King County Metro’s Low-Income Fare Options Advisory Committee (LIFOAC) is close to wrapping up its work and sending a recommendations document to Metro and the County Council. It has two remaining meetings scheduled to come to a consensus: May 29 and June 12, both at 4 pm in the 8th floor conference room of the King Street Center, 201 S Jackson St.

They will also continue taking comments online. For those who want a full play-by-play, you can access all the committee materials, meeting notes, and written comments here.

The bulk of the committee seems to agree that a general low-income fare program is far more expensive than what Metro can afford right now. The value of the program has to be weighed against the service that could be deployed for the same money.

A no-income fare program (namely, free) might be a much smaller and more doable program in the here and now, and can be done in a way that reduces current administrative costs, while enabling recipients to gain real mobility.

Personally, I think the committee should discuss giving out free monthly passes on regular ORCA cards, which they have not done to date. Funding for the no-income fare program, and hopefully an eventual low-income fare program, is unlikely to come from any source other than a Title VI mitigation fund (another idea the committee has not discussed).

Formally, the committee was charged by the county council with seven tasks. I’ll discuss them in order below the jump.

1. Establish a common understanding of mobility barriers for low-income populations, and how transit fare price points affect access and use of transit by low-income persons.

An oft-heard refrain on the committee is that the largest barrier to mobility is the loss of service. This was repeated ad nauseam by suburban and/or ethnic minority committee members.

When General Manager Kevin Desmond unveiled his chart (above) showing that fare decreases for low-income riders would not lead to a significant increase in ridership (out of 118m projected in 2013), it dampened enthusiasm for a general low-income fare.

2. Review the different types of transit fare options available to meet the mobility needs of low-income persons.

Metro and Katie Wilson from the Transit Riders’ Union provided a lot of research on the various low income fare programs that are out there in the committee notebook (Chapter 6).

John Clauson, Executive Director of Kitsap Transit, made a guest presentation on March 27th. He pointed out several problems with the Kitsap program, including that the cards’ reduced fare had to have a built-in expiration date, and that only Kitsap Transit honors the reduced rate.

The committee generally concurred that the free ticket program is troubled, but necessary.

3. Review costs of potential King County low-income fare programs.

Other than General Manager Desmond’s chart above, no one has provided dollar figures. However, the math problem becomes a big one when you consider the sheer size of the low-income ridership – roughly a quarter of the whole. A program offering to cut the fare in half for all low income riders would take 12% out of Metro’s current fare recovery of roughly $137 million. Metro can definitely not afford to toss $15 million a year right now into fare discounts for a quarter of the ridership, before considering the administrative costs of qualifying riders for that discount.

The committee did not discuss how many no-income riders Metro serves, but it is an order of magnitude smaller than the “low-income” population. The One Night Count for 2012 counted 2,594 men, women, and children without shelter, and 6,236 people in shelters and transitional housing, with the webpage pointing out that this is an undercount of the homeless population.

4. Recommend definitions of low-income to be used for the implementation of transit fare programs.

This is the one point on which the committee appears unanimous. 200% of the federal poverty level is the most verifiable break point. It allows people to bring in paperwork from the numerous other programs that use the 200% threshold, so that Metro can stay out of the business of determining riders’ income levels. 200% is also the industry standard among other bus agencies that provide a low-income fare discount.

The federal poverty level calculation is sensitive to family size, as shown in this chart from SunTrans in Tucson, AZ. The chart indicates maximum income beyond which a rider does not qualify for the discount.

5. Make prioritized recommendations related to the establishment of King County low-income fare programs.

Although there are not yet formal recommendations, a few committee members insist that taking care of “the most vulnerable population” (i.e. no-income riders) is the top priority. I tend to concur. Metro doesn’t have the money right now to implement much of a low-income fare discount program. But they could implement a no-income monthly pass program much more cheaply, and simultaneously reduce administrative costs for all the partner agencies that have had to fill out detailed paperwork for every single free ticket they give out.

General Manager Desmond panned the idea of giving out passes for which the fare is permanently set as free.

6. Identify different options for funding low-income fare programs and potential partners that may be willing to support such programs.

The committee has not identified options.

However, when fares increase Metro must comply with Title VI, which forbids discriminatory policies. Metro has been adding to the annual amount of free tickets for the homeless with each fare increase.

7. Identify opportunities and recommendations for regional low-income fare programs and potential partners that may be willing to support such programs.

By “regional low-income fare programs”, the county council was probably expecting Metro to have to go to the ORCA Board and get the other agencies to agree to honor each others’ low-income fare programs. This could become unnecessary if Metro simply provides discounted monthly passes on regular ORCA cards – an idea which the committee did not discuss.


