King County Metro 44
King County Metro 44 (image: Flickr, Kris Leisten).

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.

Current reduced fare programs (image: Metro)

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.

Existing subsidies below 200% of poverty level save money for families vs full fares, but transit passes still take a larger share of income for the poorest than for higher income families (image: Metro)

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.

27 Replies to “Metro to expand low income fare subsidy”

  1. I feel like all of these admini$trative intensive programs (/virtue signals) are over the top. Have a low fare, or no fare, and just run your system.

    Or just have an income tax already.

    1. That’s what I was thinking. Like, how in Olympia and Whidbey Island they decided to simply make everything free. Same benefit, no administrative hassle.

      1. Island Transit is so tiny the administrative cost of collecting a fare would exceed the revenue collected. I remember when Skagit Transit was also free for the same reason. Olympia has the benefit of being very well supported while Metro seems to be plunged into crisis every few years.

    2. The problem is, they don’t want to give up the millions they receive each year in employer-subsidized passes from large corporations, such as Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and Facebook. Transit taxes are already at their legal maximum, so any lost revenue as a result of cutting fares would require cutting service.

      1. Local transit taxes are already and maxed out, and certain local transit taxes (primarily the MVET) may soon get repealed. However, CT and IT are allowed an extra 0.3%, and their voters have agreed to a higher rate than we have in King County. Sadly, sales tax appears to be the most palatable tax to voters.

        At the state level, yes, we have to deal with a cap on property taxes.

        At the same time, we don’t know what the real hit to Metro would be from going fare-free. Metro doesn’t publicly track annual net fare revenue.

        At any rate, I don’t expect Metro to lose much of any fare revenue from this program, since it is for riders who really can’t afford to pay. Some savings will come from improved bus travel time, less fine collection effort, and perhaps less need for one-ride tickets and day passes for human service agencies, which will hopefully have a role in getting qualifiers into the program.

        This should save said human service agencies a bundle in staff time for paperwork, as well as not having to buy all those tickets at the discounted rate.

      2. What if they just stop enforcing fares, so the big businesses would still be paying but the people who are low income could still ride.

    3. The people who think it’s “virtue signaling” to have programs like this are people with privileged lives who can’t fathom doing something for others without personal gain. Believe it or not, the ones fighting for access to services are the ones who need it most. It doesn’t come from benevolent leaders feeding us scraps.

      1. I’m not understanding your argument, and I’m entitled enough that I should be able to understand it.

        If having transit free for our poorest denizens leads to them traveling less in third-hand gas guzzlers, then this ought to be seen as part of the county’s Green New Deal, if that is what you are getting at. The benefits accrue to all living beings worldwide, and that is enough to convince me.

        The benefits to other taxpayers and riders locally will include improved travel time on buses, and possibly improved behavior on the bus since having assigned cards at least creates the appearance the transit police can figure out who you are by digging into the ORCA data. (I’m not sure they actually can.)

        I see people antagonizing others on the bus with loud and crude behavior way too often, since they paid anonymously in cash, even though the police are going to ask for their IDs if they do get arrested. Hopefully, there will be a reduction in incidents as the perception of anonymity on the bus goes down.

      2. Brent I’m talking about the latest right-wing buzzword “virtue signaling” meant to disparage those who are working to benefit the less fortunate. You’ll most often see it used next to “SJW” (as if social justice is a bad thing). It implies that politicians or public figures who use their platform to speak for those with less power are only doing it to benefit themselves or make themselves feel superior.

    4. Maybe you should look at it as a way to create jobs at the county, which are generally decent paying jobs with benefits. That’s a benefit to having to administer all these programs.

      I don’t personally think it’s compelling, but it’s an alternate read.

    5. Why not just issue a free pass to anyone with SS/D, SSI, Medicaid, or HUD subsidized housing and their legal dependents? No need to verify income, since that has already been done.

      For those who don’t qualify for a free pass, provide a monthly pass to everyone, with free rides kicking in after a minimum spend (equivalent to the cost of an upfront monthly pass). The working poor shouldn’t be forced to pay more simply because they can’t afford to pay upfront.

      This would incentify everyone to get an ORCA card and enable dollar-only/no-change onboard fares ($2 senior/youth, $3 regular).

      Extend the transfer-time from 2 to 4 hours, to enable single-fare trips for doctor’s appointments, shopping, etc. This would increase mid-day ridership.

      1. Interesting idea, Steve. I wonder if the e-purse “combo” pass would lead to higher usage late in the month when people had “paid off” their passes.

  2. I’m confused by this section:

    “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’s $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 federal poverty levels. That is just $9,368 for a single person or $19,313 for a family of four.”

    My reading of this section is that 200% below the poverty level is $24,980/$51,500 and 80% below the poverty level is $9,368/$19,313. Am I misreading this or is this a mistake? Shouldn’t the 200% below poverty amount be less than the 80% below poverty amount?

    1. The Federal poverty level for 2019 was $12,490 for a single person, $25,750 for a family of four.

      So the way to read the eligibility for the four-person family is this: For existing ORCA Lift, it is 200% OF the federal poverty level or $51,500 ($25,750 x 200%). For the new program, it is $25,750 x 80%.

      More confusingly, that last piece of math is slightly off. I think they’re using a previous year’s FPL to get the $19,613 cutoff cited. In any case, I expect the legislation will tie the cutoffs to the FPL so the eligibility adjusts whenever the feds update their numbers.

