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.
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.