At a recent county council meeting where the proposed Metro route restructure was discussed, Councilmember Larry Gossett suggested that Sound Transit accept Metro paper transfers, due to the hardship current Metro cash payers would suffer having to pay twice when they transfer to Link. This would be a huge step backwards in the efforts of local transit agencies to modernize and speed up the fare collection system, and ignores the investment the county has already made in both ORCA and the ORCA LIFT — the new reduced fare card for low-income riders
No agency besides Metro accepts Metro paper transfers. All the agencies except Metro and Kitsap Transit have gotten rid of intra-agency paper bus transfers in order to incentivize using the faster ORCA card. Kitsap’s transfers are only good for immediate transfers, and only at a small set of transfer locations. Metro’s paper transfers are the outlier in the transit family that creates confusion and avoidable expense for riders. Once a Seattle bus rider obtains the ORCA card, she/he will not be spending more than $6 a day on her/his commute. (A letter CM Gossett read to the public suggested the writer would have to spend $10 a day for his commute, but that is simply because he hasn’t gotten an ORCA card.)
For low-income riders, the $5 cost of getting an ORCA card used to be an imposition, but now the ORCA LIFT card is free for those who qualify.
However, there are plenty of riders who want to hold onto the paper transfer program, in part, because the LIFT fare is still too high.
So, I would like to suggest a deal: In exchange for eliminating Metro paper transfers, make it policy that, in perpetuity, the youth/LIFT fare on Metro will be no more than half the regular fare.
This would immediately drop Metro’s youth/LIFT fare from the current $1.50 to $1.25, and put these two fare categories under the same limit as that imposed by the federal government for senior/disability (RRFP) fares. The practical result is that the next time RRFP fares go up, the various reduced-fare categories would be aligned, and would probably stay that way for a long time to come.
One of the county’s fare policy goals for Metro is “Be easy for customers to understand and use.” Paper transfers that are accepted on some public buses but not others obviously go against that goal. Having a single reduced fare on Metro buses clearly aligns with that goal. Paper transfers also work against other fare policy goals, “Meet fare revenue targets and comply with the Fund Management Policies, including maintaining a target cost recovery ratio of 25 percent,” “Align with regional transit partners”, “Reduce costs”, and “Reflect the cost of service, with higher fares for higher-cost service.”
Where would Metro come up with the money to replace the lost fare revenue from dropping youth/LIFT fares a quarter? Remove the $4 million ($) budget line for the annual printing and distribution costs of paper transfers.
Note that Councilmember Rod Dembowski proposed getting rid of paper transfers a year ago, as a cost-saving measure to help save some service. If a deal that involves getting rid of paper transfers helps get the route restructure passed, that would be a most excellent grand bargain.
The total number of youth and LIFT boardings on all transit services accepting ORCA has been well under a million per month, through June of 2015. Let’s assume nearly all of those are on Metro, and that youth/LIFT boardings will eventually reach 1 million a month. At a 25-cent fare reduction per boarding (though the actual impact will be lessened by passes and transfers), that would be $3 million per year, at the high end, in lost fare revenue. That still leaves $1 million in profit from getting rid of the cost of printing and distributing paper transfers.
Of course, that is not all the money this fare reduction would save. 4.6 to 6.8 seconds would be saved each time someone pays with ORCA instead of with cash. Based on recent ORCA reports, cash boarding would likely drop from roughly 35% of all Metro boardings to less than 20% of boardings if paper transfers went away. 15% of Metro’s 120 million annual boardings would be 18 million boardings converted to ORCA tapping. Multiply that by 5 seconds saved per tap, and that comes out to 25,000 annual service hours that could be saved.
Other hard-to-quantify savings from eliminating paper transfers include reduced fare evasion and reduced fare disputes, which also means a reduction in assaults on drivers.
The county council could make the bus fare even more affordable for low-income riders, reduce the cost of transit for families with children, make the buses faster and more enjoyable for everyone, and have a little more money to spend as a result.