Income-Based Fare Program Offers Hope, But Some Say Metro Still Needs to Close the Gaps

by Mary Hubert

King County Metro has proposed an income-based fare program that would enable King County residents to pay transit cost on a sliding scale.

This plan responds to increasing concern over the escalating costs of metro fares, which currently exceed those of many other major cities. Although Metro recently rolled out its ORCA LIFT program, which allows qualifying participants to pay $1.50 per ride, the growing number of transit users who either cannot afford this rate or otherwise remain unassisted has prompted further strategizing.

Metro has developed an income-based approach to transit needs and has proposed introducing one or more income-based fare reduction pilots over the next year. During that period, Metro plans to implement specific pilot programs to look at this issue while also engaging a stakeholder advisory group to identify key priorities and establish timelines for widespread roll out.

Advocacy organizations are already taking note. Transportation Choices Coalition, OneAmerica, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, Transit Riders Union, and others released a joint response to Metro’s plan, lending their support while also making recommendations to ensure the program succeeds in helping the intended populations.

One such recommendation concerns the difficulty of reaching communities with less access to resources. To combat this obstacle, the coalition proposes “incorporating income-based fares into institutional products” to ensure that everyone benefits regardless of where they get their passes. This allowance is part of an expressed need to reduce eligibility verification barriers.

“Verifying eligibility for any assistance program, including our current ORCA LIFT program, is a continuous challenge, and it is a system problem,” said Kelsey Mesher, the advocacy director of Transportation Choices Coalition. “One way to reduce this barrier is to align the eligibility level with other need-based programs. This may mean raising the LIFT threshold, which would have the added benefit of reaching people for whom transit is still a financial burden but do not currently qualify.”

Another potential issue concerns the program’s timeline. Currently, Metro anticipates a widespread launch in 2021. In the meantime, they will be developing a pilot for the income-based fare program for the 2019-20 year. Metro has communicated that they are allocating a maximum annual foregone revenue of $600,000 for their pilot projects. Its next task is to collect information on how riders are using the system, where barriers exist, and which other areas need improvement.

This plan is both thorough and realistic, Mesher said. However, the need for immediate fare reduction relief remains.

In their formal response, the coalition members asked Metro to “search for a balance between long-term strategy and urgent need.”

It is essential, they write, that King County expand access to transit today. Once the program is created, stakeholders, along with Metro staff and Council, should clearly identify what they hope to learn through a pilot and how long they need to learn it.

Twelve months may not be necessary to corroborate the need for this approach, and Metro can take that time to scale up access, ensuring broad implementation and the most benefits to the maximum eligible recipients. They may not need to wait until the next strategic planning cycle, coalition members stated.

“There is some appetite to skip the pilot and just work on a program,” Mesher said.

A pilot will delay widespread implementation, she said, and with the pressing need for reduced fares, it may make the most sense to jump straight into the program. Mesher emphasized that stakeholder engagement and evaluation will be key in determining the path forward.

This suggested approach dovetails with the last major recommendation from the nonprofit coalition: to leverage stakeholders from identified markets. These stakeholders will make valuable contributions to the pilot program and can continue to work with Metro to develop strategies for reaching different communities, especially those that will qualify for the new program. Metro already recognizes the need for assembling a group of stakeholders, but the coalition’s recommendations underscore the importance of such measures.

The coalition also asks how the city of Seattle can get involved. King County would be the first municipality in the United States to attempt such a program, Mesher said, and as such will require a great deal of collaboration.

“It will require logistical and political alignment between our various agencies and municipalities. The City of Seattle has implemented some very exciting fare programs, such as Orca Opportunity, which provides free transit for high school students, and the question is how to provide or pair programs like these with a broader fare policy that gets at need.”

Furthermore, she suggested, Metro should consider the possibility of matching fare programs with affordable housing providers, so that people who already qualify for affordable units can automatically qualify for reduced transit fares.

“We’d like to see ideas like these taken into account during Metro’s pilot.”

Another option to maximize the effectiveness of the pilot is to run it in neighborhoods with a combination of low income and increased fare enforcement on community lines, such as neighborhoods in Rainier Beach affected by the transition from the 7 to RapidRide buses.

“I would look to our service providers that have direct experience on the ground for guidance on where the pilot could fill a hole or make extra impact,” recommends Mesher.

“The biggest challenge will be coordination among all the partners that have a stake in affordable fares and fare programs. From universities to housing providers to agencies, we have a variety of fare programs that are in place and working for certain groups, so how will we carry those forward while looking for a long-term and inclusive solution?”

“Of course,” she admitted, “The other huge question is what the cost will be, and what the options and constraints are around funding.”

The atmosphere, then, is one of tentative excitement. This program could have a significant impact on low-income transit riders. The question that remains is whether it can get off the ground in a timely and effective fashion.

Featured Photo from Emerald archives.