pressure to make their services more accessible to people with low incomes who can face steep consequences for lack of fare.
Last year, Metro redesigned its fare enforcement system after an audit found people experiencing homelessness and housing instability were particularly hard hit with tickets that could end up in court or collections. Sound Transit is considering similar changes.
Metro partially funds bus tickets for human service providers, and the City of Seattle funds passes for public high school students and some public housing residents. Meanwhile, some smaller transit agencies are doing away with fares altogether.
Metro in 2015 began ORCA LIFT, which offers discounted fares to people making about $51,500 for a family of four. Yet, the agency says rider surveys show that about half of riders who would qualify for the discount still pay the full fare. Some people may not know about the program or might prefer to pay with cash.
Hernandez, who was previously homeless, said she would ask a bus driver for a ride or walk when she didn’t have fare.
“Having $5 here, $30 here, that makes a lot of difference to people who don’t have a home, who don’t have money,” Hernandez said. “People strive to get to where they need to go to improve their lives. It’s not just, ‘Oh it’s free.’ It’s to be able to help them get better.”
Metro says it doesn’t know exactly how important the cost of fare is for people with very low incomes compared to other issues, like whether the bus comes frequently enough and close to their home or work. In rider surveys, improvements to bus service are top requests.
“The measure of our agency’s effectiveness comes both in the way we deliver service as it is seen on the streets, but also in the way we provide mobility to those with the greatest need,” Metro General Manager Rob Gannon told council members Wednesday.
Expected costs for the new program include additional Metro staff, $500,000 to expand office space and money to evaluate the program starting at $750,000 this year. Evaluation costs are high because Metro plans to use focus groups, surveys and other efforts, said Lindsey Greto, a program manager at Metro.
“It’s a big investment by a transit agency. We really need to know, did this investment move the needle?” Greto said. “If cost isn’t the main barrier for people, we would need to look for [other solutions].”
County Council members largely praised the plan Wednesday, though Councilmember Kathy Lambert said she would be monitoring its financial impact.
Metro aims to cover a quarter of costs with fares, and slightly exceeded that goal in 2018, the last year for which information is available. Nonpayment across Metro’s system is about 8%, according to the agency.