EVERETT — It was the first day for free youth fares, but almost all of the riders on Community Transit bus lines out of Everett Station were adults during a 45-minute period Thursday afternoon.
Though few teens were seen at the central transfer point for several regional buses, transportation leaders say they expect the number of younger riders to climb as word gets out that kids can now ride any bus in Snohomish County at no charge. Community Transit is partnering with local school districts this fall to hand out regional bus passes to students.
“Just because it has launched now doesn’t mean we are done,” Community Transit spokesperson Monica Spain said. “We have quite a bit of work to continue to communicate this and get ORCA cards to schools and into youth’s hands.”
The Community Transit Board of Directors unanimously approved the free fares earlier this month. The Everett-based agency joins almost every other public transportation organization in the state in allowing kids to ride free.
The update comes on the back of the $17 billion Move Ahead Washington transportation package approved in March that includes access to “transit support grants” for agencies offering service at no charge to people age 18 and younger. Community Transit made about $529,000 in youth fares in 2019. It will “trade” that revenue to access to an estimated $12.1 million in grants annually.
“For all agencies, the grant outweighed the lost revenue,” said state Sen. Marko Liias, chair of the transportation committee and a supporter of the package. “We wanted to make sure kids ride free was not a net cost to the agencies.”
The end goal is to familiarize kids with public transit, make bus rides more affordable for families and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Spain said the effort will “cultivate the next generation of transit riders.”
Liias, D-Everett, said his driver’s license became his “ticket to freedom” growing up. To this day, he uses a personal vehicle often. He said he wants to help young Washingtonians form greener habits for the future.
“The ways that we learn to move around when we are young really do influence the ways we think about moving around in the future. … I think this kind of tool of allowing that free access will help develop those good habits,” Liias said. “We want more people walking and biking and riding the bus. That’s how we will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Eliminating youth fares also saves money for families, he said. As inflation “really eats at household budgets,” no-cost public transit helps kids “move around” without having to invest in a new car, gas and insurance.
Youth riders won’t need any special documentation to take advantage of the free fares with Community Transit. All they need to do is tell their driver that they are 18 or younger.
Teenagers age 13 through 18 are encouraged to use an ORCA card. However, the “One Regional Card for All” — which covers fares on public transit in King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties — is not required to ride.
“We don’t want there to be any barriers to youth getting on the bus,” Spain said. “That’s why we’ve made it really simple.”
Eventually, Community Transit wants its younger riders to have ORCA cards, because the pass helps track how many people are riding the bus. The agency uses that information to plan future service and send accurate reports to the state.
Liias said that information will help state lawmakers measure the success of the program.
“I expect this is going to work really, really well, and we are going to see ridership among young people grow,” Liias said. “But if that doesn’t work, we will also be collecting data to make sure we are wisely investing public dollars.”
Community Transit is working with local high schools to distribute the cards to teens, Spain said. Young riders that get a card through their school should register it online at FreeYouthTransitPass.com or in person at Everett Station or the RideStore in Lynnwood.
And as they wait to get their ORCA card, Spain reminded students that it’s still free to hop on a bus for a trip.
“The main thing for people to know now is, youth can just get on the bus,” Spain said.
Mallory Gruben is a Report for America corps member who writes about education for The Daily Herald.