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.
- 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.
- If I lose my job and fall on hard times, I’ll be relieved to have an option for a cheaper monthly pass.
- 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.