Kamaria Hightower, on Mayor Durkan’s blog:
At the Mayor’s direction, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) will partner with the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) and King County Metro to provide unlimited ORCA cards to 1,500 low-income Seattle residents. This partnership will leverage Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) investments to create more affordable transportation choices for our communities.
The mayor’s program is yet another expansion for the ORCA Opportunity program. The initial pilot, focused on high school students, was augmented by STBD dollars last summer when Council amended the levy to allow for additional programming.
Joel Sisolak at Capitol Hill Housing, who wrote an op-edfor STB last summer about his own agency’s pilot program, is “thrilled” for the SHA residents who would benefit. “We know that when low income people have access, they use transit a lotfor commuting, keeping appointments and strengthening their social networks,” he told me via email.
CHH’s pilot targeted households making up to 60% of Area Median Income (AMI), while SDOT’s new program cuts off at 30% AMI – the residents with the greatest need. Metro’s current ORCA LIFT program, by contrast, tops out at 200% of the federal poverty level.
Sisolak also pointed me to a Metro-produced report, which I hadn’t seen before, that examined various free and reduced-fare options and the impact they would have. The report notes that Metro took in $160M in fare revenue last year, for a recovery ratio of 27%.
According to the report, Metro’s evaluation criteria for fare programs fall broadly into four categories :
- Budget impact – reducing fares costs service hours. For example, $10M in lost revenue equals 120,00 hours, “equivalent to two RapidRide lines operating at minimum service levels.”
- Equity – Metro is interested in policies that promote racial/social/economic/geographic equity, and looks skeptically at programs that, for example, serve Seattle at the expense of King County as a whole.
- Sustainability – pilot projects are great, but programs should strive to have a stable funding source.
- Targeting: Metro wants subsidy program that are focused on the greatest need. Free ORCA cards for all high-schoolers, for example, would benefit a lot of high school kids who could afford to pay. (Though some would counter that “universal” programs enjoy greater political resiliency than means-tested ones.)
Seattle, of course, can use the TBD to make an end-around Metro’s budget and equity concerns. With this latest ORCA Opportunity push, it seems clear there’s great interest between the Mayor and Council in continuing to make transit more affordable for Seattle residents. The city can more or less buy as many ORCA cards as it needs without negatively impacting Metro’s finances. One wonders if a County-wide TBD passes in 2020, the city may re-focus its TBD funding more exclusively on these kinds of social equity programs.
From Metro’s perspective, this isn’t a great solution since it prioritizes low-income residents in Seattle over other cities. On the other hand if the county’s electorate has less appetite for these sorts of programs, there’s no reason for Seattle to not pursue them alone.
Today, over half of fare revenue is paid for by employers in the form of ORCA. Some significant portion are paid for by tourists. It occurs to me that, in a few years, we could be in a world where a large majority of transit fares in Seattle are paid for indirectly – by some combination of employers, tourists, and income-targeted subsidies.