Screen Shot 2016-04-12 at 8.42.40 AMLast 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

27 Replies to “Who’s Got a Ticket to Ride?”

      1. There are places out there – quite a number of them, in fact – where one agency accepts another agency’s fare. TriMet and CTran in Portland / Southwest Washington, for example. Many other such agreements exist.

  1. Would it be possible to order one-time use paper ORCA cards and load them with a day pass valid on Sound Transit and King County Metro? That would ensure that boarding is quick and reduce the stigma of using tickets. Also if passes are stolen or suspected of being sold for fraudulent purposes, they can be deactivated.

  2. Right on Katie! What’s keeping King County from simply giving pre-programmed ORCA cards to the poor?

  3. “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.”

    Wait a minute, wait a minute! A whole category of passengers can’t use the connecting buses specifically restructured to service LINK because ST won’t accept Metro tickets !?

    Every time I ride the 574- which I often do, preferring to park my car at Tacoma Dome Station rather than a lane on I-5, I see at least once case of this crap, usually at Federal Way, and always involving a passenger for whom this inexplicable complication is both a hassle and a hardship.

    I can’t believe how the Feds are putting up with this colossal waste of their money in lost operating time, and passengers. They’re probably already wishing they had demanded money back for the streetcar service we wasted.

    I’m tempted to start a vandalism, I mean pro-transit guerrilla art- campaign with blue, white, green, and yellow markers, connecting the other agency’s name to the printed one. Unfortunately, since I don’t yet live in the ST service area though I ride it more than huge percent of voting residents do,

    So best I can do is give all the support I can to the ST3 “No!” campaign if voters money and time is going to wasted like this from the get-go.

    No need to insist that two the agencies combine- last “Governance” campaign did serious damage to DSTT in the construction period that most needed the full attention it didn’t get. But I’m advising voters to get tis understanding in writing before the election:

    “Whether Sound Transit and King County Metro Transit become a single agency is up to them. But if they don’t at least act like they are, the decision to turn over transit service to Veolia, or another private contractor shall be up to us, the voters.”

    Or encourage their operating personnel to take over the system as a worker-owned cooperative. Either way, any expensive stupidity will only require soliciting bids on one transit agency. Can a ballot measure here say “Capiche?” or is that just in Newark?

    Mark Dublin


      1. We should have had this with the creation of Sound Transit, Roger. But like with any transit project, proponents should work out some basic details before taking the question to the voters.

        Before even thinking about structure of the governing board, we activists need to have a firm picture in our minds of an existing person whose type should be executive director.

        Not because of the CEO’s duties on the governing board, but because for any agency to work, the person holding this office needs to be the project’s leader. Most discouraging thing for me in the very early days of the Tunnel project was being told at a meeting:

        “Well, this project doesn’t have and actual leader right now. We’re working as a group.” Or something close. Imagine a bus on the freeway with that level of thinking at the wheel. Or being in an automatic car with a committee at the controls.

        Starting with readiness and ability to make and stand by decisions. Because before any regional agency is worth the effort to start, the people of this region and their elected representatives need to lose the habit of considering a decision as tyranny.

        Any ideas for candidates? Good way to sort? Nobody who objects to being named is eligible. But preference given to people who honestly don’t want the job but will reluctantly answer the citizens’ strong request, I mean demand, that they take it.

        Put that in the first sentence of the job description.

        Mark Dublin

    1. It seems to me that voting “No” on new transit will surely lead to no access to that transit.

  4. I don’t really care much about how they serve this need, just as long as they get rid of all paper fares and all paper transfers. Time to eliminate all the problems and move into the current century.

    1. Each ORCA card is billed at something like $3 each by the company that makes them, if I understand correctly. So, I’m not too upset by those that resist adopting ORCA for such things as an equivalent cash fare.

      Things like the issue with easy to fake bus transfers? TriMet (and a fair number of other agencies) were putting date codes on their equivalent transfers so long ago I can’t remember when it started, and I’m not at an age most people describe as young.

      It’s not going to be easy to convince SoundTransit to start accepting King County Metro transfers. However, it will definitely never happen while the fraud rate is so high. Get rid of this issue and the whole idea of accepting each other’s tickets and transfers will be a lot easier.

      ORCA adoption would be nice, but at the prices an ORCA card actually costs to obtain from its maker it is likely that some alternative fare devices are probably going to remain in use.

  5. I say “right on” to everything Katie wrote on this article, and yes we need an immediate fix. I also can’t help observing that eliminating fares all together would eliminate this issue entirely, not to mention all the expense of collecting fares!

  6. It does bring up a conundrum, though. The increase in the minimum wage has been touted by some as a way to increase the value of work and wean low wage workers off public subsidies like food stamps and Medicaid. And $26,000 a year ($13 minimum wage X 2000 hours a year) puts you over the poverty line for a family of three, and for a single over the ORCA LIFT threshold. So for working people, economic conditions have increased substantially, provided you can find work.

