ORCA for All

ORCA cards Image: Oran Viriyincy

Earlier this month the Transit Riders Union (TRU) launched a new campaign called ORCA for All.

You could categorize a lot of the campaigns TRU has run over the years under the theme “ORCA for All.” From the push for a low-income reduced fare that became the ORCA LIFT program, to expanding and improving the Human Services Bus Ticket program, to supporting Rainier Beach High School students fighting for free transit passes, to pressuring the University of Washington — our city’s second-largest employer — to step up and fully subsidize transit for all UW employees, expanding access to public transit has been one of our core issues for years.

This fall we’re continuing ongoing advocacy for a transit pass program to serve the lowest-income riders — people who can’t afford ORCA LIFT — and also to reform the way our transit agencies respond to fare evasion. But the centerpiece of ORCA for All is something new: We want more employers, especially larger employers that can more easily absorb the costs, to subsidize transit passes for their workers.

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Big Wins for Very Low-Income and Homeless Transit Riders

New Metro/Link Combo Ticket
New Metro/Link Combo Ticket


If you’re homeless or living on a bare-bones income, transportation is a challenge. With even reduced fares out of reach, chances are you rely on Metro’s Human Services Ticket Program.

This program was born of protest. Back in 1991, SHARE (Seattle Housing and Resource Effort) was spending most of their budget buying bus tickets so people could travel from their South Lake Union shelter to an overflow church on Capitol Hill. Nearly broke, they began meeting at the King County Administration Building before making the trek on foot. After weeks of this public demonstration of need the Metro Council relented: SHARE and other service providers could purchase tickets at a discount. The program has expanded steadily for twenty-five years, and last year 138 service providers distributed over 1.4 million tickets to homeless people, seniors, youth, students, veterans, refugees, and victims of domestic violence.

With housing costs and homelessness rising, the need for tickets has skyrocketed. The Transit Riders Union (TRU) learned from our members that tickets are a scarce resource; just procuring a few to get to appointments, meals, and shelter, let alone social activities, is time-consuming and stressful. Service providers confirmed this story. Queen Anne, West Seattle, and North Helplines can give people only a ticket or two per month. Often Compass Housing can’t get people to job and housing interviews. Casa Latina can help their day workers with transportation for only twenty days of each month. The King County Code caps the quantity of tickets available, and many organizations were not allocated nearly what they requested. For others, cost was prohibitive: providers pay 20% of face value, so the price per ticket doubled since 2008 due to fare increases.

The simple answer? Make more tickets available and cut the price. This summer TRU launched a campaign to do just that. We delivered hundreds of petitions and letters. Transit riders and service providers met with county officials and testified at public hearings.

This fall the King County Council and Executive responded. The council voted unanimously to raise the cap and then to halve the ticket price. Moreover, the Executive has promised to “direct Metro to engage other transit agencies, the state, other local jurisdictions, human services agencies and other potential partners in a discussion of transit’s role in contributing to the social safety net for the lowest income residents, and how to provide assistance while still being able to meet the growing demand for transit service throughout King County and the region.”

This last part is important, because ultimately we need to do better than tickets. As our regional transit system is increasingly integrated across modes and agencies, we need card-based solutions. Earlier this year TRU campaigned successfully to enable ticket-users to ride Link light rail, but Metro’s “combo-ticket” solution is clunky. An unlimited ORCA card that is very inexpensive or administered through a service provider would be liberating for many who rely on single-use tickets. King County should look to Calgary, Canada, where a sliding-scale transit pass will soon provide transportation for as little as $5.15 per month for people living in extreme poverty.

Homelessness and poverty are not going away any time soon. We hope King County and Sound Transit will start taking a more integrated approach to affordability and access so that activists can focus elsewhere. How about shifting the state legislature to win stable and progressive transit funding? Or building a multi-modal movement to make Seattle a place where few people need to own and drive cars? Many of the hundreds of low-income people who have participated in struggles for affordable transit would love to take on these broader transformative issues, if only they didn’t have to be more immediately concerned about getting from A to B.

