New Metro/Link Combo Ticket
New Metro/Link Combo Ticket


If you’re homeless or living on a bare-bones income, transportation is a challenge. With even reduced fares out of reach, chances are you rely on Metro’s Human Services Ticket Program.

This program was born of protest. Back in 1991, SHARE (Seattle Housing and Resource Effort) was spending most of their budget buying bus tickets so people could travel from their South Lake Union shelter to an overflow church on Capitol Hill. Nearly broke, they began meeting at the King County Administration Building before making the trek on foot. After weeks of this public demonstration of need the Metro Council relented: SHARE and other service providers could purchase tickets at a discount. The program has expanded steadily for twenty-five years, and last year 138 service providers distributed over 1.4 million tickets to homeless people, seniors, youth, students, veterans, refugees, and victims of domestic violence.

With housing costs and homelessness rising, the need for tickets has skyrocketed. The Transit Riders Union (TRU) learned from our members that tickets are a scarce resource; just procuring a few to get to appointments, meals, and shelter, let alone social activities, is time-consuming and stressful. Service providers confirmed this story. Queen Anne, West Seattle, and North Helplines can give people only a ticket or two per month. Often Compass Housing can’t get people to job and housing interviews. Casa Latina can help their day workers with transportation for only twenty days of each month. The King County Code caps the quantity of tickets available, and many organizations were not allocated nearly what they requested. For others, cost was prohibitive: providers pay 20% of face value, so the price per ticket doubled since 2008 due to fare increases.

The simple answer? Make more tickets available and cut the price. This summer TRU launched a campaign to do just that. We delivered hundreds of petitions and letters. Transit riders and service providers met with county officials and testified at public hearings.

This fall the King County Council and Executive responded. The council voted unanimously to raise the cap and then to halve the ticket price. Moreover, the Executive has promised to “direct Metro to engage other transit agencies, the state, other local jurisdictions, human services agencies and other potential partners in a discussion of transit’s role in contributing to the social safety net for the lowest income residents, and how to provide assistance while still being able to meet the growing demand for transit service throughout King County and the region.”

This last part is important, because ultimately we need to do better than tickets. As our regional transit system is increasingly integrated across modes and agencies, we need card-based solutions. Earlier this year TRU campaigned successfully to enable ticket-users to ride Link light rail, but Metro’s “combo-ticket” solution is clunky. An unlimited ORCA card that is very inexpensive or administered through a service provider would be liberating for many who rely on single-use tickets. King County should look to Calgary, Canada, where a sliding-scale transit pass will soon provide transportation for as little as $5.15 per month for people living in extreme poverty.

Homelessness and poverty are not going away any time soon. We hope King County and Sound Transit will start taking a more integrated approach to affordability and access so that activists can focus elsewhere. How about shifting the state legislature to win stable and progressive transit funding? Or building a multi-modal movement to make Seattle a place where few people need to own and drive cars? Many of the hundreds of low-income people who have participated in struggles for affordable transit would love to take on these broader transformative issues, if only they didn’t have to be more immediately concerned about getting from A to B.

Katie Wilson is General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union. TRU is hosting a Holiday Victory Celebration at Optimism Brewing Co. on Capitol Hill, 6-8 pm on Wednesday, November 30th. All are welcome.

31 Replies to “Big Wins for Very Low-Income and Homeless Transit Riders”

  1. I am glad that you see it this way, but you don’t see what this is enabling. For people that really need it, I am all for it. Meaning if you are looking for a job, trying to get yourself together and back on your feet yes. But sadly to say this is only enabling the drug addicts to take advantage of the system. Allowing them to go back in forth to drug deals and drug areas, taking them to locations to steal stuff and to pawn shops. So yes in a perfect world the low income families would get this help, but sadly the organizations that give these resources out are designed to help DRUG ADDICTS and not family and people that are trying to improve their lives.

    1. This sounds like a job for our new President – step in and build some more walls for ‘those’ people, maybe cordon off a street for them to use, or maybe restrict certain stops for drug dealers.
      Yeash, did you even read the article?

    2. As to;

      So yes in a perfect world the low income families would get this help, but sadly the organizations that give these resources out are designed to help DRUG ADDICTS and not family and people that are trying to improve their lives.

