An Intercity Transit bus at Olympia Transit Center

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 tellus@intercitytransit.com.

27 Replies to “Intercity Transit looks to go fare-free”

  1. Glad to see my hometown trying this out. It makes a lot of sense for IT to do this particularly when only about 6% of their funding comes from fares. I’ll encourage my family members to support this decision when I go home for Thanksgiving.

    Incidentally, my brother (who is a bit of a transit nerd himself) was on board the debut ride of The One.

  2. In their FAQ section, IT lists benefits to going fare free, but they didn’t mention one of the biggest benefits of all. When bus drivers are assaulted, it usually starts as a dispute over the fare that escalates. Eliminating the fare should greatly reduce the potential for assaults on drivers.

  3. Fare-free transit in the US has fared best in small collge towns and rural areas, and Olympia is a small college town. The government buildings can be seen as similar to a college campus. I’m not sure they get a lot of all-day trips like college classes, but people do come all day to speak to legislators and tour the capital. If fares are only covering 1.5% of costs, then the fare is almost free anyway so why not go all the way? King County’s policy is approximately a 20-30% fare-recovery window, so that would be a much larger portion to fill if it wanted to go fare-free.

    1. “Olympia is a small college town. The government buildings can be seen as similar to a college campus”

      But I primarily meant Evergreen University. One thing that I noticed about IT is the 15-minute service between Evergreen and downtown Olympia. That’s impressive for a small town.

  4. Actually, this is a great test for King County Metro to watch. Curious to see how it goes. Will the buses become overcrowded or rolling homeless shelters? Or will it make it faster and easier to ride the bus? Fareless transit could be the wave of the future.

      1. Don’t know. But I know Kshama and the Transit Riders Union is in favor of it, so it’s definitely a possibility.

    1. I live in Olympia and use the bus for all my transportation. Intercity transit currently offers two free services, neither of which are ever crowded. The fare doesn’t currently stop anyone with nowhere else to escape the elements from riding the bus. $2.50 for an all day pass is probably the cheapest option other than the public library for getting out of the rain. And social service agencies already give away bus passes if you know how to ask. So the “rolling homeless shelter” argument against going free doesn’t persuade me.

      I expect the main benefit will be speeding up the bus. I’ve always wondered why more drivers don’t just let it go when someone won’t pay. Is it worth being late and making everyone miss their transfers just to avert the moral hazard of letting it go?

      As someone who depends on the bus, this change can’t come soon enough.

  5. A system of free short-distance routes that feed light rail and rapid bus or BRT routes is one structure that’s possible. Another option is for free fares at off peak times only.

    However, I don’t see a complete day-long free-fare system as being viable or desirable at a large scale for a large metro area that already has many crowded routes, especially at commute times.

    1. Tallinn, Estonia, has had fare-free transit for several years now. However, it’s a much different culture and government structure than US cities. The city buys annual passes for all residents; tourists and suburbanites still pay fares. The goal was to decrease driving and improve access for the poor. The net result has been a 10% increase in ridership; not overwhelming. I haven’t seen any concerns about misbehaving/smelly homeless people, but Tallinn probably gives them more housing so they’re not living in public spaces. The negative outcomes are: it replaces more walk/bike trips and fewer car trips than expected, and some suburbanites cheat about their residency to get a free pass.

      Remember that Tallinn started from a higher ridership base than Seattle has, so it already had transit capacity for most of the population, and the low-hanging fruit of car trips were already gone so the remaining car trips were harder to replace.

      1. That doesn’t match my experience in. Tallinn last month. They definitely charged to ride the trams and buses.

      2. Harju County (which contains Tallinn) only has about 600K residents (the city alone has only about 440K) and most live within eight miles of the city center. That’s less population than lives within the Seattle city limits. There is also snow on the ground for generally 4-5 months and little daily snows are common during the winter. No wonder free fares are popular; no one wants to travel in snow and feel the chill (for several months) when bus doors open.

      3. Mike’s correct about howTallinn only allows residents to ride fare-free. They had not yet rolled it out when I was there, and I’m fairly certain this will change going forward as Estonia is moving towards a larger fare-free area (most of the country, and on most services). That will minimize or eliminate the “residency cheating” that a few people living outside of the city do.

        As in most of eastern Europe car ownership was difficult if not impossible until the 1990s and so a transit system capable of moving the vast majority of the populace was a necessity.

        (Tallinn is a lovely small city, BTW, if you ever get a chance to visit.)

