Senior RRFP
Photo: Seattle-King County Advisory Council on Aging & Disability Services

King County Metro’s Low Income Fare Options Advisory Committee met for the last time in person Wednesday. They are still wordsmithing the document that will be transmitted to the County Executive and the County Council, but plan to have that finalized document sent by July 1st.

The committee will be recommending 200% of the federal poverty level as the breakpoint for qualifying for a low-income fare, mostly because several federal programs use that threshold, and the documentation from those other programs would enable Metro to stay out of the business of income determination. (For those unfamiliar with the federal poverty level, it is based on a combination of income and family size.)

The committee still wants Metro to do some direct income determination for riders who are either ineligible or uninterested in those other programs for reasons unrelated to income, but did not appear to have a plan for how to limit income determination to just those who fall in that category. Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond expressed discomfort with the idea of putting Metro in that position.

The committee appears ready to recommend the farebox as one of the more immediate sources of revenue to fund a low-income fare program. Indeed, they could not agree to recommend any other source. But they also don’t want Metro to become the primary funder, much less the sole funder. Still, the committee seems willing to move forward with a program funded solely be farebox revenue if no other revenue sources can be found. The idea of the farebox approach is that as fares increase, a portion of each increase would go to funding the low-income fare program. Metro could raise fares more steeply than originally planned, raising more money to save more service while offsetting the increase for those least able to afford it with a robust low-income fare program.

Kate Joncas, representing the Downtown Seattle Association, raised a troubling question: How does someone who earns 205% of the federal poverty level feel about having his or her fare substantially increased in order to fund a discount for someone earning 197% of the federal poverty level. Nobody on the committee had a good answer. After the jump, I’ll try to give a good answer, from the vantage point of someone earning over 201% of the federal poverty level.

  1. If raising fares higher means saving more service, I can go for that. I’m already getting a great deal of excellent service for my $99 monthly pass.
  2. If I lose my job and fall on hard times, I’ll be relieved to have an option for a cheaper monthly pass.
  3. Listen up LIFOAC members: I expect some service improvement for my fare increase. Increasing platform and service hours is not the only way to improve service. Reducing travel time and/or improving reliability on every route is a more noticeable service improvement, and one that can be achieved by converting lots of frequent cash payers into ORCA tappers.

This means that the low-income fare program should be based on the ORCA card, and require use of electronic fare product in order to get the reduced fare. If the program distributes low income branded ORCA cards that can then be used as flash cards to pay a reduced fare with cash, then consider the deal off. I won’t be able to support such a program. The low-income fare program needs to be both pro-poor and pro-rider. A program that incentivizes continued cash payment is anti-rider. It also wastes an opportunity to preserve service, which the committee will state as its highest priority.

You may be thinking about how seniors and riders with disabilities get to pay their reduced fares with cash. Federal law requires that transit agencies receiving federal funding charge riders in these two categories no more than half the peak full adult fare. (See question 48 at the linked page.) But the current discount is much deeper than that. The inter-local agreement governing the Reduced Regional Fare Permit requires participating agencies to honor each others’ RRFP cards. However, it allows each agency leeway to have multiple discount rates. Metro could charge a higher fare to seniors and riders with disabilities who pay with cash than it charges to riders in those categories who pay with ORCA product. I hope Metro has the courage to enact such a cash differential as part of its upcoming fare restructure.

That leads me back around to what else the 201% can get out of this deal. The 201% can get a reward for using ORCA. Raise our fares, but raise the cash fares even more. Then, you will see a mass exodus from the ways of cash fumbling. The result will be reduced travel time across all routes, a big chunk of platform hours saved even before starting to cut routes, and happier riders. The 199% will get the same benefits of faster service and fewer routes cut. But they will also get cheaper access to the bus system if they need it.

Get the farebox out of the way of the buses and out of the way of poor riders: that’s a Win-Win Solution.

31 Replies to “We Are the 201%”

  1. To me the question about people at 201% of poverty level is an academic question. You have to draw the line somewhere unless you use some kind of sliding scale for fares, which would be ridiculously complicated and completely unfeasible.

    And yes I agree.

  2. Brent, thank you for your tireless work on these issues. You’re making a difference (and even more so if the program can increase ORCA use).

  3. This combined with free orca cards to the discount fare users might work well I think. Its difficult enough to get more people to use orca cards in the first place, the fewer barriers and more incentives, the better.

    Maybe they should sell pre-charged orca cards at the convenience stores like they sell all of those phone cards/app store/game money cards.

    Better yet, make it so you can charge just about anywhere instead of making people hunt down specific grocery stores or downtown transit centers….

    I suspect that not being able to charge right before you need to catch a bus is a pretty big deal for a lot of folks who still use cash. As long as there are not going to be charging stations at every bus stop (neither feasible nor really safe), there need to be as many other charging locations as can possibly be arranged.