    As for discount tickets, the transit agency should charge their average fare to the social service providers. The difference between what they can afford and the average fare should come out of some other budget. Many utilities have “winter hardship funds” where they solicit donations from ratepayers for tax deductible charitable contributions for bills. Metro could do something similar during the holidays by donating public service advertising. But I fundamentally disagree that public transit is a social welfare organization, which is what the post wants me to believe.

    1. The highway system’s use of annual license fees to give drivers blanket access to the whole system works a lot better than a farebox at the end of everybody’s driveway. Why doesn’t transit just do that and be done with it?

      Another good example is drinking water and sanitary sewage. In this climate, people can last perhaps a week without the first before they die. But among Americans especially, after about an hour without the second start wishing they were dead.

      Not that people aren’t required to pay bills. But that one way or another, the system tries to make sure that everybody gets these services, so that life stays livable for everybody.

      I also really think the same holds for transit fares for people whose job tenure depends on good transit. Getting as many of these people aboard transit in the first places may be best guarantee that the cost of their travel will be repaid with higher wages. And votes for future ST’s.

      And an a population and an economy able to afford any of them.


    2. This meme about transit not being a social service agency makes no sense. Public transit *is* a social service, just as public roads are.

      Fares are a political sales tool, primarily, a rationing tool, secondarily, a minimally-effective revenue source once the net math is done, tertiarily . Indeed, a case could be made not to charge fares to anyone on buses we know won’t be full, at certain times of day, and to charge fares on buses that might fill up according to how many seats or spaces are left. Or charge on buses that will fill up during peak, and don’t charge fares on others that won’t (if there are any). Of course, that might backfire by turning buses into fare collection machines during the same hours when charging a premium and slowing down buses does the most social damage to traffic, and creates the largest carbon footprint. Just adding buses, while not cheap, is a superior approach to gumming up the bus routes with more convoluted fare collection systems, and a collective social choice.

      The employees of certain employers, including most governments, get to ride free via monthly passes. As do UW-Washington students, with their Husky Cards. That adds up to a lot of free riders, likely dwarfing the homeless population, with most of these free riders riding during the time that space rationing matters most.

      There is no good way to address the argument that some riders will cease riding if other riders they don’t like might be on the bus, other than, “Fine, be my guest.” Those riders are already on the bus, just not necessarily as much as they would be if the tickets weren’t arbitrarily limited.

      1. UW students, and the other groups you mentioned, do pay – it’s just that the cost is silently inserted into the tab. It’s certainly not a giveaway, like the one being proposed by the “tragedy of the commons” cheerleaders at the Transit Riders Union. I would support a fareless transit system if this was Oslo, or Tokyo, but it’s not. A free-to-use Metro or ST would probably devolve into an unusable mess in a very short time.

      2. For holders of the Husky Card, as well as everyone else with passes, there is no marginal cost to riding. The Tragedy of the Commons applies regardless of any sunk cost. We see proof every day that Metro & ST handle the “Tragedy of the Commons” quite well.

        BTW, Everyone else, including the homeless, pays sales tax, so the rides are not a total give-away. One could argue that not giving the homeless access to transit is, therefore, theft.

        That said, I am not a supporter of making transit totally free. Charging fares is the unfortunate price we have to pay to protect transit from politicians who would love to defund transit by painting it as a freeloading program. Indeed, even supposedly progressive politicians are too happy to go against transit if it suits their political ambitions, as I saw happen when Capitol Metro in Austin (where I used to live) tried out free transit.

        We also see it in Island Transit, where state politicians are forcing the agency to charge fares on at least one route, even though the cost of fare collection will probably eat up the fare collected. Whatever. The bus needs to run.

      3. The homeless pay a negligible amount of sales tax, especially since their biggest expense, unprepared food, is not taxed. Metro should give away an unlimited amount of tickets to the homeless, but at their current average fare to make it revenue neutral (which would be about 10% less than the ORCA LIFT fare).

        It does appear that there is a $1.875 million limitation for the social service fare program, which seems appropriate, although it should be counted for budgetary purposes as social service spending rather than transit spending.

  7. I have a better idea, and having actually been homeless in Seattle a few times between 1989 and 2003, I know it would work:

    Let’s call it a “Social Service ORCA” or, since Seattle is a nautical town, “SS ORCA”.

    Very simply, it would be an ORCA which could be reloaded by authorised social service agencies for 20 percent of face value. If feasible, the agencies would receive their own reload terminals. If not, they would get an Internet portal to order reloads, similar to that regular customers get. One main difference is that SS reloads would be allowed in any increment of 25 cents face value, rather than having to be at $5 or $10 intervals. That way, if an agency wanted to provide just enough fare for someone to return for an appointment, for example, they could.

    The SS ORCA card holder would *also* be allowed to reload on his/her own with cash, just like anyone else, to buy passes or stored value. Customer cash reloads would not be subject to the SS rate of 20 percent, but would be eligible for any other discount the card holder is eligible for: LIFT, RRFP, or youth fares.

