When its transit system suspends fares next year, Clallam County will join a surprising number of Washington communities where riding the bus is free.
Motivated by concerns about public health, equity, road congestion and environmental sustainability, and supported by new state investments in some cases, more than a dozen public transportation systems serving small cities and rural areas are now operating without fares on all or most routes.
"It's really to encourage ridership," said Jim Fetzer, general manager at Clallam Transit on the Olympic Peninsula, which decided last month to stop charging for most routes on Jan. 1, 2024, under a one-year pilot program.
The trend is significant, given that more than a third of Washington's transit agencies have adopted zero-fare policies, including many in recent years.
Yet the state's largest systems, such as King County Metro and Sound Transit (which serve Seattle and nearby communities), are still collecting millions of dollars from riders and relying on fares to help balance their budgets, so it's unclear how much the ride-free approach will continue to grow.
"It just depends on the system," said Justin Leighton, executive director at the Washington State Transit Association. "It's really a local decision."
Zero-fare conversations are happening across the country, as cities like Kansas City, Denver and Boston undertake experiments. Youth can ride free on systems throughout Washington, and Seattle began giving zero-fare ORCA cards to all Seattle Housing Authority residents earlier this year, with Mayor Bruce Harrell saying he believes free transit "should be our goal."
For certain Washington agencies, the approach is nothing new. Mason Transit Authority bus routes have operated without fares since 1992, when Mason County voters approved a sales tax increase to establish and fund the system, thinking of it as a prepaid service. Island Transit, on Whidbey and Camano islands, and Central Transit, in Ellensburg, have similar stories.
Intercity Transit in Olympia and Thurston County went fare-free after voters approved a sales tax increase in 2018, counting on the change to reduce traffic and pollution, enhance equity and reduce travel times through faster boarding. The system's demonstration project took effect on Jan. 1, 2020, just before COVID-19 reshaped the entire transportation landscape.
Most transit agencies suspended fares when the virus hit, allowing bus riders to enter through the back, away from drivers, Leighton said. As the pandemic ebbed and commuting patterns shifted, some systems that might not have otherwise taken the leap chose to stick with zero-fare policies, he said.
Intercity Transit's policy is scheduled to remain in place at least through 2027. Link Transit, which serves Central Washington communities like Wenatchee, stopped collecting fares in March 2020 and adopted a permanent zero-fare policy last year. Valley Transit, which serves Walla Walla County, made the same call, as did Twin Transit, which serves Centralia and Chehalis in Lewis County, Twin Transit operations manager Maggie McCarthy said.
"We stopped charging because of COVID. Once it cleared up, we tried again for six months and found that the amount of money we were collecting wasn't worth the time" and hassle for employees to empty the system's fare boxes, count the cash and otherwise administer the payments, McCarthy said.
Twin Transit considered upgrading its buses to accept electronic payments but the technology was going to be a "huge expense for a small amount of income," so the system decided to scrap fares for good, she said.
So, how's it going? The change has boosted ridership and "simplified everything," McCarthy said. For example, food banks and homeless shelters that once bought bus passes for their clients no longer have to do so.
Critics cite the principle that riders should pay for the service they're using, and zero-fare policies may spur fears about people "just riding around," with no destination, Leighton said, mentioning mental health and drug challenges. Twin Transit initially had some trouble with riders who thought no fares meant no rules, but things settled down quickly, McCarthy said.
"It's been great, actually," she said. "We live in a very low-income area, and people have really embraced it. You just jump on the bus and go."
State support is part of the picture, because Washington lawmakers allocated $189 million for transit operations when they passed a 16-year transportation plan last year. Systems can use the grants to offset forgone fare revenue.
To qualify for the Move Ahead Washington grants, transit agencies must adopt a zero-fare policy for riders younger than 18, and most systems did that in 2022, including Metro and Sound Transit. Some, like Clallam Transit, are also using their grant money to implement zero-fare policies for everyone.
Clallam Transit, which serves communities such as Port Angeles, chose to go fare-free for 2024 partly to reduce traffic on U.S. Highway 101, where major roadwork has raised traffic fears. There's reason to think the policy will help, Fetzer said, noting that the system's youth ridership more than doubled in the year after the system stopped charging passengers younger than 18.
Next year's pilot program will apply to all Clallam Transit routes, except its "Strait Shot" to the Bainbridge Island Ferry Terminal and its seasonal shuttle to Hurricane Ridge. The policy makes sense for Clallam Transit, a relatively small agency that covers a sprawling territory with about a dozen routes, Fetzer said. Fares currently account for 4% of the Clallam Transit's operating costs — what transit planners call the system's "farebox recovery ratio."
"In bigger cities, you have a lot of people taking shorter trips, so the farebox recovery ratio tends to be higher" and more important budgetwise, he said.
Case in point: Metro is supposed to cover at least 25% of its operating expenses with fares, per the Metropolitan King County Council.
That target has been suspended since COVID began, and Metro's recovery ratio was only 9% in 2022, versus 24% in 2019, spokesperson Sean Hawks said. But last year's 9% still amounted to $67 million, so eliminating fares would rip a big hole in Metro's budget and leave money from businesses on the table; about half the fare dollars are paid directly by large employers like Amazon and Microsoft, Hawks said. Sound Transit has the same setup.
"Fares are a really valuable source of revenue for us," and losing the employer-paid fares would yield "a less progressive model," Hawks said.
Rather than have everyone ride free, Metro and Sound Transit do so for youth while offering discounts to seniors, people with disabilities and low-income riders (including no-cost passes for people enrolled in certain state benefit programs). The tiered approach is based on the idea that "the ability to pay shouldn't be a barrier," Hawks said. Riders have told Metro they'd rather retain the existing strategy than see service cuts, he said.
Metro and Sound Transit both suspended their fare enforcement in 2020, and Metro has yet to bring it back, whereas Sound Transit will start writing tickets again this week, after two warnings. Its farebox recovery ratio for light rail was 16% last year, versus 34% in 2019, well below its 40% target.
That reality and concerns about racially disproportionate enforcement have spurred some calls for Sound Transit to eliminate fares altogether. But the system's leaders have instead decided to try enforcing fares in a gentler way, making the case that too many riders are evading payment. Meanwhile, Sound Transit is considering fare increases to help offset its budget woes. It asked riders to weigh in via an online survey last month.
The agency "has not considered going completely fare-free" because fare revenue is a multibillion-dollar funding source in Sound Transit's long-range financial plan and is one of the funding sources that voters approved in 2016 for the ST3 system expansion, spokesperson Rachelle Cunningham said.
"Unless another funding source is found to replace fare revenue, removing fares would make Sound Transit's financial plan unaffordable," she said.
©2023 The Seattle Times. Visit seattletimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.