Transportation costs rank as the second largest expense for the average household. And for some, even a $2.50 fare can be unaffordable, which is prompting transit agencies across the country to implement low-income fares.
King County Metro Transit, Sound Transit and Kitsap Transit have all adopted a reduced fare for riders with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level. So have transit agencies in New York City, Denver and Portland.
Community Transit wants to do the same and has proposed a low-income fare of $1.25 for local routes and $2 for commuter trips into King County. If approved, the new fare would cut the price of riding transit by half. Everett Transit is considering a similar move.
“Income levels, housing and transportation costs have become a growing concern in our county,” said Martin Munguia, a spokesperson for Community Transit, in an email. “A low-income fare will help our riders who may be struggling to make ends meet but need to get around, to jobs, to school, to daycare, etc.”
He said there is strong state and local legislative support — another reason the transit agency is considering the change.
But don’t think a half-price ticket is really that different from the current subsidy given to a full-price fare. Most, if not all, public transportation systems in the country rely on some sort of funding other than fares to operate. Here in Snohomish County, sales tax makes up the majority of Community Transit’s and Everett Transit’s revenue, roughly 70 percent and 80 percent, respectively.
The actual cost of a ride on Community Transit is about $10.40 and for Everett Transit the outlay for each boarding is $7.97. No rider comes close to paying the actual price.
In 2017, fares covered about 20 percent of the cost of a Community Transit ride.
On Everett Transit, fare box recovery — fare revenue divided by operating costs — was 8 percent last year. It is expected to rise to 13 percent in 2019 due to fare hikes being implemented this year. The agency estimates offering a low-income fare would have less than a 1 percent impact on this number.
“There is no requirement to have a low-income fare, but it is becoming a common practice among urban transit systems,” said Tom Hingson, transportation services director for Everett Transit.
If a low-income fare is adopted, both agencies would join a program called ORCA LIFT launched in 2015. Riders’ income would be verified by a social-services provider, and users would have to use an ORCA card, not cash, to participate.
A reduced fare already is available on both transportation systems in the county for seniors and riders with disabilities.
Munguia estimated that about a fifth of Community Transit riders would qualify for a low-income fare.
Community Transit boardmembers Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling and Snohomish County Councilmember Terry Ryan both support the move. The transit board is set to consider the proposal April 4.
In Everett, councilmembers are still debating, though many have expressed interest in adding some sort of low-income option. This year, adult fare will double in price as Everett Transit cuts service, all in an effort to balance the agency’s budget.
With this increase, for the first time the agency’s standard fare will exceed other transit systems’ low-income fare, according to Hingson. He estimates about a third of Everett Transit riders would qualify for ORCA LIFT.
“While riding the bus is typically far less expensive than owning and maintaining a car, it is still a large cost burden for some people,” said Kelsey Mesher, advocacy director for the nonprofit Transportation Choices Coalition, in an email. “It is one piece to ensuring people can access transit services they might depend on.”
Ideally, she’d like to see an income-based fare. Hopefully that’s next. Don’t make people choose between food or mobility.
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