      How do we effect change to remedy this?

    3. Pro tip: attacking programs that help the poor because a few people you don’t like benefit actively HARMS families in need.

      I have an idea though:
      Let’s say we found someone within a mile radius of your house is dealing drugs. Maybe we could use that to justify setting up a barrier around that square mile and stop and frisk everyone coming in and out of it for months until we are “convinced” drug deals don’t happen anymore. Maybe we could do random home searches too.

      Violates you rights you say? Well maybe you shouldn’t have chosen to live close to someone who deals drugs. Until we find a way to target that one person we have ro punish everyone, right? Otherwise we’d be enabling “them”, right?

      Please learn a little empathy. Its an important human skill for not treating your fellow human beings like garbage.

    4. This is the attitude that causes people to fall through the cracks and accounts for most of the homeless problems. “For people that really need it, I am all for it. Meaning if you are looking for a job, trying to get yourself together and back on your feet yes. But sadly to say this is only enabling the drug addicts to take advantage of the system. Allowing them to go back in forth to drug deals and drug areas, taking them to locations to steal stuff and to pawn shops.”

      So yes, you’re theoretically for it, but you won’t allow it because you falsely believe most recipients are drug addicts. So you shut the program down and pull the rug out from under the thousands of people who are trying to make their life better, That kind of attitude is what caused the mess around us. This is why we need more comprehensive social services, and really a universal basic income. If you look at countries that focus on meeting people’s real needs and improving society for everyone, they have only a tiny fraction of these problems and their citizens’ quality of life is going up. Universal education and housing and healthcare and childcare and elderly care and better unemployment benefits or a basic income really make a difference. Most people don’t take drugs, because they don’t want to, and they see its destructive effects. Some people get tripped into it, or they have chronic pain that the medical/insurance/law system won’t address. So the answer is more and better treatment, and housing so they have some level of stability in their lives. That would help more people to fix their lives, and even for those who don’t, they’ll at least be able to “manage” their addiction without harming others as much (less sleeping on commercial sidewalks, less panhandling, less stealing). The reason it’s not happening is people like the Koch brothers say “Not my responsibility.” and obstruct the government from doing it.

      If our theoretical drug dealer wants to scam some bus tickets, he’d have to spend an hour going to a nonprofit, waiting in line, and pretend to sign up for job interviews so he can get a few bus tickets for those interviews. Is that worth it for just a few bus tickets? Is it worth doing four or six times a month to get a lot of bus tickets? Are there enough agencies that he could do it that often without somebody noticing he hasn’t gone to any of the interviews? Or could he easily think of some better and more lucrative way to spend those hours than hanging around trying to get bus tickets? And if he buys the bus tickets from somebody else, then they won’t have the bus rides. Are there really a lot of people who drive who are willing to spend time getting free bus tickets?

      Poverty and inequality cause stresses in people, which leads to frustration and exacerbation and bad behavior that wouldn’t occur otherwise. The solution is to eliminate the poverty and gross inequality. That’s what more social services or a basic income would do. In the meantime, when we have a grossly inadequate safety net, the thing to do is to not unravel it further, and to improve it by little steps as we can.

      1. Also, most drug addicts are either not dealers or are basically badly paid salespeople, not the bosses who make almost all the money.

    5. Drug dealers down here drive big expensive cars.

      Transit must be doing really well in Seattle for drug dealers to take the bus.

      1. Trade reason why so few drug dealers ride transit. Whether you’re talking Pablo Escobar or Pfizer Pharmaceutical, late reports discouraged. And as you move down chain of command, penalty moves rapidly from lost corporate opportunities to getting blown away.

        Personally, have always believed that those big expensive cars are essentially decoys, though probably armored so an IED doesn’t even blow a tire. Truth now. If that many people were after you 24-7-365, wouldn’t you feel safer bopping around in a Smart Car?

        Wonder, though: do hustlers still run “3 card Monte” scams on the seat across the rear of the bus?


    6. Having low income people pay SOME part of their fare is VERY important for three reasons:

      1) by contributing, they are participating in the common good and have a lot more respect for drivers, buses and fellow passengers. My driver friends complained for years about the downtown Ride Free Zone attracting the most disrespectful, dangerous people who had no problem trashing buses and attacking drivers, for the simple reason their “free ride” gave them license to also be jerks.

