Last year 138 social service organizations throughout King County distributed over 1.4 million bus tickets to the people they serve: low-income youth, the homeless, the unemployed, refugees, veterans, seniors and people with disabilities living off meager social security payments.
King County’s pioneering ORCA LIFT program is a welcome relief for low-income riders who can afford $1.50 per ride, or $54 for a monthly pass. Still, it’s important to remember that less than ten years ago the off-peak adult fare was just $1.25, and economic conditions for the poor haven’t exactly improved since then. For people who are living on very low or no income and depend on public transit, ORCA LIFT simply isn’t affordable all the time.
These are the people who rely on tickets. They number in the thousands, if not the tens of thousands. And as of March 26th, many of these people found another challenge added to their already challenging lives: Metro bus service has been restructured around the new light rail line, which they can’t ride because Link Light Rail doesn’t accept the tickets.
Since January the Transit Riders Union has been urging Sound Transit and Metro to come up with a solution that doesn’t leave some riders with a second-class transit system. And they’re taking note – since we announced a public action for April 16th, they’ve promised that a fix is on the way.
It’s great that our voices are being heard now, but light rail access for ticket-users has been a problem in South Seattle for years, and the transit agencies and elected officials have had years to anticipate how this year’s U-Link extension would make the problem more acute. One can’t help but notice the context of their sudden responsiveness: with Sound Transit 3 headed for the ballot this fall, they’re wary of public criticism.
It’s going to take concerted and ongoing pressure to make sure the needs of very low-income and no-income transit riders don’t recede into the background again. So, now that we’ve got their attention, there’s another problem that needs fixing: there are never enough tickets.
TRU hears this again and again from the people who run the social service organizations that distribute the tickets. Chris Langeler, the Executive Director of West Seattle Helpline, explains that although they received more tickets this year than last year, they still have to ration them carefully: “Even with that increase, we are still struggling to meet the need – many members of our community are struggling to afford bus fare for work, medical appointments, job interviews, or to access other resources and meet basic needs.”
Or listen to Caitlin Wasley, the Resettlement Support Manager at World Relief Seattle, who anticipates serving around 800 refugees arriving in Western Washington in 2016, the majority of whom will live in King County: “Folks participating in our Match Grant early employment program are required to come to classes at our office every weekday; but we are only able to provide them with bus tickets for about half of the month for each adult. This doesn’t even cover their children’s transportation needs at all!”
Why aren’t there enough tickets to go around? Social service organizations purchase the tickets for twenty cents on the dollar – for a single-ride ticket with a face value of $2.50, that’s $0.50. Even with this discount it’s a large expense for cash-strapped non-profits, and most don’t have the money to purchase enough tickets to meet the most basic transportation needs of the people they serve. King County also limits the number of tickets that can be sold in a year, so many organizations don’t get all they apply for.
This is artificial scarcity, and it can be easily fixed. King County should allow organizations to purchase more tickets at a lower cost, either by reducing the percentage of face value they pay, or by charging 20% of the $1.50 ORCA LIFT fare rather than the standard adult fare. Although Metro calculates their 80% “subsidy” as an expense for budgeting purposes, it needs to be acknowledged that, for the most part, the people who use bus tickets are not going to be paying their fare when they don’t have tickets — they are going to be riding without paying, or not riding at all. By making tickets cheaper and more plentiful, Metro will not lose significant revenue.
The bus ticket program may be clumsy in many ways, and the transit agencies should absolutely work toward new card-based solutions, disposable and/or durable, that could work well for many very low-income and no-income riders. But in the meantime, the bus tickets are what we’ve got.
Lowering the cost and making more bus tickets available should be part of any adequate response to our Homelessness State of Emergency. With over 4,500 human beings sleeping rough in King County and homeless deaths at an all time high, and with thousands more people losing their food stamps right now, we don’t need to be squeezing pennies out of the desperately poor. We need to be making sure that everyone can get to the places they need to go to sustain and improve their lives.
Katie Wilson is the General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union and a Member of the Seattle Transit Advisory Board