    1. I did read that ORCA use has reached 60%. The reason it looks low is that there’s a wide difference between routes. E.g., on the 71X almost everyone uses ORCA, but on the 168 and 169 almost nobody does. Adding an ORCA incentive to low-income fares would help, but many of these people probably don’t qualify for low-income fares. The have just enough money to get by, and aren’t going to go out of their way to get a card and prepay their fares unless the carrots/sticks are significantly more than they are right now.

      1. Ok that makes sense, but I still like the idea of making ORCA cards easier to get and fill. I know that is one reason people I know have resorted to cash, even when they have ORCA cards.

        You still have to remember to fill the card and it can be difficult to get to a place to fill your card between the bus stop and your house/apartment. The more places that are capable of providing the card filling service, the fewer people you will find using cash.

        I wonder if there is a lack of easy purchase points in/around the 168/169 routes…

      2. There are now over 70 retail locations around King County that both sell and reload ORCA, including every single QFC and Safeway in the Metro service area, I believe. ORCA vending machines (which both sell and reload, of course) are located at all train stations, as well as Bellevue TC, Burien TC, Convention Place Station, Eastgate P&R, Federal Way TC, King Street Center, and Northgate TC.

      3. Brent,

        I am aware that there are quite a few places where we can get the cards currently, (yes I knew about Safeway and QFC). I was just stating that additional points of purchase would be useful if it was not a high cost issue for the transit agencies.

        From the experience I have had with people I know who do not use ORCA cards or stop using them (at least for a time) its because they find it difficult to charge before they get onto a bus.

        If it were possible to also have charging available in convenience stores or other more numerous places that are more likely to be on the way to or from the bus stop, I think we will see a significant reduction in the number of people continuing to use cash.

        I should note that I am also merely making a suggestion here as a potential solution to the posed problem of low card usage.

  4. The focus on ORCA, and the treatment of cash payment as a deal-breaker for any low-income fare scheme, is absolutely right.

    That said, don’t overstate things too much. Can you improve reliability by improving ORCA use? No question about it. Can you actually free up a significant number of service hours? Not so clear, especially since Metro has gotten very aggressive in recent years about shortening recovery times to the minimum.

  5. I honestly do not believe the ORCA full-fare can stand to go any higher at the current level of service. It is already well past the breaking point of “fair value for services rendered” for me and many other rational actors.

    I would double down on Brent’s line in the sand, and state that a farebox increase to fund the low-income discount — at least the first increase — must be for cash-payers only. In-city, non-express ORCA fares must not budge a cent until after an increase in service quality (through higher ORCA adoption) has been achieved.

    1. Roughly a quarter of the ridership would qualify for the low-income fare at the 200% threshold. If a deep discounted fare is offered, demand will far exceed supply of funds to pay for it.

      However, if the low-income fare is frozen at $2.25 for local and $3 for express service, and only made available through a discount on monthly passes, on regular ORCA cards, then the demand might actually be manageable. This approach would have the side benefit that the recipient would be able to use this discounted pass on all other agencies’ services without further action by the other agencies.

      1. If you mean that 25 percent of the current full-fare ridership would qualify, let’s assume for a minute that 80 percent of those that qualify would actually sign up and use the low-income fare. (Some share ride infrequently, and presumably won’t be bothered.)

        So that would mean that 20 percent of the current full-fare riders (and rides) would switch to the lower fare.

        Assuming further that the low-income fare would be set at 50 percent of the full fares, you’re then handing 20 percent of your ridership a 50 percent fare cut, which will knock about 10 percent off of your revenue base. Elasticity effects would make the hit a little less than that, but it’ll still be a hit.

        So, to keep the agency revenue-neutral, you’d have to look to the remaining 80 percent of your riders that are paying full fares, and raise their fares by 12.5 percent. Again, there are elasticity effects I’m ignoring, but it would look something like that.

        Most of the time, when an agency raises fares, it does so because its costs are increasing and it wants to preserve a level of service for the entirety of its ridership. Is there some benefit to this targeted fare increase to the 80 percent that I’m missing? Besides the warm fuzzy feeling they’ll undoubtedly get when they’re told they get to pay more to help their fellow person?

      2. Most of the fare increase will go to saving service. Metro is not going to implement a deep low-income fare discount that suddenly costs them 10% of fare revenue. Even the LIFOAC recognizes this reality.

        But if Metro follows the scenario where the low-income fare is frozen at the current full adult fares, then nobody is subsidizing a fare rollback for anyone, and no fare revenue is being lost. Tack onto that the ORCA use incentives and resulting service quality improvement, and I don’t think there will be a mass of riders complaining about paying higher fares to subsidize anyone. They may complain about the higher fares, but they won’t be blaming the low-income fare stabilization program. It didn’t happen for seniors and riders with disabilities, who are getting a much deeper discount. It won’t happen if low-income riders qualify to merely keep their fares right where they are now. Nor will 80% of low-income riders be interested in a monthly pass, if that is the only medium provided for getting the discount, er, holding onto the current rate.

