Metro is ending its downtown Seattle free-ride zone Sept. 29, as part of an extensive service overhaul. The change is expected to cause slowdowns and confusion, while leaving poor people without transportation they depend on.

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For nearly 40 years, downtown Seattle’s free-ride zone has made it easier to visit restaurants and shops, and given poor people a break. As the city became more crowded, the system has maintained traffic flow by helping buses load riders quickly, rather than wait for everyone to pay.

The free ride ends Sept. 29. And that one change — among many in King County Metro Transit’s biggest-ever service overhaul — is expected to cause slowdowns and confusion.

Metro will send teams of employees to downtown sidewalks and the transit tunnel to herd people aboard, in hopes of avoiding severe delays as customers adapt.

Simulation tests have indicated slowdowns of two to four minutes crossing downtown, because everybody will have to enter and pay through the front door — instead of upon exit — and some will fumble for change and transfers.

Metro is throwing personnel at the problem partly because the system isn’t fully ready. Orca fare cards aren’t ubiquitous, the agency hasn’t installed a proposed 11 on-street ticket machines, and officials acknowledge they still need to rearrange bus stops on Third Avenue to spread bus traffic more evenly.

Another problem is helping the city’s most destitute people reach clinics, apartments, food banks, counseling, jobs and shops downtown when free rides disappear. A free shuttle is supposed to be ready Oct. 1. As of Thursday, the city and county haven’t published a detailed route and schedule.

Pay-on-entry is supposed to reap $3.1 million a year in fares, for a net gain of $2.2 million after deducting the cost to add service hours, to make up for slowing some routes. The $2.2 million is one-third of 1 percent of Metro’s $643 million operating budget.

So it’s only a bargain if service improves long-term.

Kevin Desmond, Metro general manager, points to the benefits of simpler bus use — pay in front, exit in the back. After a bumpy start, delays will gradually diminish and service will improve, he predicts.

“Cities throughout the world operate their transit with full fare on bus and train, and operate very successfully,” he said.

Metro, the nation’s seventh-busiest public bus agency, is growing in ridership and served 375,000 trips a day in July. An estimated 29,000 take a free downtown trip daily. Seattle is believed to be the only major U.S. city to operate a large free-ride area after Portland scrapped its free rail zone this month.

Bus drivers have consistently supported eliminating the free-ride area, saying that letting people board without paying leads to more frequent fare evasion, as well as disrespect for Metro’s Code of Conduct, which forbids alcohol, harassment, litter, eating and reclining, said Paul Bachtel, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587.

Pay-on-entry should reduce fare disputes toward the end of a trip, when passengers sometimes run off instead of paying, said transit police Capt. Robert Baxter. Between one-third and one-half of assaults on bus drivers are fare-related, he said.

The “broken windows” theory applies, Desmond said. Experience in many cities shows people who evade fares are more likely to also misbehave or commit crimes, he said.

The roots of free rides

The Ride Free Area began in 1973 to boost tourism and encourage lunchtime trips by downtown workers. Eventually, social services clustered downtown, where clients make use of free bus rides offered most of the day.

Seattle pays Metro close to $400,000 a year to help underwrite the free service, but the numbers didn’t keep up with inflation.

The recession forced the Metropolitan King County Council to look harder at cost cuts, while suburban members became annoyed at the idea that riders in the suburbs were subsidizing free downtown trips. Seattle, under then-Mayor Greg Nickels, responded that a free zone served the whole county by helping buses stay on schedule to reach the suburbs.

The breaking point came last fall, when transit backers pressed the council for a $20 car-tab fee, to prevent the sort of cuts that have devastated service in Pierce and Snohomish counties.

After first opposing the fee, Councilmembers Jane Hague, of Bellevue, and Kathy Lambert, of Redmond, flipped to vote yes for the $20 “Congestion Reduction Charge” — but only if the Seattle ride-free area were dropped.

“Two million is a lot of money,” Desmond said. “That is protecting routes elsewhere in the system. It could be a Seattle route, a route on the Eastside, or in South King County.”

The agreement to end the ride-free area created a 7-2 supermajority to pass the car-tab fees, which leveraged an additional $25 million a year from motorists.

Special challenge

Fare collection creates a special challenge in Seattle’s transit tunnel, where buses and trains share stops.

During simulations, light-rail operators reported delays, as groups of buses took longer to clear the stations.

In response, Sound Transit and Metro agreed to shift bus routes 212, 217, and 301 onto the street, so trains can proceed on schedule every 7 ½ minutes.

And for the first five months of tunnel fares, 10 bus drivers, referred to as “loaders,” will be stationed in the tunnel to scan Orca fare cards, so that some riders can board through the back door.

Other personnel will aid riders on surface Third Avenue for a few weeks.

One way to lessen the delays would be for more riders to get Orca cards, now used for 60 percent of Metro trips, rather than fumble for cash or a paper transfer.

“It makes it faster for you, and makes it faster for everyone,” said Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer.

Metro is often criticized by transit supporters for failing to make Orca cards more prevalent, for instance by offering day passes that could be sold at virtually any retail store.

Cards can be purchases at, from ticket machines at Sound Transit rail stations, in the Bellevue and Federal Way bus-transit centers, or at Saar’s Marketplace stores. Metro hopes to add fare-card machines this month at Eastgate and Burien transit centers and at Metro headquarters.

Third Avenue lacks Orca card readers, defeating a key feature of Metro’s new RapidRide C Line to West Seattle and D Line to Ballard. RapidRide passengers are supposed to tap Orca cards outside, then quickly enter through any of three bus doors.

This is possible in outlying neighborhoods but not downtown, because the fiber optics aren’t in place to install Orca readers, managers say. They’ll arrive in 1 ½ to 2 years, with help from a $3.4 million federal grant.

Lambert predicts riders won’t miss the confusion: pay on entry, exit, or not at all, varying with bus direction and time of day.

If fares make some very-short rides disappear downtown, buses might regain time.

Downtown delays could be offset by faster unloading farther out, for instance when a full I-5 bus reaches Northgate. In West Seattle, scrupulous commuters sometimes walk off the back of a jammed 54 bus, then walk around to the front and pay — a move no longer necessary.

A controversial change is the reduction in free access to services downtown.

Metro’s original response, to suggest a shuttle, provoked complaints that elected officials are segregating the poor. A column in Real Change, a social-issues newspaper sold by homeless people, ridiculed the impending “clown vans of shame.”

Officials improved the plan somewhat by buying two short buses, with low floors for easy boarding. Seattle will pay $400,000 a year to the nonprofit Solid Ground to operate shuttles on a weekday loop route that includes Harborview Medical Center, with trips every half-hour or so.

Steve Daschle, representing the Seattle Human Services Coalition, said Thursday that even with two vehicles the shuttle “will clearly not be adequate to meet the need.

“The big challenge is whether it will be useful or not for people, to be dependable enough they can use on a regular basis.”

Charity tickets

Metro will continue to provide $1.8 million in charity tickets a year to social-service providers. But some agencies say distribution is cumbersome, and demand exceeds supply.

The County Council approved a third step. When car owners renew their tabs and pay the $20 fee, they’ll receive eight bus tickets, or have the option of donating them to charity.

What political leaders haven’t figured out is how to provide affordability long-term.

“If we had a good regional low-income, reduced-fare policy, it wouldn’t be such a bad deal. Since we don’t, it’s going to cause true hardship for a lot of people,” said Katie Wilson, co-founder of the new Transit Riders Union.

She said the group has collected 1,300 signatures to support a free-ride zone.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or On Twitter @mikelindblom.