      1. Updated the numbers and verbiage in the post to correct the calculation error on the cutoffs and make it all clearer. Hope this helps.

      2. So does that mean that they are maintaining the half price fares for those making between .8x and 2x the FPL and then free fares for those under .8x the FPL?

  3. I assume the program is not limited to individuals age 19-64, which is the age range for ORCA LIFT. Due to federal law, riders 65+ and those with qualifying disabilities would presumably also get to access the program. And so, a lot of RRFP holders would no longer have to dig out a dollar bill after tapping their RRFP ORCA. That’s the part that could make this program popular with the general ridership.

    Likewise, youth ORCA holders who don’t already have a free pass would no longer have to dig out a dollar bill and various change adding up to 50 cents. Hooray!!!!! And, oh yes, the tiny reduction in emissions from less dwell time is a tiny bit of good news for the remaining kangaroos, koalas, and kelp.

  4. This seems like a good plan, but I agree with the stakeholders group who said it’d get confusing if Metro is doing this, but not ST.

    We’d be back in the situation that when a Metro and Sound Transit bus serve the same corridor have different fares, like 312 vs 522 between Bothell and Seattle.

    And as Metro continues to restructure their system to connect to Link stations, there’d be a weird disincentive to take the train if the train still had a fare, while the buses were free. For instance, from UW, the train would cost money, while the slower 49 or 70 would be free.

    1. ST is serendipitously in the midst of studying ways to reduce fare evasion compassionately.

      Making it free for those in income categories most likely to be unable to pay certainly helps achieve that goal, so long as they don’t proceed to fine those passengers with supposedly free-and-clear passes for failure to tap.

      History may be a useful guide here. ST rolled out an ORCA LIFT fare on Link in March 2015. It followed up by doing likewise on ST Express and Sounder in March 2016.

      Various groups have lobbied since then (and partially in relation to the bus route reorganization to funnel riders onto UW Link) to have ST accept paper transfers.

      The proposed program is a far superior solution, IMHO, and perhaps ST could be convinced to do it first just on Link and ST Express. I was there to see the yuck faces from some of the board members when they got outvoted over having an ORCA LIFT fare on Sounder.

      Or maybe those yuck faces were in response to the regular fares going up 25 cents to keep up the gross fare revenue. I hope the program doesn’t cost so much that regular fares have to go up to compensate. But if they do, Metro could conceivably just raise the *cash* fare to $3. Link and ST Express have no similar operational savings to realize in order to keep up the net fare revenue, but I still would love to see the cash fare on ST Express raised to the next even-dollar amount, regardless. That would be the least painful way to cover the program’s administrative costs.

      One clever thing ST could do is raise the bottom fare on Link to $2.50, so riding Link instead of the bus is still incentivized, and maybe that extra bit of income could cover the administrative costs of the very-low-income passes. When ST runs the numbers, I assume they will take into account the new higher highest fare on Link when Northgate Link opens for revenue service, and the likelihood that Link’s gross fare revenue recovery rate is likely to go up.

      An ST Express fare change is already approved for July of this year, with a non-trivial cost in advertising and signage replacement. Perhaps rolling out this program at the same time will yield some one-time cost savings.

  5. Been ‘way too long since I’ve ridden Metro or ST, Brent, so I’m a little puzzled about your reference. Is there a wave of people who have paid their fares deliberately going out of their way to be so obnoxious that they’ll get arrested? What’s their point? What do they gain?

    As for fare collection itself, what if we can show that fares in general end up costing more money to collect, store, and police than they bring in? “Metro doesn’t publicly track annual net fare revenue.” For starters, how about if it starts doing that like right now?

    Based on a lot of hands-on experience with service delays over problems easily fixed, I truly believe there’s a king’s ransom to be pocketed from simply getting things done right that presently are not. Their correction can be considered a revenue source in itself.

    If an engineer had been properly trained at Dupont , how much money would be in our accounts that aren’t there now and might take awhile to ever re-materialize? Tiny example of installments of Hell’s Own Ransom presently being presented in the form of worldwide wildfires. Incompetence costs and screw-ups not only rob but kill.

    If the headlines are anywhere close, chief cause of spectrum-wide political fury worldwide owes less to ideology and religion than to authority that can’t put a nut on a bolt. But charges a bill for the service. Reason I’m demanding that ability to govern displace unrelated math as a high school graduation requirement.

    Input I value most in STB is from operating personnel themselves “telling it like it is” from behind the steering wheel or with a hand on the controller. “Whistle-blower” kind of a demeaning description, as if the noise is the point. Survival of the Republic – every one on earth- means whole truth in a very firm tone of voice.

    And the Law’s strictest protection from reprisal for providing the service. Which to me includes enforcement of basic civility for everyone presenting public comment in person.

    Mark Dublin

  6. I support this new tier of fare subsidy. It is Iine with Social Security disability payments. That seems like an appropriate benchmark for fare free travel to me.

  7. I do wish that youth fared could be lowered to that of senior fares to allow and encourage families to ride the bus more often.

  8. I am generally opposed to an unlimited benefit. If they are going to do such a thing make it free or reduced for everyone. From an economist point of view there should be a value assigned to a transit ride. Make the low income passes generous, but for a limited number of rides, perhaps a dollar more beyond the limit.

    1. Does your concern for “an unlimited benefit” include free passes provided by employers? (I realize they aren’t truly free, since it general means slightly lower wages to compensate.)

  9. Metro is more or less just making official a program that already been implemented by operators and operations policy. It’s about time, frankly.

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