This afternoon, the Sound Transit Board will consider participating in King County’s program to offer free transit passes to participants of several state benefit programs that are income-based. King County intends to eventually expand the program to all households with income below 80% of the federal poverty level. At the same meeting, the Board is expected to update fare enforcement policies and reduce penalties for non-payment.
Very low income transit passes
The free transit passes for very low income households complements the existing ORCA lift program. While the existing program offers 50% discounts for households with low incomes, the expanded program reduces to zero the cost of passes for the very lowest income households. In combination, this means a single person could have a free transit pass if their income is below $9,992, or a 50% discount with income up to $24,980. A four person household could avail themselves of free transit if their income is below $20,600 or a 50% discount with income below $51,500.
When first proposed by King County, the free transit passes looked set to cause some confusion because it could not be used across all local agencies. Riders could travel for free on King County Metro services, but would have to pay on Sound Transit. With Sound Transit now set to participate in the program, this inconsistency is resolved, but a new inconsistency arises unless Pierce and Snohomish County agencies also participate.
The very low income program is anticipated to launch in July, and will be administered by King County. Sound Transit estimates the cost at under $2 million over two years for Sound Transit’s share of program costs. Foregone fare revenue adds about another $900,000 per year, much lower than the $9-10 million King County Metro is anticipating as the cost of the program on their services.
Several revisions to fare policies are included in a resolution to be considered by the Board. Penalties for non-payment will be reduced from $124 to $50. That brings Sound Transit more closely in line with Metro policies. Fare enforcement officers will issue up to two warnings in a 12-month period (vs one today) before writing a citation.
Along with the very low income fare-free passes, the new fare enforcement policies are anticipated to greatly reduce the number of citations. Early concerns about fare enforcement policy focused on disparate impacts of enforcement and questioned whether enforcement was effective against those who were unable to pay. However, Sound Transit’s surveys of non-paying riders found non-payment more often about rider confusion than inability to pay. Only a small fraction of those contacted by FEOs said they couldn’t afford the fare.
A fare enforcement plan details a long list of further steps Sound Transit may take, most of which don’t require board action. There are parallel work streams too, to more clearly demarcate fare paid zones and to ease access to ORCA in the next generation of ORCA.
Despite requests from some advocate groups, Sound Transit is not considering handling fines in-house and out of the District Court system. Apart from being required by statute, the court has an advantage as a third party arbiter. Sound Transit is however looking into whether fare infractions could be better handled by the community courts within the District Court system.
The policy updates are therefore complementary. With very low income free fares addressing those who are unable to pay, the looser enforcement policies make it less likely those who fail to pay for other reasons will be ticketed.