      2) free passes are more likely to be sold or traded by addicts and professional moochers for drugs or money than to be used by people in need.

      Talk to anybody who has been on the street for a while, and they will tell you that many of the recipients of the free passes use them as currency. To put it simply: free bus passes lead to your tax dollars being used to prop up violent local drug dealers and international drug cartels. Not to mention destroying peoples’ lives and breaking up families.

      Since transit passes are sold on the street for roughly 50 cents on the dollar, by requiring the recipient to pay a dollar or so, it takes some of the incentive away to trade or sell them.

      3) giving away free stuff robs people of their self-respect and sense of independence. While do-gooders THINK they help people with hand-outs and freebies, they are actually putting themselves in the position of being a big part of the problem. Let people pay a share of the cost for services like public transit, and you allow the disadvantaged to control their own destiny in an important way.

  2. Katie, you are no Katie Ann Higgins but you’ll do wonders in changing the conversation so that more folks can access quality transportation to social supports. Just remember the best welfare is, has been and always will be a JOB.

    1. PS: Katie, as to;

      How about shifting the state legislature to win stable and progressive transit funding? Or building a multi-modal movement to make Seattle a place where few people need to own and drive cars?

      Free counsel: Focus on the latter. The state legislature is not going to be writing much in the way of checks to transit beyond mobility grants between McCleary & general perception transit is a local issue. But making our cities large and small to where we can cut down on the need for car ownership is always good.

  3. Vincent, we need to see your results and methodology. Because there’s a good chance that if we can locate Bernie Madoff’s last monthly ORCA card record, we may be able to prove your thesis about fare breaks enabling crime.

    Though from all indicators, “Crash of 2008 Part 2 The Vampire Strikes Back” is already too far along to prevent, and the new Attorney General will have his hands full arresting Abolitionists. (“Choosing life” means escaping back to Union Army lines.)

    Mic, I keep hoping for the local soccer scene to develop the world class team spirit to necessitate Transit Police forcibly making sure nobody in a Seattle Rain hoodie gets on the same train as Manchester United.

    Though block signal system must be adjusted to be sure that the train whose only passenger is Hope Solo never gets in same subarea as any living creature. Geneva Convention hates enablers!

    But Ben, my tragic drug related struggle is now doomed. Almost had a handle on “The Station” Café being half a block from my habitual LINK ride. But since the owner put the framed picture of the ATU Local 587 logo back on the wall…

    Hate being in Denial, but if we’d gone with BRT instead, I could have stayed with decaf Nescafe. Same life expectancy, but would really feel longer.


  4. Credit where it’s due, Vincent and everybody else. You got me.

    Just when I was so snooty ’cause I wasn’t going to let somebody’ lies about ever being in a locker room, while insulting a war hero’s mother, distract me from his association with former head of the KGB and present chief of the Russian mob.

    Somebody once praised famous playwright George Bernard Shaw for loving the poor. Answer? Something like this: “I hate the poor, and look forward to their speedy elimination!”

    But my own favorite, from a long ago Third Party: “In the Unites States of America, there should be no such thing as working poor.”

    With our whole infrastructure being a list of BART brake jobs, no lack of work. Also, despite the accelerating years, still enough experience alive to bring organized labor back to life too.

    Idea of mine worth posting from same source: My worst problem with driverless road vehicles is that since most critical human survival reflexes are completely subconscious, there’s no way to program a computer with them.

    But in addition, I don’t think any of the accounting behind steady reduction of human personnel takes into account of the blood-clot red ink of their permanent loss.

    From years in Detroit, and behind the wheel of the Route 7 at night, I think it’s National life and death to massively restore the kind of work which until about forty years ago let young people walk out of high school and be able to start a family with their first paycheck.

    Every tribal society in the world says age sixteen is a grown-up. Same with our criminal justice system. Suggesting we not leave aggravated murder as only means to achieve the status of an adult. Nature’s decision, not mine.