    1. One of my concerns for agencies distributing fare media to homeless or other very-low-income clientele is a variation of the artificial scarcity problem. Given the choice to distribute one ticket or several, the agencies seem to default to giving out one. Removing the arbitrary limit might help, but the agency is still charged by the trip or pass.

      Given the choice to give out tickets costing the agency 50 cents, Link day passes costing the agency $1.00, or both, agencies have overwhelmingly chosen the cheapest option (giving out one ticket at a time), even when giving out only one ticket does not provide for a return trip for the client.

      We can find out if agencies overwhelmingly opt for the cheapest / shortest length pass by asking Dade County’s transit agencies, as their free-pass program runs in lengths of one day to one month.

      If it is the case that agencies nearly universally opt to give out the cheapest ticket or pass, then there is an argument to be made for increasing the minimum number of tickets being given out at a time (certainly to at least two, if the agency wants their client back), or increasing the minimum duration. Having a single $1.00 multi-ride coupon set, containing a Link day pass and multiple bus tickets, is an idea that heads in the right direction. I’m afraid though, that given the choice of that $1.00 multi-ride set and 50-cent single tickets, the agencies will continue handing out single tickets, and ignore the $1.00 sets, so long as the single tickets remain available as an option.

      1. For a variety of reasons including mental health issued, addictions and the general chaos of being homeless, a significant numbers of people receiving these tickets won’t successfully keep and manage a monthly pass or a book of tickets. In the current sitatuion, there are good reasons why agencies might choose to give out the smallest ticket value they can at any one time.

      2. Brent, many social service organizations do give out more than one ticket at a time, and although I’m not 100% sure I suspect that most give out at least two at a time. It really varies a lot, depending on the specific population they serve. Many see the same people day after day or week after week, and build relationships with them, and for these giving them a monthly ORCA pass could work well. The new combo-ticket that ST and Metro have come up with as a short-term solution will be a light rail day pass attached to two bus tickets, and agencies will be able to purchase them in books of 10 for $11. Since a booklet of 20 bus tickets costs the agencies $10, effectively the light rail day passes are being added for a marginal cost of ten cents each. We’ll see, but I’m hopeful that this will be a very good deal for most of the organizations and the people they serve.

    2. John, interestingly this is precisely one of the solutions TRU has been proposing to the transit agencies. Social service organizations could also be given the choice of loading a monthly pass onto the cards for 20% of the full rate, i.e. around $20. This wouldn’t work for every organization and every individual, for reasons including those mentioned by Ken Tanzer, but from talking with many of the social service providers who distribute the tickets and many homeless and formerly-homeless individuals, I know it could work very well for some. For people who are able to hold onto a card, a monthly pass would be so much better than the degrading and time-consuming process of cobbling together your transportation needs by visiting a dozen different places to get a few tickets here and a few tickets there.

  8. When you put the price of a public good at zero, you invite the sorts of problems that are described by the theory ‘tragedy of the commons.’ The bus/train aren’t grazing lands, but the same degradations will/do occur when people don’t have to invest in the system (like buy a ticket). Some sort of payment should always be requirement, even if minimal. A completely free big-city system in this country would probably devolve into something unusable (or perceived to be so) by the vast majority very quickly.

    At times, I get the impression that groups like the Transit Riders Union whole-heartily support a readily scammable/easy to steal from system. Shore up the current fraud prone network, and then let’s talk.

    1. Hundreds of thousand of employees at the right companies get free passes. Most who use those passes to ride transit do so at the time of day when transit is stretched to the max. And yet, the system has not collapsed.

      But, yeah, making the freeways free clearly was short-sighted. The same goes for free parking on the publicly-owned right of way. We cannot simply add more freeway capacity or parking spots along streets the way we can add more buses or trains.

      Speaking of buses and trains, the problem that precipitated this discussion was the difficulty very-low-income riders have getting to ride Link Light Rail. There actually is unused space on the trains most times of day. What Metro & ST are getting ready to do isn’t going to push more homeless onto transit. It is going to enable more riders to choose the train over buses. If Link’s ridership goes up slightly, ST can deploy more 3-car trains if need be. But the extra ridership last Friday was larger than King County’s homeless population, and Link handled the crowd just fine.

  9. Felsen, should we start charging for libraries too? And public bathrooms and water fountains? Or city parks, for that matter?

    1. I don’t put transportation infrastructure in the same class as the social goods you mentioned. Free “freeways” and (mostly) free parking are better examples of what happens when there isn’t some sort of ‘pay to play’ fee. Those systems are almost unusable (or, at least very inefficient) for large parts of the day. Also, a minimal fee is levied for access to some public parks and some public bathrooms in very liberal cities around the world. Even by charging 10 cents or a quarter, it makes the investment real and means the resource won’t be wasted (or ruined). The more you pay for a resource (in frequency or amount), the less likely you are going to damage or overuse it – even if that payment is relatively small (ala the Seattle grocery bag fee).

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