        Looking at it from another angle: Metro could set the formula of funding availalble for the low-income fare program at the additional fare revenue that would come from the portion of the ridership that could qualify as “low income”. The entirety of additional fare revenue that comes from non-low-income riders would go directly to saving service. That may sound a tad bizarre from an accounting standpoint, but the short-term point is to enable frequent riders who qualify as “low income” to not have to absorb an extra $9 or $18 or $27 a month in transportation costs if they can’t afford it, while enabling Metro to get more fare revenue from those who can afford it, and save as much service as possible.

    2. agreed. I ride the bus because my employer subsidizes my Orca card and because I get a nice holier-than-thou feeling from not driving my car. If it were on my own dime, I would be reluctant to pay the $5/day for slow, unreliable service where I have to stand in the aisles because there aren’t enough seats and wait for transfers now that they’ve cut the direct route I used to take. And I would definitely be reluctant to pay more than that if they were to increase fares.

  6. I think anyone who is carfree should get a free bus pass, especially young people.

    I have proposed new age limits for drinking and driver licensing.

    I would allow the drinking age for a person to drop to 18, if they do not get a drivers license.

    And anyone without a drivers license can apply for a free bus pass.

  7. How about this to spur Orca adoption, any time a bus is more than 10 minutes behind schedule the cost of your fare is rebated to your card. You might not get to 201% Orca-ized but any regular riders would have a hell of an incentive and Metro might start printing reality based schedules.

    1. Nope. Metro would just change the definition of “on time”, and switch all the schedules to headways.

  8. There has to be a cut off point as to where poverty is no longer considered poverty. Your lack of planning for retirement and poor decisions should not be my burden. You chose to retire/live in an expensive area. Don’t whine that transit fares are too high.

      1. One could have moved to Idaho. …or Yakima, Ellensburg, or even Brinnon. Why settle in Seattle when you know full well the cost of living is well outside of your means on a fixed income?

        Local agencies have established this Ouija board to determine who is poor and who is not. It’s ludicrous.

      2. The federal poverty level, and qualification for federal programs such as the EBT, are based on federal guidelines.

      3. Brent, I know that the fed determines the poverty level. I’m stating that local agencies should stop using their own arbitrary formulas to determine their own level of poorness for fare benefits and other benefits such as housing assistance. You know this just as well as I do.

        Increasing fares to off-set the poor folks’ subsidies will backfire. The fares are already too high. The Average Joe is already leery of transit, if transit fares increase, any future transit votes will not likely in favor in transit. Additionally, an increase of fares will push folks making short trips into their cars. Why ride the bus when one can make the trip, park for free and still save?

      4. Most of any fare increase will go to save service. An additional 25-cent increase would save roughly 2% of all platform hours. The saving of service is the main selling point for any fare increase.

        The fraction going for the low-income fare program is primarily so Metro doesn’t risk a Title VI lawsuit over the fare increase. Metro doesn’t provide free tickets for the homeless just because they think it is a neat thing to do. They do it to comply with the requirement for mitigation when a service change disproportionately impacts minority riders (which is why the ticket allotment went up when the Ride Free Area went away).

        Bus riders facing this fare increase are unlikely to vote against taxes to help save the rest of the service. Non-bus-riders are more likely to vote for more taxes for transit if they see riders shouldering a larger share of the burden. Since everyone makes up their own mind, there will be exceptions, or course.

        But resisting any fare increase at all is likely to tick off more non-bus-riding voters than it is to gain votes from bus riders (who were already overwhelmingly going to vote yes, out of self-interest).

      5. Most of the places with a lower cost of living are extremely difficult to get around without a car, and have higher unemployment few medium- or high-wage jobs. We shouldn’t force people to move to those places. We should instead work to make all places more walkable so that people have a more viable choice about where to live, in either a high-cost or low-cost area.

    1. There has to be a cut off point where we stop giving guaranteed returns, free mega loans and subsidies to a few insiders. You’re inability to do a regular job and live in a normal sized home by inflating currency and devaluing my work should not be my burden. You choose to skirt the law and subvert the rules of society. Don’t whine if others, forced to fall back to using what little is left…start to do what is necessary to survive.

      1. Out of curiosity: What is a “regular job”, and how big is a “normal sized home”?

  9. Programs like this just cause a perverse incentive for individuals to stay in low wage jobs and not advance themselves with education, or even take on a second job or overtime, because of this cliff effect. There is a way you can do graduated fares with less of a cliff effect – use the free lunch qualification point (130% FPL) for a large discount, and a “half discount” at the reduced lunch qualification point (185% FPL). Also, enforcement of the limits will need to be made strong. There will be great temptation for people at the margins to continue to qualify for this program. Periodic recertification (every six months or so) is a must.

    1. If the discount on a low-income monthly pass is $9 or $18 (at least at the inception of the program), I doubt that will make anyone not seek a raise or overtime.

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