Katie Wilson is General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union. TRU is hosting a Holiday Victory Celebration at Optimism Brewing Co. on Capitol Hill, 6-8 pm on Wednesday, November 30th. All are welcome.

2016 Solidarity Summit on Affordable Transit, July 26

Imagine you’re a woman, living with a husband and two kids, your elderly mother and disabled sister. Your husband works full-time and often overtime, perhaps as a security guard; he makes more than minimum wage but not a lot more. You would get a paying job too, but your time is taken up with caregiving. You have a car, which your husband needs to get to work. During his long shifts, the rest of you rely on public transit.

To give everyone in the family independence to travel freely by bus and train, you’d like to buy unlimited passes. But that would add up to $234 per month – assuming your family qualifies as low-income, making you eligible for the ORCA LIFT rate of $54. You can’t afford that expense on top of car payments, insurance and gas. So instead, you pay as you ride, and bus fare becomes one of those things you never seem to have enough money for. You plan your day to minimize the cost of travel, and your kids and mother and sister have to limit their trips, too.

ORCA LIFT has proved a resounding success. As of June 2016 over 31,000 people had enrolled; more than 3.7 million trips were taken in the first year of the program. But ORCA LIFT doesn’t help everyone who is feeling the squeeze of low incomes and rising living costs. Most very low-income and homeless people cannot consistently afford a $1.50 fare, and low-income youth, seniors and people with disabilities have seen their bus fares double or quadruple in the past six years.

The family described above may be imaginary, but their situation unfortunately is not. The freedom and mobility that our public transit system should afford remains unaffordable for tens of thousands of people in our communities, and the result is lost opportunities and diminished quality of life – not to mention tensions between riders and bus drivers and conflicts with fare enforcement and law enforcement when people ride without paying.

Fortunately, transit riders are rising to the challenge. Public school students, college students, workers, low-income and homeless people are organizing – and winning! But there is much work yet to do to realize the vision of universally affordable and accessible public transit.

On Tuesday, July 26, the Transit Riders Union is proud to host the 2016 Solidarity Summit on Affordable Transit. We invite everyone to come hear from people and organizations that are leading the way on affordable transit, participate in workshops, celebrate progress made and build momentum for new victories. The event will be held 12pm – 3pm in downtown Seattle, 215 Columbia St. RSVP not required but appreciated. You can register on TRU’s website, https://transitriders.org.

Who’s Got a Ticket to Ride?

Screen Shot 2016-04-12 at 8.42.40 AMLast year 138 social service organizations throughout King County distributed over 1.4 million bus tickets to the people they serve: low-income youth, the homeless, the unemployed, refugees, veterans, seniors and people with disabilities living off meager social security payments.

King County’s pioneering ORCA LIFT program is a welcome relief for low-income riders who can afford $1.50 per ride, or $54 for a monthly pass. Still, it’s important to remember that less than ten years ago the off-peak adult fare was just $1.25, and economic conditions for the poor haven’t exactly improved since then. For people who are living on very low or no income and depend on public transit, ORCA LIFT simply isn’t affordable all the time.

These are the people who rely on tickets. They number in the thousands, if not the tens of thousands. And as of March 26th, many of these people found another challenge added to their already challenging lives: Metro bus service has been restructured around the new light rail line, which they can’t ride because Link Light Rail doesn’t accept the tickets.

Since January the Transit Riders Union has been urging Sound Transit and Metro to come up with a solution that doesn’t leave some riders with a second-class transit system. And they’re taking note – since we announced a public action for April 16th, they’ve promised that a fix is on the way.

It’s great that our voices are being heard now, but light rail access for ticket-users has been a problem in South Seattle for years, and the transit agencies and elected officials have had years to anticipate how this year’s U-Link extension would make the problem more acute. One can’t help but notice the context of their sudden responsiveness: with Sound Transit 3 headed for the ballot this fall, they’re wary of public criticism.

It’s going to take concerted and ongoing pressure to make sure the needs of very low-income and no-income transit riders don’t recede into the background again. So, now that we’ve got their attention, there’s another problem that needs fixing: there are never enough tickets.

