As part of the fare increases being considered by the King County Council to take effect March 2015, Metro is planning to raise Access fares by $0.50 per ride, to $1.75. That’s a big “ouch” for some of the poorest paratransit users in King County, an extra $216 a year for monthly pass buyers.
Assuredly, Metro must have pondered applying the low-income fare category to Access fares during the deliberations of the Low Income Fare Options Advisory Committee. The lawyers might have been squeamish about the idea of asking paratransit riders to provide proof of income, since federal law prohibits income-based requirements in determining who is eligible to ride paratransit. Of course, offering a discounted fare to those who can prove they are at or below 200% of the poverty level is a separate issue, and one that has not hamstrung the other U.S. transit agencies that offer a low-income paratransit fare.
Indeed, the low-income paratransit fare has gone hand-in-hand with low-income fixed route fares at Lincoln, Nebraska’s StarTrans, Tucson, Arizona’s SunTrans, and San Mateo County, California’s SamTrans.
The industry standard for paratransit fares is drifting toward charging the federal legal limit: twice the regular fare for a fixed-route trip of similar length. (See question 12 on the linked page.) However, some have interpreted Fell v. Spokane Transit as limiting paratransit fares in Washington State to merely equal to the regular fare for a fixed-route trip of similar length. Metro has stated its intent to move Access fares toward that level.
SamTrans has collected a lot of useful demographic data that may or may not translate well to King County. In particular, 15% of SamTrans paratransit registrants qualify for a low-income fare, but these riders account for 50% of all trips taken.
Extrapolating from this data, Metro would likely have to raise the non-low-income Access fare at least as much as it lowers the new low-income Access fare from the proposed $1.75 in order to make the roll-out of a low-income Access ORCA revenue-neutral. Metro could freeze the low-income Access fare at $1.25, while introducing a 25-cent surcharge for paying at the time of the ride instead of pre-paying through the rider’s ORCA account. That 25-cent deterrent would hopefully reduce cash handling to nearly zero, and pretty much eliminate Access fare evasion.
To offset this fare freeze, the non-low-income Access fare could go all the way up to $2.50 (plus a 25-cent cash payment surcharge), which is in line with the ratio used by the other agencies. If San Mateo County’s demographics can be translated to King County, this alternative to the $1.75 proposal should end up yielding more revenue. At the same time, cash-strapped riders who depend on Access to get around would not be nickeled and dimed into being housebound. Those who don’t qualify for the discount would still be getting an incredible bargain at $2.50 for curb-to-curb service, and could obviously afford to pay the higher fare.
Instead of inching toward one fare policy goal, Metro could reach that goal in one jump and simultaneously hold to King County’s commitment to social equity.