WA: Metro Starts Work on $1.50 Fare Card for Low-Income Riders

Aug. 15--King County Metro Transit has begun laying the groundwork for anywhere between 45,000 and 100,000 low-income residents to get a discounted fare card, good for $1.50 a bus trip, starting in March.

The mushy estimate of how many might qualify speaks to the fact that this is relatively uncharted territory. Metro says it's only the second big U.S. transit agency, after San Francisco, to offer low-income discounts, though reduced fares for seniors, student and disabled riders have been available for years.

Metro said it will lose $7million to $9 million to subsidize these rides and cover the processing costs -- at the same time Seattle is asking voters in November to approve an additional 0.1 percent sales tax and $60 car-tab fee, to avert proposed bus-service cuts within the city.

There's no direct relation between the city spending measure and the $1.50 fare, which will be launched regardless of the November vote.

But logically speaking, any Metro costs ultimately affect future service, cash reserves, employee pay or overhead, all of which are absorbed within Metro's operating budget, which was $640million last year.

The upside is that Metro believes the discounts will attract 1 million bus trips a year that would otherwise not be taken because of a 25-cent general fare increase next year. That's a 1 percent difference, given the 119million people who rode in 2013.

"Reliable, affordable public transportation is a crucial resource in our community. It is a lifeline for people living in poverty to survive," said Dan Wise, a division director at Catholic Community Services, during an announcement Thursday. "King County Metro helps our clients go to job interviews, take their children to day care and carry their groceries home."

Cards are not yet being issued.

County Executive Dow Constantine said he's enlisting Public Health -- Seattle & King County to lead the outreach and registration efforts, because of that agency's experience recruiting some 165,000 people to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. In fact, thousands of people who seek the fare card might also be connected to food and health assistance, said Jerry DeGrieck, an interim deputy division director for Public Health.

To be eligible, household incomes must be less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which is a maximum yearly income of $23,340 for individuals or $47,700 for a family of four. The discounts will be available only for bus riders using a special ORCA fare card, not cash.

Anyone with a food-stamp card will be able to obtain the $1.50-per-trip ORCA card in five minutes, and there will be other ways for people to verify income, said Penny Lara, a Public Health project manager.

Personal information will not be released to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Constantine.

The County Council plans to cut 359,000 annual bus hours by early 2015, with more cuts likely, to help solve a long-term $75 million annual deficit, following the recession.

Metro predicts it will forego $4.75 million a year in farebox income by giving discounts, says a June report from a Metro task force. When overhead is included, the total cost is thought to be $7 million to $9 million a year, and an additional $3million or more for startup costs like outreach, software, databases and cardstock through 2015.

In a February vote, the Metropolitan King County Council approved both the low-income fare and an across-the-board 25-cent fare increase, to take effect March 1, 2015.

The push for low-income discounts was triggered in part by Metro's controversial elimination of the downtown ride-free zone in fall 2012. More broadly, Constantine says Metro was starting to lose some riders due to a cumulative $1 in fare increases since 2008, and another 25-cent increase is due next year, pushing fares to a high of $3.25 for a peak-time ride that goes through both Seattle and suburbs.

In San Francisco, which offers a half-price monthly pass for low-income riders, the top fare will be only $2.25, after an upcoming Sept. 1 increase.

"Our fares are among the highest in the country," Constantine said. "That's OK for those of us who can afford it. We can help out ... I was raised in a Seattle that was working class, a place that had opportunities for everyone regardless of how much money their parents had. The leaders around this community have made a commitment that we want to be that kind of place."

The free-market Washington Policy Center says it doesn't oppose the discounts but worries about the operating costs, especially the task of enrolling people and verifying their income.

"These types of things usually create a huge amount of overhead," said Bob Pishue, the center's transportation analyst.

Taxes subsidize 71 percent of Metro's operating costs, compared to 80 percent a decade ago. The proposed, regressive funding measures on the Seattle ballot in November -- the sales-tax increase and flat car-tab fee -- would be assuaged somewhat by giving low-income bus riders a break.

Pishue said, "A lot of low-income folks don't have the flexibility to ride the bus, and most people have cars." Seattle's measure does offer low-income Seattle drivers a $20 rebate.

Sound Transit will consider whether to join the Metro program. Otherwise, the new ORCA cards might be rejected or charged extra when somebody uses them to transfer between Metro buses and Link light rail.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom

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