Metro is considering a program of income-based fares that would fully subsidize fares for riders with very low incomes. A public launch is targeted for July 2020.
The program would expand on the current ORCA Lift which offers 50% discounts across local agencies to those with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level. Currently, that cutoff is $24,980 for a single person or $51,500 for a family of four. The expanded program is expected to include unlimited fare-free travel for those with incomes below 80% of the federal poverty level. This cutoff would be $9,992 for a single person or $20,600 for a family of four. (updated for an error in the original calculation).
A limited version of this was piloted in Seattle in 2019. 1,500 residents of Seattle public housing received free ORCA passes in the pilot initiated by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and funded through the Seattle Transportation Benefit District. A stakeholder advisory group has been assisting Metro in developing the program for a broader roll-out.
Not all agencies will participate immediately. At program launch, all Metro services (including bus, first/last mile services, community shuttles, Access, Water Taxi, Trailhead Direct) and Metro-operated services (Seattle Streetcar and Seattle Center Monorail) would be included, except Vanpool. It is not yet known if Sound Transit will join. Agencies in neighboring counties that accept ORCA can be paid for via e-purse, and riders who qualify for the fully subsidized fares in King County would also qualify for reduced fares elsewhere (because the riders who qualify for the new program are a subset of those already eligible for the 50% discount via ORCA Lift).
The stakeholder advisory group did point out it would be confusing for riders if Metro launched the program without Sound Transit participation. A Metro-only card might increase fare evasion on other agencies, or accidental violations if customers didn’t understand their cards weren’t valid on Sound Transit.
Currently, ORCA Lift is available to those with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level. Those who qualify get an ORCA card with a $1.50 fare on Metro and fares 50% below regular rates on almost all local transit systems. Another income-based program operates through human services agencies who distribute paper tickets. A Regional Reduced Fare Permit (RRFP) is available for seniors and riders with a disability. Agencies set their own RRFP fares, but it’s just $1 on either Metro or Sound Transit. Youth fares of $1.50 are available via either a discounted ORCA card or cash payments on the bus.
Metro estimates 130,000 King County residents would qualify for the expanded subsidy based on income. Initially, Metro will target 54,000 who are customers of six state benefit programs that are income-based. Enrollment can take place at DSHS offices, Public Health centers and Catholic Community Services. From there, eligibility can be expanded in later years.
Metro anticipates about the program would expend $36 million in a full year in fare subsidies and about $3 million in other costs. But projections indicate a much lower net cost with only 18% of subsidized fares from existing riders who would have taken a transit trip anyway. If that forecast pans out, it would keep net program costs within a very sustainable range of $9-10 million per year and substantially add ridership among a population that often struggles to afford to use transit. It should also make the budgetary impact more palatable for Sound Transit and agencies in neighboring counties.
The program could launch as early as July pending approval and funding from the County Council.