I-976 Could Harm Free Orca Card Program Championed by South Seattle Students

by Carolyn Bick

The November sun in Seattle doesn’t stretch its lazy rays above the horizon until after 7 a.m. –– and that’s only if it’s not blotted out by grey rainclouds, as is so common in the Pacific Northwest’s autumn. And it’s in that sometimes-rainy dark that students travel to school, piling onto buses and trains that, currently, are free transportation sources for them.

But that could change, if Initiative 976 takes effect.

Earlier this month, Washington State voters approved I-976, an initiative spearheaded by anti-tax activist Tim Eyman, who also co-filed the anti-affirmative action Initiative 200 in 1998. I-976 limits annual license fees for most passenger vehicles to $30. The initiative’s effects are far-reaching, specifically in the sector of public transportation, because the taxes and fees Washington State drivers currently pay on their vehicles go towards funding the state’s public transit system. I-976 is currently facing a lawsuit, with plaintiffs claiming that the wording misled voters and violated the state’s single-subject rule.

While Seattle’s Sound Transit is still collecting car tab fees, due to loopholes in I-976’s wording, if the challenge is unsuccessful, and the initiative fully passes, King County Executive Dow Constantine estimates King County will have to cut 175,000 public transit service hours from 74 bus routes. The $100 million in total cuts could also come from the Regional Mobility Grant Program, which provides funding for local agencies to improve their transportation systems, and is being used to fund RapidRide expansion. It may also gouge $12.2 million from the Access paratransit program, which helps people with disabilities get around. 

The City of Seattle would specifically lose $35 million in transit revenue, $8 million of which currently funds various transportation improvements, including the Vision Zero project to improve Rainier Avenue South, dubbed “the most dangerous street” in Seattle.

Yet another consequence for the city would be the loss of the just-implemented ORCA Youth Opportunity Program, which gives all Seattle high schoolers and other income-qualifying students unlimited-use ORCA cards.

This spells trouble for many South End students, particularly those at Rainier Beach High School. Safiyat Bayo’s older sister, Mariam Bayo, was one of the Rainier Beach High School students who started working in 2015 to get the city to approve the free passes. Though Mariam graduated before the city implemented the program for the 2018-2019 school year, Safiyat has benefited from her sister’s and fellow students’ work. Thanks to the program, the sophomore doesn’t have to worry about getting to school on time. But without the program?

“I would probably have to walk to school. But the thing is, it’s hard for me to walk to school, because I have to get my three siblings on the bus. And sometimes, the bus is late. So, if their bus is late, and I am walking to school, I am going to be late, too,” Bayo said.

She would also have to walk –– and be late –– to her after-school job at the Rainier Beach Action Coalition.

“And that would be an everyday thing, if I didn’t have an ORCA card,” Bayo said. “But, the thing is, if we are late at our work, then we might be released from working there, because, when you’re working there, you have to be on time and show leadership.”

Rainier Beach High School counselor Chelsea Gallegos, who worked with the students in 2015 to help start the push for fee-free student ORCA cards, said cutting the program may also have implications for student attendance. Though the school doesn’t have reliable data on that front –– not only are the sample sizes small, relative to overall student population, Gallegos said, but the sample sizes are also inconsistent –– Gallegos said she believes anecdotally that the program has boosted attendance at the high school, especially since an estimated 90 percent of the school’s students use ORCA cards on a near-daily basis.

“Either students will have poor attendance, because they can’t afford to pay their own way on the bus, or they will risk getting on the bus without paying, and facing fare enforcement, or they will have to face shifting their already very tight budget,” Gallegos said. “We calculated, on average, having an ORCA card for a full school year will save a family between $500 and $700 per student.”

This isn’t to say that some students and their families couldn’t afford to start paying for public transit again, but because 75 percent of the school’s population is already on the free and reduced lunch program, being forced to pay for the bus or train would be a significant burden for the majority.

“A lot of our kids have talked about how the money they would have been spending on the bus now goes to their lunch. If they were having to pay for the bus again, then they are not exactly sure where that money or that gap will get filled in,” Gallegos said.

Bayo’s fellow sophomore and after-school Rainier Beach Action Coalition colleague Dunia Adan finds herself grappling with that financial predicament. Thanks to the program, Adan’s family doesn’t have to worry about topping up a transit card for their daughter, which means they can put the several hundred dollars saved to other things, like their ever-increasing rent, which Adan said stands at $1,000 per month, and Adan’s college fund. 

Though she said she and her family haven’t had the conversation about what to do, should the ORCA pass program be cut, Adan said she’s more than a little worried about what it would mean for the family’s living situation.

“If we are using all this money for buses and using cars –– so much gas money –– it means we are not going to have enough money to pay back to stay in our house,” Adan said. “I will have to worry more, and work harder. It’s square one all over again, if we have no ORCA cards, and I don’t want to do that.”


Featured image: Rainier Beach students during a 2019 school walk out (Photo: Susan Fried)

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