In my opinion, Metro, in partnership with some non-profits, should consider giving out free and/or discounted monthly passes on regular ORCA cards, one month at a time. This would be far cheaper administratively than giving out one ticket at a time, and would make the pass automatically honored on the other bus agencies’ routes. However, I have found no precedent for this approach, as every transit agency that gives out free monthly passes does so with non-smart-card passes.

This would still not be cheap, and have to be on some form of first-come-first-serve queue for the foreseeable future, hopefully getting into the hands of people who would use it as a leg up to get out of their situation. If the entire counted homeless population got free monthly transit passes, that would be roughly $1 million worth of passes every month. Of course, that $1 million is theoretical, not lost fare revenue, since it is for people who couldn’t afford to pay any fare. The real costs of the program would be the (undetermined) administrative costs and any extra service that would have to be deployed to meet additional ridership demand, which might involve extra buses on the most packed peak routes.

Metro could create a mitigation fund created from the portion of increased fare recovery that comes from low-income riders (roughly a quarter of the increased fare recovery). In the medium term, it may be enough to cover free monthly passes for homeless individuals who meet some basic qualifications. In the long term, it may grow to make a low-income fare program possible.

The largest group of potential partners would likely be agencies that are already buying the discounted tickets, and passing them on for free to their clients. But this is a much smaller cost than getting these agencies into the business of sharing in the subsidization of monthly passes for a much larger clientele.

The most obvious additional potential partners would be the state and federal government. But that seems unlikely in the current political environment.

38 Replies to “Metro Low-Income Fare Committee Almost Done”

  1. How much money would they spend studying, implementing & monitoring such a program and then cleaning up after the inevitable corruption and mismanagement comes to light.

  2. Are you really helping people when you set up a system that perpetuates poverty? When you give people free and discounted stuff, provided they make under a certain amount, you are setting up a giant disincentive for them to ever want to find a job or earn more, because they will lose their benefits. Rather than making passes cost less for the poor, try to help the poor afford full price passes. Or at the very least, make them do public service work, like picking up litter, to earn a free or discounted pass.

    1. A thought like that occurred to me when I read the part about basing the income threshold at 200% of the poverty level, because it’s easy since many other programs use that level. If all benefits vanish when someone gets above that level, there is a disincentive to earn any more than that. Benefits that phase out at less that a 1-1 rate as income rises preseves the incentive to earn more. This could be approximated by having several benefits, each with different threshold levels.

      1. One way to avoid losing several benefits at once is to stagger the qualification periods. The committee talked about whether low-income fare qualifiers should have to requalify every 3 months, every 6 months, annually, or for some other length of time. I don’t recall them coming to any sort of agreement on that question.

        Metro is not terribly interested in going it alone with a unique qualification level, as they would have to build up new office personnel infrastructure to handle the same sort of income determination social service agencies are already doing. Some of the committee members made a point of saying they do not want this program to lead to the creation of new bureaucracy.

    2. I’m curious how many poor people you have met that feel that way. I’ve met a lot of them, and none of them have said anything like “Well, I can take that job, but then I would lose my free bus tickets.” or “My boss wants to give me a raise, but then I won’t qualify for food stamps”.

      Every poor person I’ve ever met has said the opposite. They hate the paperwork and bureaucracy of it all. They are thrilled if they can drop the support system and live like “normal” people. But if they have to spend hours in a line just to feed their kids, they will. It beats some of all the alternatives (which, for many, means prostitution).

      I think “try[ing] to help the poor afford full price passes” is a great idea. Perhaps we could try and emulate nations that have pretty much eradicated poverty (like the Scandinavian countries). Unfortunately, that would cost a lot of money, and as Americans, we prefer to spend money on guns, not butter (and let the poor eat cake).

      1. Have the Scandinavian countries really “eradicated poverty”? Isn’t there rioting in Stockholm as we type?

        (I realize that some of the rioters want to overthrow the prevailing civil society for reasons beside poverty, and have found timely excuses to riot, but the situation indicates that the Swedes aren’t getting everything right.)

      2. The current Swedish riots are not over poverty. It’s primarily ethnic/cultural tensions that have been stewing for a long time and are reaching the now reaching a boiling point.

      3. Ross, I’ve known some people like this. It’s more common than you think. And no, no one is not going to not take a job because they will lose their free bus tickets, but, they will not look for a job because they will lose a dozen or more benefits … EBT card, Section 8, Basic Health or Medicaid, Free School Lunches, Lifeline Link-Up and Lifeline Assistance (free cell phone and cell phone bill being paid), Utility Bill Assistance and HEAP (up to 40% off every month’s bill), WIC, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (60 months limit, but can be extended), and on, and on, and on the list goes.

        So you can think you are helping someone by giving them another discount on something because they are poor, but all you are really doing is giving them more reason to stay below the poverty level.

