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.

18 Replies to “What If Metro Were to Have a Low-Income Access ORCA?”

  1. I apologize to everyone who tried to comment on this post today, and got blocked. The problem appears to be fixed.

  2. This proposal makes so much sense to me I feel I must be missing something. Why was Access cheaper than the bus in the first place? I always assumed it cost at least as much or more than the bus, with either subsidies or waived fares for low-income riders who would be housebound without them.

    1. The only subsidy program I know of for Access is for businesses that have an ORCA business account with Metro, and subsidize transit passes for their employees. Presumably, if all employees at a company are getting a free pass, that would also cover employees there who ride Access. I would suspect that if the employer requires a 50% match, that would be the formula, but it might vary from employer to employer.

      Metro believes it can’t charge more for an Access ride than for an equivalent-length fixed-route full fare ride. I could quibble with their interpretation, but I am not a lawyer. Regardless, an Access ride costs 50 cents more than a fixed-route ride using a Reduced Regional Fare Permit. Under Metro’s proposal, an Access ride would end up costing 75 cents more than an RRFP fixed-route ride. Under my proposal, a low-income Access ride would still cost 25 cents more than an RRFP fixed-route ride, while a non-low-income Access ride would cost $1.50 more than an RRFP fixed-route ride.

      You are right that there are some Access riders who are sometimes able to ride fixed-route service. I have no idea what portion of Access-qualified riders that is.

      Metro is threatening to shrink the Access service area if the 17% cut occurs. The removed service area would be around discontinued fixed routes.

      1. “You are right that there are some Access riders who are sometimes able to ride fixed-route service. I have no idea what portion of Access-qualified riders that is.”
        I don’t think I said anything like that– I definitely don’t know enough about the system to say that. I was just asking why there was a fare discrepancy between Access and a regular bus ticket, but I think I am now learning that the reason is that everyone who is qualified to ride Access would also be qualified for a discounted fare on the bus, so the price of a regular bus ticket is the wrong comparison.

  3. Can I get a ‘low income’ card for Canalis? It’s clearly unfair to me I can’t afford their finest Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

  4. One reason people use paratransit service is that the places they need to go are not served adequately by regular transit service. Thus, with the impending Metro cutbacks, there is probably going to be a higher demand for this type of service. What is proposed here seems to deal with this issue nicely for those that don’t necessarily qualify for low income assistance but do need paratransit to get around.

    However, part of the solution may also be in the more remote areas of the county putting in flexible routed buses that would provide service to a larger portion of the population in that area. Tillamook, Oregon has a few such routes they call “Deviated Fixed Route”, where the bus operates on a fixed route but by reservation request the bus may wander up to 3/4 of a mile off of its fixed route to collect passengers from locations off the fixed route.

    Providing paratransit for a single individual is hugely expensive per passenger, while this “Deviated Fixed Route” service that Tillamook is offering is a reasonable way of offering a service that is accessible to all potential passengers in an area with otherwise sparse regular transit service.

    1. Metro has seventeen DART routes similar to what you subscribe, but there is no deviation charge. Ten of these routes are on the chopping block. Where these routes go away, so will a chunk of Access service area. If they stay, so does the Access service, except that the distance from the fixed route may be shrunk. You can view the threatened shrinkage of Access service area here.

      I asked a Metro rep at one of the open houses about whether rides have to start in the service area, end in the service area, or both. She told me they have to start in the service area, and the rider was on her/his own to find a way back. That answer seemed incomplete, as she didn’t specify a distance limit.

      Lubbock, Texas has an intriguing approach to the service boundary issue: CitiAccess charges $2.50 within the federally-mandated service area, and $10 in an extended service area (which still falls far short of the cost of providing the service).

  5. Maybe I’m confused, but I assume that Access service is substantially more expensive to provide than fixed route service. Therefore for a given rider it would be economically insane to price an Access ride lower than the comparable regular bus fare. Otherwise it would give that rider an additional economic incentive to call for an Access ride instead of ride a fixed bus.

    1. Thanks for reminding me to look through all the possible transit trips with which a paratransit trip competes.

      Everyone who qualifies for Access qualifies for the Reduced Regional Fare Permit for riders with disabilities.

      Any Metro fixed-route ride with the RRFP costs $0.75 (proposed to be raised to $1). An intra-county ST Express ride costs $0.75. Same with Link.

      One place an intra-county fixed-route ride could cost more than an Access ride is on Sounder. Seattle-Tukwila costs $1.50. Seattle to Kent or Auburn costs $1.75. This is just for someone who hasn’t bought the $45 monthly Access pass.

      For those who have bought the monthly Access pass, they are entitled to ride all Metro and ST services for no additional charge. (I believe Sound Transit was the first agency to institute such a policy, but I’ve seen a few other agencies around the country copy it now.)

      Solving this one edge-case problem is up to ST, but I think it is such an edge case that nobody worries about it, including Access riders who, by and large, are travelling to somewhere other than a train station, and want to take their trip some time of day that doesn’t coincide with the Sounder schedule.