TRU hears this again and again from the people who run the social service organizations that distribute the tickets. Chris Langeler, the Executive Director of West Seattle Helpline, explains that although they received more tickets this year than last year, they still have to ration them carefully: “Even with that increase, we are still struggling to meet the need – many members of our community are struggling to afford bus fare for work, medical appointments, job interviews, or to access other resources and meet basic needs.”

Or listen to Caitlin Wasley, the Resettlement Support Manager at World Relief Seattle, who anticipates serving around 800 refugees arriving in Western Washington in 2016, the majority of whom will live in King County: “Folks participating in our Match Grant early employment program are required to come to classes at our office every weekday; but we are only able to provide them with bus tickets for about half of the month for each adult. This doesn’t even cover their children’s transportation needs at all!”

Why aren’t there enough tickets to go around? Social service organizations purchase the tickets for twenty cents on the dollar – for a single-ride ticket with a face value of $2.50, that’s $0.50. Even with this discount it’s a large expense for cash-strapped non-profits, and most don’t have the money to purchase enough tickets to meet the most basic transportation needs of the people they serve. King County also limits the number of tickets that can be sold in a year, so many organizations don’t get all they apply for.

This is artificial scarcity, and it can be easily fixed. King County should allow organizations to purchase more tickets at a lower cost, either by reducing the percentage of face value they pay, or by charging 20% of the $1.50 ORCA LIFT fare rather than the standard adult fare. Although Metro calculates their 80% “subsidy” as an expense for budgeting purposes, it needs to be acknowledged that, for the most part, the people who use bus tickets are not going to be paying their fare when they don’t have tickets — they are going to be riding without paying, or not riding at all. By making tickets cheaper and more plentiful, Metro will not lose significant revenue.

The bus ticket program may be clumsy in many ways, and the transit agencies should absolutely work toward new card-based solutions, disposable and/or durable, that could work well for many very low-income and no-income riders. But in the meantime, the bus tickets are what we’ve got.

Lowering the cost and making more bus tickets available should be part of any adequate response to our Homelessness State of Emergency. With over 4,500 human beings sleeping rough in King County and homeless deaths at an all time high, and with thousands more people losing their food stamps right now, we don’t need to be squeezing pennies out of the desperately poor. We need to be making sure that everyone can get to the places they need to go to sustain and improve their lives.

Katie Wilson is the General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union and a Member of the Seattle Transit Advisory Board

Shopping Mall Owners Should Pay for “Free” Parking

Southcenter Parking (Photo by Oran)
Southcenter Parking (Photo by Oran)

Our region’s need for transportation infrastructure and transit service is far from satisfied. Even in Seattle, Prop 1 and Move Seattle notwithstanding, riders continue to struggle with overcrowded buses, scant late-night service, and crumbling or nonexistent sidewalks. Now the global economy appears to be sliding toward a revenue-shrinking recession. So, when our state legislature considers a progressive funding option for transportation, we should sit up and take notice.

On Thursday, February 18, the House Transportation Committee will hold a public hearing on HB 2186, which would grant local authority for a Non-Residential Parking Tax (NRPT).

Currently, Washington State allows cities, counties and districts to levy a Commercial Parking Tax (CPT) under RCW 82.80.030. Several jurisdictions make use of this authority; for example, the City of Seattle levies a CPT of 12.5%, which is added to the fee drivers pay to park in commercial parking lots.

However, the CPT neglects a huge amount of non-residential parking space, because it does not apply to lots at malls and big box stores that provide free parking for customers. This is where the NRPT comes in. Private entities that own off-street parking would pay a tax based on square-footage or number of stalls, with a credit for the CPT to prevent double-taxation on commercial lots.