  6. agencies can achieve faster fare collection and faster service without costly smart cards. I experienced it in Paris in 1994. the RTP used machines at each door and riders inserted their garne to be punched; they had fare inspectors. the all-day pass option is also excellent. it collects those in the slower a.m. peak and does not need to collect fares in the busier p.m. peak. an agency need not use smart cards to be smart. with fare revenue, an agency could have more service; with more service, shorter waits; with shorter waits, more ridership. the elasticity for waiting may be higher than that for fare, especially a low (non-zero) fare. the film Bitter Moon had a Paris POP scene.

    1. eddiew, can you tell us what information the system will have to give up if smart cards go away? In communications exchange after my last “mis-tap”, agency official scolded me because my mistake caused the system to “lose track of me,”
      for purpose of apportioning my fare.

      The way I look at it, as far as my card is concerned, only important matter of location is the data point where the system has placed a non-refundable month’s worth of my transit fare comfortably located in its own account. For its own accountants to distribute where they decide it’s needed. The gloves I just bought before boarding, Bon Marche doesn’t demand to know what drawer I just put them in either.

      Been told I’m getting tiresome on this subject, but main reason I support the ORCA system is how well it will work when with one phone call from Peter Rogoff, a mistake made in a hurry will cease to become a matter for the Law. Speaking of which….anybody want to argue that our country’s digital dynamics haven’t taken a turn where the right not to be traced and followed flat eclipses Freedom of Religion?

      Starting my transit life in the Bob Dylan days, never used to mind mind carrying the Jack of Hearts. But draw the line at increasing risk of getting permanently stuck with the Ace of Spades. Comment? Floor’s yours. You’ve got no idea how much I want to be wrong on this one.

      Mark Dublin

      1. Mark, in short, no, but someone could. but the ORCA is for an eight-agency (e.g., Metro, ST, CT, ET, Kitsap, PT, WSF, and Seattle Streetcar and monorail) agreement. the tapping helps the agencies allocate the pennies in the backroom as trips between agencies share the fare. I chuckled in March 2016, when I watched on Westlake Avenue farside Denny Way to see if the stop would be over crowded when served by trips of the Seattle Streetcar SLU Line, the C Line, and Route 40. only once, did I see three units at once, so it was OK. but it was amusing to see that SDOT and Metro had separate ORCA readers on the platform, one for the streetcar and one for the C Line (in March 2019, Route 40 may have been added). (SDOT had its own fare structure). Intending riders could not read the signage well; riders of each mode tapped the reader of the other. I expect those in the penny counting backroom had to resort to apc data to allocate the trips. riders just wanted to take the first unit taking them south. as ORCA market penetration increases, it is a better sample of ridership and helps with transfer data. a sage once remarked that the beauty of ORCA is that it is a regional card; but its regional nature makes it awkward. the objectives are sound: faster fare collection and ease of inter-agency trips.

  7. What about Olympia Express routes? Would they still have fares or would they be transferred to Pierce/Sound Transit?

    1. They would presumably be zero-fare, as they aren’t singled out in this proposal. They cannot be transferred to Sound Transit, but they used to be partially operated by Pierce Transit.

    2. ST got a state grant once to extend an ST Express route to Olympia (AM northbound, PM southbound) as a pilot, but that is long gone. Thurston County is outside ST’s mission so it can’t do it with Pierce subarea funds. It would require IT or the state to buy extra service, and that’s all in their court.

  8. Anybody else got a problem with using cash fares as a means to reduce ridership? Long as I can remember, Metro Transit considered a fare dispute termination. Could be generational, but in my experience people who become transit drivers very often consider it a matter of personal honor not to be cheated.

    Having seen it work, my own call would be to keep cash fares, but hire conductors to sell and collect them. Don’t think we want to know stats on operating time wasted as drivers give information. Think I could make the case that a skilled uniformed (those people really looked sharp!) passenger handler would definitely pay their own wages. Stop watch the size of Big Ben part of the uniform.

    Generational for sure, but having seen them in action, a conductor’s authority fit the territory a lot better than a police officers.

    Mark Dublin

  9. At the very least, transit should be free for disabled and perhaps even for the future commuters, youth. I’ve always felt that an arbitrary age 65 didn’t entitle someone to a discount due to the fact that more are working at that age. At the very least, that age should be raised.

    1. I’ve seen places in Florida where retirees are wealthier than the working-age population. Within a decade, the SSI retirement age will be 70 anyway.

      Why does Bloomberg get a discount but not his workers who are under 65?

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