    Mark Dublin


  5. The TRU won’t be happy until everything is free. They are do gooder zealots–ever so happy to spend other people’s money for their causes. We need a well thought out approach to helping the trully needy that trully want to do the hard work of getting their live together or back together after a hard season. These piece meal–throw money at them ideas are not helpful, accept to help the do-gooders feel good about themselves. We are all subsidizing these fools errands

    1. All they’re asking for is an expansion of low income fares to make them easier to use. They haven’t said anything about making anything free.

    2. What would a well-thought-out approach look like? I’ve outlined an approach above. What would yours be? Stricter qualification and more intrusive verification? Is your method in production anywhere in the world where we can see how well it works?

    3. Also, see my favorite book of the year, “Saving Capitalism” by Robert Reich. It’s government policies that create the market by setting the rules of who owns what, otherwise what you have can be seized anytime by by somebody with a bigger gun. So the government creates the market that determines what’s yours and what’s other people’s. (And it creates the money too.) The argument is that the current American market is out of whack and needs to be adjusted, and more robust social programs are a part of what needs to be done.

      1. Governments are really important in this but not omnipotent. Anyway your general point is really important: “free markets ain’t free”. They’re established through a lot of effort and cost, and unfortunately often at the cost of others’ freedoms.

  6. One issue I see with these kinds of programs, is where do you draw the line? Are you a public transportation agency, who is providing service to the community at large, OR are you a social services agency, tuning and tailoring your services to meet the needs of that community? While I don’t mind public agency’s selling paper fare media to social service groups, there is an administrative overhead that has to be met, and discounting fares does not help the bottom line. One thing that could be done is bringing back the old inter-agency transfers. This actually makes sense now that LINK is becoming very useful in the course of public transportation. Of course, I wonder how that would work since timed transfers are thing of the past with both Pierce and Sound Transit, with ST giving you nothing for a cash fare, and with Pierce you buy a single ride or a day pass. Its my opinion that ORCA is not friendly to those on low incomes as it requires you to have resources to use it to its fullest potential.

    1. I don’t see any “line” to be drawn. One agency is buying someone transportation on another agency’s vehicles. Same as U-PASS for students, and my own monthly Senior pass.

      Why not treat these fares same way- monthly pass probably easiest and most efficient. Why are we even bothering with paper tickets at all anymore?


      1. … or why even bother with fares at all, some could ask.
        For starts, public transit only collects about 1/4 of the cost via fares. So 3/4 is already subsidized by the public. Cutting a fare in half just increases the subsidy from 3/4 to 7/8th. At some point, the cost of collection starts to approach the total fares paid, at which point it is pointless to collect anything at all.

      2. The point of fares seems to be primarily political. Make public transit totally free, and the right-wing think tanks, and those who follow their advice without testing it for factual value, then say people are getting “free money” or whatever, and then call for cutting funding, or cutting locally-allowed funding (as in state legislatures reducing the tax local entities are allowed to collect) in response to the freeness.

        The fares don’t really fund 25% of Metro service. That would be if fare collection itself were free. But there are administrative cash handling costs, costs for printing paper transfers, costs for transacting ORCA, to name a few. And then there is the larger impingement on service. Time is lost when you can’t just open all the doors and let riders off and on.

        The other use of fares is as a rationing tool. That is its own ugly debate, including sub-debates about whether paying fares improves one’s behavior on the bus.

        But mic is right, and understates the case, that fares are a questionable tool to raise significant revenue, at least from those paying the fares.

        Without agencies tracking “net fare revenue” (which subtracts out administrative and service costs of fare collection) alongside “gross fare revenue”, it is hard to tell just how much fare revenue really matters. With a significant portion of the population opposed to the very idea of publicly-funded transit, fare collection may be a politically-necessary nuisance to hold onto other funding sources.

      3. Agree with all Brent said.
        Mx. Wilson points out that 138 agencies assist with 1.4m annual rides, or about ONE PERCENT of Metros total ridership.
        So yes, it’s a PC discussion, not one about generating maximum revenue or efficiency of transit.
        1% of the riders, getting a 12% break of the cost of the ride is ???, damn, my brain quit crunching the number at 3 decimal points.

    2. ORCA is quite friendly to even those who don’t use it. It saves 4.5-6.8 seconds of time for each boarding for everyone else on the bus, and every bus and train stuck behind that bus. That adds up to a lot of time added back into the lives of every transit rider. That makes transit more useful to those needing to get to jobs on time, even for those still paying with cash. All that time saved might also help your bus come more frequently.