A number of U.S. cities tax paid parking, but a broader NRPT has not been implemented anywhere in the United States that I’m aware of. However, it is used in Canada and Australia (where it’s called a Parking Levy), and it was recommended for Seattle in a 2010 report by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

There are plenty of good policy reasons to enact a Non-Residential Parking Tax in Seattle. It would encourage better land use, disincentivizing excess asphalt and reducing stormwater runoff. It’s a fair tax, effectively closing a loophole that free lots slip through by not having a customer transaction that falls easily into the excise tax rubric. In principle, lot-owners could decide to pass the cost on by charging for parking, but in practice this is unlikely. The infrastructure necessary to collect and enforce parking fees, and the deterrent to customers, would likely be prohibitive. More likely the cost would be passed on in higher rents for (mainly large) businesses and absorbed by commerical property-owners. That makes it inherently progressive.

Progressive taxes tend to be non-starters in Olympia, but the NRPT may be an interesting exception. It should not be universally despised by business and property interests. Sure, owners of free parking lots will object strenuously. But any entity that already pays Commercial Parking Tax should welcome it, since broadening the parking-tax base will relieve pressure to raise the CPT. And everyone, including (mainly small) businesses that rely on street parking, should appreciate the transportation improvements that new revenue would make possible. That’s about as close to a win-win tax as you’re likely to find.

So, does HB 2186 have a chance? Unfortunately it is probably too late to be voted on this year, but a hearing represents progress. If you’re free Thursday afternoon, please come down to register your support: 3:30 pm in House Hearing Room B in the John L. O’Brien Building.

Katie Wilson is the General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union.

Let’s Bring Back the Employee Hours Tax, and Make it Good This Time

RapidRide bus (6051) on a non RapidRide route

Seattle’s transit infrastructure is years behind what it should be to accommodate current ridership, let alone the thousand or more human beings sinking roots in our city every month. The Move Seattle levy, assuming voters approve it in November, will be a good step forward – but we’ll still be playing catch-up.

What if Seattle had another $20 or $30 million per year to accelerate the build-out of transit corridors and other BRT-related capital projects in the Transit Master Plan, and maybe add more service to boot?

Seattle can make it happen. With a little political will on the part of our City Council, Seattle can generate significant revenue from a progressive and comparatively stable source: a new-and-improved Employee Hours Tax (EHT). Let’s glance over the recent history of this tax before considering how to refashion it for today.

History of the Employee Hours Tax

The Seattle City Council first approved an EHT in 2006, along with a Commercial Parking Tax. Both complemented the Bridging the Gap levy, and were also slated for transportation maintenance and improvements. The EHT required businesses to pay a modest $25 per full-time employee per year, exempting small business and employees who didn’t drive alone to work. Over the 9-year lifespan of the $365 million property tax levy this would have brought in an extra $50 million or so.

In 2009, one year into the Great Recession, the city council repealed the Employee Hours Tax. Although $25 per employee wasn’t enough to actually discourage hiring (Councilmember Tim Burgess call the repeal “somewhat symbolic”), business groups complained the tax was hurting the reputation of Seattle’s business climate. Led by Burgess, then-Councilmember Richard Conlin and then-Mayor Greg Nickels, and despite resistance from sustainability advocates and groups such as Cascade Bicycle Club that saw no reason to forego millions in bike and pedestrian improvements for a symbolic gesture, the city council conceded.

Fast forward to spring 2014, when King County’s Proposition 1 went down in flames. As Seattle prepared to take action to save bus service, Councilmembers Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant teamed up to revive the EHT. Rather than simply rerunning the county’s ballot measure in Seattle, they proposed replacing the regressive sales tax hike with a 5% Commercial Parking Tax increase and an EHT set at a very modest $18 per worker per year, or less than a penny per hour. Interestingly, this EHT was projected to raise $7 million per year, significantly more than the repealed version, which in 2008 generated only $4.5 million. While the Licata-Sawant proposal also exempted small business (up to the current B&O threshold of $100,000), it dropped the exemption for employees who do not drive alone to work. This change wound not only increase revenue but also make the tax significantly easier to administer. In the end, to no one’s surprise, the council rejected the Licata-Sawant proposal 2-6 and Seattle’s Prop 1 went to the ballot in its original form.

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