King County Metro Transit has started laying the groundwork for anywhere between 45,000 and 100,000 low-income residents to get a discounted, $1.50 bus fare beginning in March 2015.
The mushy estimate of how many might be eligible speaks to the fact this is relatively uncharted territory. Metro says it’s only the second big U.S. transit agency, after San Francisco Muni, to offer low-income discounts, though it’s given deep senior, student and disabled-rider discounts for many years.
County Executive Dow Constantine announced Thursday morning he’s enlisting Public Health – Seattle & King County to lead the outreach and registration efforts, because of their similar experience recruiting some 165,000 clients to obtain health insurance via Obamacare. In fact, it’s likely that thousands of people who seek the farecard might also be hooked up with food and health aid, said Jerry DeGrieck, an interim deputy division director for Public Health. The news conference coincides with a final task-force report this week.
People whose household incomes are less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level will qualify for the new rate, by using a special type of ORCA farecard — not cash on the bus. (A single person with a yearly income of less than $23,340 qualifies, or a family of four below $47,700.) Anybody who holds a food-stamp card ought to be able to get the ORCA card in five minutes, and there will be ways for other people to verify their identity and income, said Penny Lara, a Public Health project manager.
Metro thinks it will lose $4.75 million a year by giving the fare relief, says a June report from the Metro task force. Ridership would grow by a few thousand daily trips.
When operating expenses are added, the total cost is thought to be $7 million to $9 million a year, that might otherwise stay in the budget for bus service hours, or cash reserves. And the 2014-15 startup costs, including software, databases and outreach, are estimated to be at least $3 million.
No date has been announced yet for card distribution to begin.
The idea of low-income discounts was inspired partly by Metro’s elimination in fall 2012 of a downtown ride-free zone that is heavily used by social-service clients. 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.
“Our fares are among the highest in the country. That’s okay for those of us who can afford it. We can help out,” Constantine said. “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.” In a vote Feb. 24, 2014, the Metropolitan King County Council approved both the low-income fare, and the general 25-cent increase, to take effect March 1, 2015.
Sound Transit will soon consider whether to join the Metro program. Otherwise, the new ORCA cards might be rejected or surcharged when somebody uses them to transfer between Metro buses and Link light rail.