      ORCA is the tool that has enabled the existence of the low-income fare program. A LIFT fare is honored not just on Metro, but on all Sound Transit services, Seattle streetcars, the King County ferries, and all Kitsap Transit services. The card itself is free. (Yes, all the versions of ORCA ought to be free, and the King County Council has budgeted money to study how to do that and allocated funds to cover making the cards free, once the other agencies sign on.) Transfer value is treated the same on services that don’t yet have a LIFT fare. Monthly passes purchased on a LIFT card are honored at the same value on services that accept the ORCA-based PugetPass.

      The program has been around just a year and a half, and already, Tucson is copying the program, and Boston is looking to do likewise.

    3. Big-city transit agencies generally need fares to ration demand to a level that is within the public’s willingness to pay for service with their tax dollars. Otherwise, you end up in a bad situation where buses are overcrowded, with no money available to run more service. If nothing else, free fares in King County would mean a 1/4 cut in operating revenue, which would translate into huge service cuts. If you think the cuts during the last recession were bad, even the worst-case proposal (which didn’t end up happening) cut 1/6 of the service, not 1/4.

      Free fares also results in a lot of people riding the bus one or two stops simply because it’s free and they’re too lazy to walk. The result is long dwell times as people squeeze to the exits at every single stop.

      Free fares also result in the homeless population riding the buses in loops all night, simply because the bus is at least heated and out of the weather.

      For rural agencies, free fares can often make sense, as the impact of fare revenue on operating income is much less and, in many cases, the fare revenue does end up paying for little more than the cost of collecting it. Rural agencies also have much less demand and don’t have to worry about free-fare-induced overcrowding the way in-city buses do. (On the other hand, maybe they do – I rode Island Transit buses a couple of times and found them surprisingly full considering the nature of the area they operate).

  7. Good point, Mic. Bet somebody’s got a patent from beginning of the indoor plumbing age on a coin-operated flush handle. I can just see the ornate lithograph of the mechanism, with a gentleman with a pointed mustache, slick hair parted down the middle, and a tight collar putting in a gold dollar.

    And flushing with a handle like the one on a slot machine. Before they turned into regular boring video games.

    Toll road opponents make same argument, probably their only good one. Comeback is to ask that they pay necessary tax increases. Which for some reason so many better off people and their reps oppose, even if they’ll benefit from the result.

    I seem to remember that the transitworkers’ “International” supported end of fare payment. Which, incidentally, does not mean a “free ride”. Just getting farebox out from under the wheels. Where the County Council should never have put it, especially in the Tunnel.


    1. The Ride Free Area wasn’t free. It came with the cost of really long dwell times at stops outside the zone where people wanted to get off the bus, and a lot of pushing to get to the front of the bus to pay the fare. The idea of moving fare collection back to the boarding part of the trip was sound, if there had been major investment in helping people pay fare or tap ORCA at the back of the bus at the busiest bus stops (primarily downtown).

      ATU didn’t do transit riders any favors when it insisted that fare assistance could only be performed by transit operators. Metro could have employed lots of fare assistants to tap ORCA at backdoors of buses at major stops all over downtown, but having to pull operators from the job of operating buses in order to perform the fare assistance pulled the rug out from under that possibility. Hopefully, being allowed to add a new job classification of “fare assistant” will be one of management’s asks in the next labor contract bargaining.

      1. Thanks to the magic of thru-routing, the Ride Free Area had ripple effects, even on routes that don’t go downtown. For example, if a westbound 44 was thru-routed from a 43, it was front-door-only-pay-as-you-leave, all the way from the U-district to Ballard. For trips that laid over in the Montlake Triangle, it was pay-as-you-enter. Since it took a good 45 minutes for the 43 to get to the U-district, route 44 trips could still be in pay-as-you-leave in Wallingford over an hour after the ride-free-area officially ended. The result was a system that was extremely confusing, and brutally slow.

    2. The Ride Free Area was intended to provide downtown circulation so people could get from one building to another, and to entice shoppers to revitalize downtown which was decaying like most American inner cities. In the 1970s there weren’t hordes of homeless people to line the buses, and traffic was much less so dwell times wasn’t as much of an issue.

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