Last week, the Seattle PI reported that Downtown Seattle’s Ride Free Area may not last:
Seattle’s downtown Ride Free Area is again under the microscope as transit officials examine how much it contributes to a multi-million-dollar problem with fare evasion. King County Metro Transit officials also have sat down with city officials to revisit an outdated agreement under which Seattle pays to offset fares that would otherwise be collected inside the zone.
“That may lead us to determine to abandon the ride free zone, but that’s many months away from now,” Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond told the county’s Regional Transit Committee Wednesday.
The discussion stems from a recent Metro Transit study showing the agency loses about $3.2 million per year from non-paying riders, or about $62,000 per week. That accounts for an estimated 53,000 riders who don’t pay each week and 35,000 who only pay partial fares. Altogether, that’s just under 5 percent of ridership.
I wrote in January of 2009 that if we eventually moved to heavy ORCA adoption, eliminating the Ride Free Area might make sense… maybe. Budget considerations may alter that judgment slightly, but for all the confusion and possible fare avoidance the RFA may cause, it also helps to ensure that buses move through downtown smoother and have lower dwell times. But Link light rail isn’t free downtown and a peer city — Portland — recently eliminated free bus rides in its downtown.
Of course, Desmond’s comments may be a thinly-veiled call to the Seattle City Council: contribute more to Metro for the Ride Free Area. Seattle pays about $400,000 a year for the Ride Free Area, based on a “methodology in place since 1989 to estimate the difference between the value of the fares Metro would collect if a fare was charged for trips within downtown Seattle and the operating cost savings Metro experiences due to the faster travel times through the CBD,” according to Metro. The 1998 agreement between the city and Metro indexes the payment to inflation, but with “ridership increases over the past few years – combined with 2009 and 2010 fare increases – the difference between fare collections and cost savings in the RFA is increasing much faster than inflation.”