Transit will be free in King County for people 18 and under in time for the start of the next school year, pending council approval of legislation introduced Thursday by King County Executive Dow Constantine.
The rollout is part of a statewide effort to provide free bus, train and ferry rides for youth in most or all of Washington, after the state Legislature approved a nearly $17 billion transportation funding package in the 2022 session. Of $3 billion set aside for transit by the state, $1.45 billion is contingent on local transit agencies making rides free for people 18 and under.
King County is eligible for an estimated $31.7 million in grant funding from the state if it approves the free ridership program, which is estimated to cost around $10 million.
“It’s important during these early years to introduce young people to transit, regardless of their family’s economic status,” Constantine said. “Because we need folks across the economic spectrum using transit on a daily basis if we’re going to meet our environmental goals, if we’re going to have a functioning transportation system and not all be mired in traffic.”
The legislation introduced amends county law to say there is no cost for people under 19 to ride King County Metro. It’s sponsored by Councilmember Dave Upthegrove.
The program has been cheered by local officials, who view it as a way to increase ridership while making public transportation use a habit among young people. Three of the Metropolitan King County Council’s nine members have voiced support. The council will take up the legislation in June or July.
Logistical challenges remain. County officials must work out a system that distinguishes between riders who are 18 and under and those who aren’t. Constantine said he’s confident the ORCA system can handle the distinction. The challenge, he said, will be getting cards in the hands of young people.
“We’ll be working with community partners, first and foremost schools, to make sure that young people can get the physical fare media, which could be something as simple as a sticker that goes on their existing ORCA card, or more likely for a young person, an app that you can download,” he said.
As part of the requirement to receive money from the state, the county will need to tally the number of riders under 19 using the transit system for free. Constantine said there inevitably will be a transition period this fall and Metro won’t stop young people from riding for free if they don’t have the right card, sticker or app.
Middle and high school students in Seattle Public Schools are already eligible to ride free with their ORCA card during the school year. The county is advising any youth, student or not, to hang on to their ORCA card to use this fall as the ridership program rolls out.
The county estimates there are 329,000 K-12 students in the county, but only 25,000 have a subsidized ORCA card.
So far, every transit agency in the state has signaled they will adopt policies by the Oct. 1 deadline to make transit free for youth riders. Ben Franklin Transit near the Tri-Cities expressed initial reluctance, before announcing it would opt in to the program.
As for safety concerns on buses, ridership on King County Metro buses is still around half of what it was pre-pandemic. Constantine said increasing ridership will improve the perception of safety on transit.
“The more people we have using the system — students, workers, commuters — the safer the environment is going to be,” he said.