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Rail News Home Passenger Rail

March 2015

Rail News: Passenger Rail

Sound Transit aims to link low-income riders with more affordable fares on the light-rail system


By Julie Sneider, Senior Associate Editor

Sound Transit has launched an experiment that agency officials hope will help more King County, Wash., residents afford the cost of a ride on the agency's Link light-rail train.

Effective March 1, the agency joined King County Metro Transit by offering a $1.50 fare to adult riders living in King County whose incomes are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $23,000 in annual income for an individual and less than $50,000 for a family of four. Simultaneously, Sound Transit raised its fares by 25 cents for other rider categories to offset the revenue loss and ridership gain from the low-income discounts.

Those who qualify for the reduced fare program receive a smart card — called an ORCA Lift (ORCA stands for One Regional Card for All) to purchase their fares. The card is good for a reduced fare on King County bus services, the water taxi service, the Seattle Streetcar system and Sound Transit's Link light-rail service. Currently, the Link is the only service that Seattle-based Sound Transit operates in King County. The card is good for two years before the user has to re-qualify for the discount.

"The program is good for Sound Transit because it makes it easier for more people to take the train to get to work," says agency spokesman Bruce Gray. "Our light-rail line runs through some of the poorest parts of Seattle, where you have a large population of people who depend on public transportation to get to work. If we can help them save money doing that, then that's a success for us."

For qualifying riders, the discount card could mean saving as much as half off the regular price to ride The Link, which "represents a significant savings," says Gray.

Sound Transit Chairman and King County Executive Dow Constantine came up with the idea of Sound Transit piggybacking on King County's efforts to deliver a reduced transit-fare system for the county’s low-income residents.

"Having a reliable, affordable transit system is more important than ever as housing costs rise and commutes get longer," Constantine said in a statement last month announcing the program.

The fare initiative is among a number of solutions that community leaders have considered to address income inequality in the Seattle region, which is one of the fastest-growing communities in the United States. In June 2014, the Seattle City Council approved a new minimum hourly wage law, which will require all employers in Seattle to pay their workers at least $15 an hour by Jan. 1, 2021. The first phase of the new law takes effect April 1.

"A lot of Seattle's growth has been at two ends of the economic ladder: the people who are serving you coffee, and the people who are paying $6 for a coffee,” says Gray. "The reduced-fare program is a social-equity approach to making sure that Seattle is a place where you can afford to live, and save money on how you get to and from work every day."

The reduced transit fare program piggybacked on King County's effort to help people sign up for health insurance. A social services provider network that was organized to help citizens sign up for health care under the federal Affordable Care Act is also now being used to sign up for ORCA Lift cards. That kind of coordination will be key to successfully enrolling as many eligible riders as possible, says Gray.

Sound Transit estimates about 28 percent of its Link light-rail riders could qualify for the lower fares. That would represent about a $1 million farebox hit on agency revenue, which will be offset by the 25-cent fare increase in the other fare categories.

Although some travel-affordability experiments have been tried in a few communities, none so far has been to the scale that King County and Sound Transit hope theirs will be. Depending on how well the program works, other transit agencies might follow in its tracks.

"What Seattle has done is what others might consider," Art Guzzetti, vice president for policy at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), told The New York Times in a recent article about the transit agencies' efforts. "Everyone is watching."

Sound Transit's board will be watching the program carefully, as well. So far, there are no plans to expand it to riders living in Snohomish and Pierce counties, which Sound Transit also serves.

"What we'll be looking at over the next year is how many people are signing up for the program and using the ORCA Lift card on light rail," says Gray.

But even if a smaller-than-anticipated ridership takes advantage of it, the income-based discount in King County is "here to stay," he adds. "The real question is if and how it can be expanded to the rest of our services."


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