    3. Planet Money produced a great episode on the Earned Income Tax Credit. It pays out more money as you climb the pay ladder, then drops again. This smoothes out any of these incentives to not push yourself forward, as each step up in pay will be greater than your loss in tax breaks. This has been shown to be highly sucessful.

      But I have no idea how to apply this to bus fares (picturing a tax professional sitting next to the driver, kind of the exact opposite of an ORCA card).

      1. There needs to be more of this. The Food Stamp cutoff resulted in several years of my life where, even though I was progressively getting more hours, incremental raises, and promotions, my quality of life changed not one bit. At the biannual benefit reviews, every new dollar on my paycheck meant one dollar less on the EBT card.

        It it was like $0.90 of benefit reduction for every $1 of new pay, that might be better.

    4. Rather than making passes cost less for the poor, try to help the poor afford full price passes.

      The only serious way to do that is to significantly raise the minimum wage, so that an entry-level employee can keep his financial head above water without goverment assistance. As it is, a lot of our public welfare programs are little more than a subsidy to employers that allow them to pay low level employees wages below their cost of living.

      That’s not going to change any time soon, though.

      And any person who thinks that people won’t want to succeed at a job for fear of lose their gravy-train of government low-income benefits, is a person with no experience with the meager quality-of-life these benefits allow. I was very happy when my food-stamp benefit finally made it’s last drop to $0 – it meant that my raises and promotions would finally impact my quality of life.

      Also, transportation is an important tool in finding and keeping a job. Making it harder for the un/underemployed to get too and from worksites is not good policy, period.

      1. Also, transportation is an important tool in finding and keeping a job. Making it harder for the un/underemployed to get too and from worksites is not good policy, period.

        This. So much. It shouldn’t be Metro, but someone needs to make it possible for any person who is working or looking for work to get there on the bus… especially if they are making minimum wage and struggling every day to stay afloat.

    5. Any suggestion that people like living in poverty because of the benefits they receive is ignorant of the facts at hand. People have places to go and they can’t get a job if they can’t get a ride. Would you rather get $500 a month from the government to pay for your food, housing, etc and do nothing, or work a decent job at minimum wage and make about $1,500. Most would rather take the money and pay their own way. We have to help them get there.

    6. Sam – the working poor (which is about ~200%) often do not have cars but still need mobility in order to get to their jobs, to get basic goods and services for them and their family, and to get to critical things like Dr. appointments. That is who this program is trying to serve. Many of them cannot afford the bus fares required to meet their daily needs.

      There will always be poor people, whether you like it or not. They need to get places. Your Tea Party ideology of “hand outs just perpetuate poverty” really doesn’t apply here. This is about helping people meet basic needs while making public transit more accessible to the people who need it most.

  3. Forgive me if I come off sounding heartless, but does it really make sense to focus on “no income” people? These people, by definition, do not have a job. If they have a job, it makes sense that they would dedicate some portion of their income to transportation. For people who are disabled and are unable to work, they should be able to qualify for the RRFP. For people who need transportation to look for a job, they should be considering the everyday cost of transportation to and from the job.

    The idea of a limited-time ORCA pass is a good one to help someone get a leg up. That said, the ticket program seems to serve a somewhat different need and it probably needs to stay around. It seems like any charitable agency could institute an ORCA pass program on their own by buying passes and lending them to clients on a short-time basis. But they would probably need to maintain a blacklist of clients who are banned from transit or who have absconded with a pass (and sold it?) in the past.

    1. There are plenty of poor people with jobs. Even those that are unemployed need to get to various places. This includes a job interview, the employment center (to look for a job), the library (so they access the internet), school (for themselves or their kids), the clinic, etc.

      Your point about people selling passes is a good one, though. It is one of the strongest arguments against these sorts of targeted programs. Food stamps are routinely sold for pennies on the dollar (a lot of pennies) so that folks can buy items that they can’t buy otherwise (like cigarettes or booze) . This helps no one. You are better off just giving poor people cash. Unfortunately, this is political suicide. The same small percentage of people will then directly pay for the booze and cigarettes, and the ignorant middle and upper class will catch wind of it, and the entire system will collapse. Next thing you know, we will become more like a Mexican economy (with a shrinking middle class, a return to widespread hunger, etc.). Oops, I guess we already went down that road.

      An ORCA card program has one big advantage over a ticket program: it can be tracked. If an agency gives someone a card, they can determine where that person went with the card. That is definitely “big brother” style monitoring, but it happens (to some extent) with employer based cards (a lot of companies don’t want you giving your ORCA card to your spouse so he can commute while you just drive to work). It seems to me that an ORCA card can be monitored and limited pretty easily. There is an extra level of bureaucracy involved here, but unfortunately, that is the political price we have to pay. Simply living with a certain amount of cheating is far less popular than monitoring the system.