      There are other issues, such as the cost of personal care attendants to ride along, and how inter-county transfers are done, for which I don’t see the information just by browsing. Transit agencies want to give you information about alternatives, such as rider training for riding the fixed routes, before telling you of every trick to save money by booking a paratransit ride. (And I believe Metro was one of the earliest agencies in the country to create a rider training program.) Metro also has an online video with tips for riding with a wheelchair, embedded in Metro’s home page.

      BTW, Snohomish County has copied King County by creating a DART ORCA. That’s further incentive to pre-pay, and the two agencies do talk to each other. (I believe Metro was the first agency in the nation to smart-cardize paratransit fare payment.)

    2. “Otherwise it would give that rider an additional economic incentive to call for an Access ride instead of ride a fixed bus.”

      You’re right, but you have to keep in mind that you can only qualify for Access if you have a disability that *prevents* you from using a fixed bus.

  6. I don’t think that Metro – or transit generally – should have an income redistribution or welfare responsibility as part of its fare policy. Let me expand on that a bit.

    Metro and transit already have multiple missions. Some of these are to benefit the community by reducing congestion, reducing pollution, and enabling better land use and urban cities by reducing the space occupied by parking and driving cars. Others are to enable mobility for people who are unable to drive for whatever reason.

    Transit operates at a loss and is publicly funded, and it’s essentially impossible for it to ever be self-funding. Fares are charged to generate revenue and reduce the need for public funding, but in order to achieve the first set of objectives (pollution, land use), the fares cannot be set so high that transit becomes non-competitive with driving, especially considering that riders are probably giving up time and convenience to ride transit.

    Society has obligations to provide support and services to lower income members. But those obligations should be met by all of the taxpayers, and not shifted onto the backs of the subset of taxpayers who ride and pay for transit service. Every time a set of riders (e.g. low income riders) doesn’t pay their fares, it’s penalizing the whole system by providing less resources for service – it’s really a shift of the general societal obligation onto the transit system. So if there’s to be a low-income rider subsidy, it should not come from the Metro or transit budget in the form of lower fares, it should come in some form of transfer payment of fare credits to the low income riders who can then spend it on Metro and St.

    1. Carl, you, I, and everyone else here who reads this blog and rides transit are recipients of a welfare-redistribution scheme, from sales taxpayers. Moreover, our low fares rob from Metro’s and ST’s ability to provide more service.

      The Low-Income Fare Options Advisory Committee told Metro to fund the low-income fare program out of *new* outside revenue sources, setting aside a portion of each new source for that purpose, as Metro acquires new income sources (e.g. a 0.1% sales tax increase or a $40 car tab increase, hypothetically).

      I expect the creation of the low-income fare program to be contingent on the passage of the tax/tab increase, as Metro has no intention to take several million dollars of service off the road in order to create the program, and several members of the LIFOAC were quite clear Metro shouldn’t cut service in order to fund the program.

      The general fare increase, I’m afraid, will not be contingent on the passage of the tax/tab increase. Attaching the general fare increase to the tax/tab increase would have several negative effects, including getting a chunk of transit riders to vote “No”.

      1. Oops, I meant to write “wealth-redistribution scheme”. But I guess it is also a health, general welfare, and happiness redistribution scheme, too.

      2. I’m fairly sure that I am not a net recipient of a redistribution scheme from sales taxpayers or any other taxpayers. I can say that on the basis of both fairly large sales tax payments that I personally make, and the fact that I work from home and only occasionally use transit.

        I don’t agree with your assertion that fares are too low. At $2.50 that means a couple pays $10 round trip. I don’t know if you are a monthly pass holder or get an employer subsidized pass, but I pay for each ride. Perhaps those passes should look more like the ones in some Asian countries where they include 30 or 45 rides, and you pay extra for additional rides – though conceptually I disagree with that – since I want to drive up ridership, and I don’t want high marginal costs for each trip.

        Like most County residents I have an SOV at my disposal whose licensing, insurance and maintenance are paid for regardless of its usage. When looking at paying $10 for 2 people, that SOV looks attractive.

        If you want the SOV owners to use transit other than for work trips, and if you want SOV owners who don’t commute by transit to vote for tax increases to support transit, I don’t think you want to drive fares much higher; otherwise you run the risk that it will turn into a commute-only and transit-dependent only system. I want it to be useful for everyone, including people who don’t have monthly passes and ride enough to justify them.

      3. I think the flat non-nuanced fare increase is because the county council want to show SOV voters that transit users are sharing the pain. The councilmembers are the ones who have access to the surverys. So, I disagree with your vote loss/gain analysis.

        But if we don’t have the low-income fare program, transit opponents will cry desert lizard tears about how “regressive” the tab/tax increase is. That’s part of how the last Seattle transit proposition got taken down. And I am expecting no help whatsoever from the buses-are-better-than-trains crowd.

      4. Also, the fixed-route low-income fare will still be higher than the senior and disabilities fare, and the same as the youth fare. Should we eliminate the discount for these groups?

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