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Northshore bus riders will benefit from Metro's reduced-fare program

King County Metro Transit - Reporter file photo
King County Metro Transit
— image credit: Reporter file photo

In March 2015, King County Metro will implement a reduced-fare program for lower-income bus riders.

The program will coincide with Metro-wide fare increases, which will also go into effect in March 2015. The reduced-fare program will apply to all Metro routes, including those in and around the Northshore area.

The reduced fare will be $1.50 for those who qualify. Regular Metro fares will increase by 25 cents — the fifth fare increase for Metro riders since 2008. In that time, off-peak fares will have increased by 100 percent.

Metro will be the second major transit system in the nation to offer a reduced-fare program. Chad Lewis, spokesperson for King County Executive Dow Constantine, said the only other major system that has such a program is in San Francisco, though he added that Kitsap Transit offers reduced fares, as well, but it is a smaller system.

HELP OUTSIDE OF METRO

Because there were not many systems to model the reduced-fare program after, Lewis said it was reviewed by an independent task force.

"King County is one of the first regions in the nation to put a low-income fare in place, helping to make sure that our bus service really is serving the whole community," said Alison Eisinger, task force member and director of Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness in a King County press release.

After reviewing the plan, Lewis said the task force supported the plan and only had a few recommendations for changes.

One of the recommendations was to make the program available everywhere, not just Seattle.

Another recommendation the task force had was to ensure people cannot cheat the system — by signing up for the program when they do not qualify — but not make the sign-up process so cumbersome it will push people away from signing up.

"You've always got (to have) that balance," Lewis said.

He said Metro will partner with Public Health – Seattle & King County to administer the program as the agency did a strong outreach job with the low-income population in helping more than 165,000 King County residents sign up for the Affordable Care Act. Lewis said by working with Public Health, they hope to tap into a similar population.

Lewis said it is too early to sign up for the reduced-fare program right now, but they are working to get the word out now so more people are aware and do sign up when the time comes. He added that many people could qualify for the program, but they don't know it.

"We want anyone who qualifies for it to sign up," he said.

HOW IT WORKS

According to the King County press release, the eligibility threshold for a person to qualify for the reduced fare is 200 percent of the federal poverty level, currently $23,340 for an individual.

People who qualify and sign up for the program will receive a special ORCA card that is pre-programmed to automatically subtract $1.50 from the card's total each ride. According to the press release, qualifying riders must use the ORCA card and cannot pay with cash. In addition, no fee will be charged for a new card or renewal but a $5 fee will be charged to replace a lost or stolen card.

Eligibility must be re-verified every other year and the low-income fare will expire 24 months after the card is issued. After expiration, it can be used as a regular adult fare card.

The low-income fare will be limited to one card per person and each card must be registered in the ORCA system to an eligible adult.

The press release states that about 45,000 to 100,000 riders will be eligible for the reduced-fare program and the task force recommended beginning verification of applications by at least February in anticipation of the program launch in March.

BUILDING OPPORTUNITIES

Public transit is a form of transportation for many — for some, it is the only form and they rely on it heavily — but increased fares can make it inaccessible. In addition, with fewer affordable housing options, Lewis said people are living further away from work, school and services. He said higher bus fares could prohibit an unemployed individual from going to school to earn their degree or someone from taking a higher-paying job — both possible ways from stepping out from under the low-income bracket.

"One of the ways we create opportunity is by helping people get to work, get to school, and get to the services they need to reach their full potential," Constantine said in the press release. "This reduced-fare program will ensure that those who have lesser means still have access to opportunity."

In the same press release, Mike Heinisch, another task force member and executive director of South King Council of Human Services added, "Providing a low-income fare is one way we can help keep the region more affordable for working families and ensure equal access to economic opportunity."

Lewis said the reduced-fare program also shows the executive's emphasis on equity and social justice.

"This is what equity and social justice look like when you take action (on a local level)," he said.

In the press release, Eisinger added, "We can be very proud that we are putting our values into practice in this way, by taking a big step that will help advance greater equity and access to opportunity. Thousands of people, and our community as a whole, will benefit from this progressive policy."

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