      1. Do food stamps still exist? I though they have all been replaced by restricted debit cards.

      2. Yes, they have been replaced with EBT cards, there are no physical “food stamps”. However, the benefits are still colloquially referred to as “food stamps”, even within government. To allow someone else to use them, you have to give them your card and PIN.

      3. The travel tracking of an ORCA is pretty much irrelevant, except when a fare checker finds you have somebody else’s card. And, really, lots of people trade off passes with other people in their household, regardless of income level.

        The key tracking point is that when you show up to get your discounted monthly pass for the next month, you will have already registered the card (as a requirement for the program). The registered name on the card, the ID of the person seeking to refill it, and the person’s physical appearance will need to match.

  4. Even the good service agencies want to keep bus tickets.
    It lets them treat transit as a carrot, doled out in very small doses, and forces consumers to come back at least weekly, or lose access to job-training/showers/food/health-care.

    The bad groups(Share/Wheel), use the threat of losing transit as a stick, forcing residents to toe the party line, testify in front of council, or camp out in front of councilors houses.

    Doubt any of the service agencies are onboard with Orca. Even a one month pass is too valuable, and too much process change for their staff.

    None of them have any incentive to care about speeding up metro.

  5. Everyone should ride with a full price ticket…but that price can and should be subsidized indirectly by social service agencies NOT the transit agency.

    We absolutely do not want transit agencies and social services to be conceptually intertwined so freely, because if they do people will start to see (as they do in many non-PNW locales) the bus/train as a thing for the poor instead of a broad societal asset.

    1. I can get behind this reasoning – it’s not “fair” for King County Metro, a transportation agency, to be spending their budget on social welfare concerns. We have other agencies who should be taking on this responsibility in their budget.

    2. I agree fully. But then again, the most effective way of getting people on board may be to fund reduced-fare fare media (hopefully not through the transit budget). It would be great to have an infrastructure for that that is faster, offers greater control, and is less fraud-prone than reams of unaccountable tickets.

      And, Brent, I just want to extend a big thank you for your tireless work on this issue and for keeping the rest of us up to date. It’s much appreciated.

  6. Why not just save a whole boatload of money and keep things the way that they are now? People who cannot – or don’t wish to – pay their fare simply don’t. They get to ride anyway without penalty county-wide RIGHT NOW.

    1. Using a similar logic, why bother with food banks when the hungry can simply shoplift their groceries, for free, RIGHT NOW?

      1. Or, to look at it in another way, indigent assertive assholes ride for free while indigent meek individuals trying to play by the rules pay full fare.

      2. What is it that we are trying to incentivize? Would Mark Zuckerberg be one of the assertive assholes who rides for free or the meek individual trying to play by the rules?

      3. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t indigent. He should pay irrespective of whether he’s an assertive asshole.

      4. Because there are actual penalties for shoplifting. Most stores have loss prevention programs that arrest and prosecute shoplifters. (Bus) fare evaders are given free transfers – by policy. Money could be saved by simply acknowledging this undeniable fact instead of researching and cranking up a program that’s irrelevant given the complete lack of existing fare enforcement anyway.

  7. Thanks, everyone, for engaging in this difficult conversation.

    For those who aren’t already sold on the notion of public buses being for everyone who wishes to ride them, let me just say how lucky we are that nobody has brought a Title VI lawsuit against Metro. The LA Bus Riders Union successfully sued LA Metro, and essentially succeeded in a coup d’etat, in which the BRU has more power than the general public to control where and how often bus routes run. I do not want to see something as tragic as that happening here.

    Metro needs to be proactive in protecting itself against even the possibility of such a lawsuit. That’s one additional reason I like the idea of the mitigation fund. It allows Metro to increase fare revenue (which it desperately needs) while having a pretty ironclad defense that the additional revenue, on the whole, is not coming from the poorest riders, nor reducing anyone’s access to riding.

    1. The BRU issue had more to do with rail allegedly going to whiter populations and the elimination of the monthly pass, which even LA County MTA staff later admitted was stupid. The overcrowding was always an issue but MTA staff came up with the idea of counting maximum standees to determine crowding, while not focusing on on-time performance and bus bunching, which caused many periodic overcrowding conditions and unreliability.

      King County is not planning on eliminating the monthly pass. The best way to do a low income subsidy is to outsource it to someone else like existing social service agencies. This is the LA Metro Rider Relief Transportation Program. You can get a $10 subsidy if you present your documentation in person to one of a few agencies in the county. Although the income thresholds are fairly high, this is sufficiently annoying enough such that only those truly in need use the coupons. On ORCA, those who need the lowered fare could purchase $20 worth of fare credit, say, for $10, or purchase a monthly pass on the installment plan (one issue with many poor people is the inability to make the minimum “nut” for a monthly pass). To avoid selling rides the card is personalized. If they want to sell rides to relatives or friends, whatever, but you are not qualifying for the card again if you lose it, unless you want to file a police report.

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