The Seattle City Council’s transportation committee approved a proposal to spend up to $7 million a year on the ORCA Opportunity program, which would give free bus and light-rail access to students.

Share story

The Seattle City Council moved Tuesday to give free public-transit passes to all Seattle public high-school students, shuffling around funds that voters approved in 2014 to expand bus service.

The City Council’s transportation committee approved Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposal to spend up to $7 million a year on the ORCA Opportunity program, which would give free bus and light-rail access to students.

The program initially would apply only to high-school students and students attending Seattle colleges on city-funded scholarships, and would cost about $5 million a year. But the legislation allows the higher $7 million funding level, leaving open the possibility for a future expansion to grades K-12.

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, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company, Sabey Corp., Seattle Children’s hospital and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

Learn more about Traffic Lab » | Follow us on Twitter »

The plan, which will go before the full City Council in the coming weeks, would make Seattle the largest city in the country to give free, year-round transit service to all high-school students, according to the mayor’s office.

Most Read Local Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

The student ORCA cards are the most prominent of several city proposals to spend an unexpected and not entirely welcome windfall — Seattle has more money to spend buying new bus service than King County Metro Transit can handle.

More than half of Seattle public high-school students can already get free ORCA passes. About 7,000 high-school students get school-year only ORCA cards if they live more than two miles from school, and another 2,600 students in certain low-income households also get free passes.

But the new program would, for the first time, give a free year-round ORCA card to more than 16,000 students. The cards would be distributed at high schools in September.

Durkan announced the free ORCA card proposal at her State of the City address in February. Rainier Beach High School students have lobbied for years for free transit passes.

“As our city becomes increasingly unaffordable for families, we need to make transit safer, more accessible and more affordable, especially for our young people,” she said this past month.

To pay for the program, the city would use money from the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, a voter-approved measure that passed in 2014.

The benefit district — funded by a 0.1 percent sales tax and a $60 car-tab fee — was approved by voters to buy more bus-service hours from King County Metro and brings in about $50 million a year.

There now are more buses than ever on the streets, thanks, in part, to the city’s investment.

But Seattle hasn’t been able to buy all the service hours that it wants. The city will only be able to buy one-seventh of the trips that it wants when service increases in September, leaving some routes without the frequent, all-day service that city leaders promised.

Metro says it can’t hire drivers fast enough and it doesn’t have enough space in its maintenance bases to operate all the bus service that Seattle is requesting.

In addition to ORCA Opportunity, the legislation would authorize up to $10 million a year in spending on capital improvements to the bus system — things like bus-only lanes, bus shelters and streetside card-readers to enable boarding at any door.

It would change which routes can be funded by the benefit district. Because the money comes exclusively from Seattle taxpayers, but Metro operates bus service countywide, money can be spent only on routes that have 80 percent of their stops in Seattle.

That’s meant big-city investments in popular bus lines like the RapidRide C and D lines, which serve West Seattle and Ballard, and get more than a third of their funding from the city of Seattle.

But Seattle has been unable to invest in its busiest bus line, the RapidRide E, which runs up and down Aurora Avenue, because a big chunk of the E serves Shoreline.

The new legislation would allow investments in the E, by lowering the threshold from 80 percent of stops in Seattle to 65 percent.

It also would allow up to $5 million a year to be spent on a pilot program for contracted transit services. It’s still unclear what exactly that means — how would fares be paid, who would operate the service — but Seattle Department of Transportation staff said they envision 10- to 15-passenger vans serving routes that don’t now have convenient transit lines.

Those include trips from northwest neighborhoods like Magnolia, Ballard and Crown Hill to First Hill and from North Seattle neighborhoods like Northgate and Lake City to Uptown.