Intercity Transit is looking to make the rare jump to zero-fare service beginning January 1, 2020, pending a board of directors vote next week. Last year, voters in the urbanized portion of Thurston County approved a 0.4 percent sales tax increase to fund more transit service. Riders on Intercity Transit buses currently pay $1.25 for adult fares on local routes and $3 on express services to Tacoma and Lakewood.
The zero-fare proposal, not part of the long-range plan and goals of the ballot measure, came about as part of a simple opportunity: the fareboxes for the system are in need of replacement. Intercity Transit is not part of the ORCA program and would need to spend more than $1 million to outfit its buses with farecard readers and other equipment.
The pilot, if approved, would run for five years before being re-evaluated for permanent renewal or reverting to a fare-based system. Intercity Transit relies on fares for about 1.5 percent of its annual operating revenue, including fares from partner agencies and employers, and would be able to backfill the lost revenue without an impact to current and proposed services.
Intercity Transit already has its own zero-fare services, namely the long-running “Dash” shuttles that connect Downtown Olympia to the Washington State Capitol campus. The agency recently launched “The One“, a frequent zero-fare route between the Capital Mall, Downtown Olympia, and northern Lacey that runs every 15 minutes on weekdays. The route acts as a precursor to eventual BRT, with only 10 stops that cut down travel times in half, and is funded by a state grant.
With their experience in running these services, Intercity Transit is looking to avoid some of the problems introduced when buses go zero-fare. The project FAQ states that the agency doesn’t anticipate overcrowding to be a problem as the system already has spare capacity from recent improvements and would continue to grow as needed. The systemwide capacity would also be improved with the faster dwell times enabled by all-door boarding, and people in Thurston County would have greater access to services and destinations. Stephen Fesler at The Urbanist also points out that zero-fare transit is not a foreign concept to the region as a whole, with Island Transit and Tacoma Link still mostly free, but other small agencies are paying large sums for ORCA Next Generation upgrades.
The Intercity Transit Board of Directors will decide on the zero-fare proposal on December 4. Until then, the agency is taking public comments by phone at (360) 705-5852 and email at firstname.lastname@example.org.