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Will King County’s Prop 1 Fix Metro’s Bumpy Ride?

KUOW Photo/Amy Radil
Metro Transit operator Lisa Nault says there's a free shuttle downtown as an alternative after the ride free zone ended, but no one knows about it.

Low-income transit passengers say the last few years have been difficult in King County with multiple fare increases and the end of the ride free zone in Seattle. But they are torn about whether to support Proposition 1, which would raise taxes in order to maintain existing Metro transit service.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "I know it's a rock and a hard place we're sort of stuck in.", "style": "inset"}]]Pauline Van Senus, a member of the Transit Riders Union, has been roaming King County transit stops with her elaborate hand-made signs in favor of Prop 1. She said while many low-income people depend on mass transit, her group still had a vigorous debate about whether to support the tax increases in the ballot measure.

“I know it’s a rock and a hard place we’re sort of stuck in,” she said. “But if we don’t pass this and 17 percent of the service goes away, about 80 percent of riders are going to be impacted and that’s a very real hardship.”

Prop 1 is asking voters to decide by April 22 whether to approve $60 car tab fees and a 0.1 percent increase in the county sales tax. The measure includes some help for low-income residents, in the form of a $1.25 bus fare for those who qualify, and a $20 rebate on the car tab fee.

The ballot measure is expected to generate about $130 million per year, with 60 percent going to Metro and 40 percent to local governments.

Metro said the funds would cover a deficit left from the recent recession. Without those taxes, Metro said it will have to cut bus service by 17 percent.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Pauline Van Senus is a one-woman campaign ad for Prop 1.", "fid": "26960", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201404/photo_(5).JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Amy Radil"}]]The Demise Of The Ride Free Zone

The past few years have been hard on low-income riders. Fares have risen four times and will go up again next spring. And in 2012 Seattle got rid of the ride free zone downtown.

Metro bus driver Lisa Nault, who campaigned recently for Prop 1 downtown, said there is a fallback: a free shuttle in downtown to replace the ride free zone.

The two circulating shuttles, funded by the city of Seattle and operated by Seattle nonprofit Solid Ground, make a continuous loop through downtown and up to Harborview Medical Center. But there are no signs to mark the shuttle’s seven stops, and almost no one seems aware of how to use it.

One rider, Michelle Carpenter, recently took the shuttle for the first time. She has been getting by with what she calls courtesy rides from downtown bus drivers since the ride free zone ended.

“Most of the time I’ve been walking to my destinations, or asking for a ride. Most of the time the bus driver doesn’t have a problem with giving me a courtesy ride,” Carpenter said.

Alexander Bryant also used the ride free zone a lot; now he’s a regular on the shuttle. He lives downtown and said he is “not a wealthy person.”

He said he’s skeptical of Metro’s need for more funding. “You would think that Metro would have the funds and ability to keep making money every year with the rates going up every year. Yet they say that they don’t have any money.”

Solid Ground said ridership on the shuttle is about 300 people per day. But Metro general manager Kevin Desmond said the end of the Ride Free Area likely affected many more people. According to Desmond, Metro saw a projected loss of about 6,000 boardings a day in the ride free zone.

“Where those people went, I don’t know,” Desmond said. “They may be walking, some of them may be jumping on light rail in the downtown Seattle tunnel.”

The end of the ride free zone did help Metro's finances – the agency now recovers over $2 million more per year in bus fares. 

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Public transit agencies provide transportation. We're not social service organizations that are in the business of identifying people's income status.", "style": "inset"}]]Prop 1 And Low-Income Riders

Overall, Desmond said, ridership is up again and sales tax proceeds are back where they were in 2007, and King County officials want to do something to help low-income riders.

Next year they’ll implement a fare card for low-income people who qualify, modeled on a program in Kitsap County. Desmond estimates a quarter of King County’s population could qualify for this discount.

The low-income fare will happen regardless of whether Prop 1 passes, but the initiative will make the reduction more generous. Currently it is set at $1.50 per trip, but with Proposition 1, the price will drop to $1.25.

Kate Joncas with the Downtown Seattle Association served on the committee that came up with the new fare card. She said she hasn’t heard much outcry over the end of the ride free zone.

“I had a lot of conversations with human services folks and said, 'Why is downtown the only place in the entire county where you can have a free ride and where low-income people can ride the bus to their services? It really should be a county-wide benefit,'” she said. 

The challenge for Metro as it tailors its services to help low-income people is sorting out who is eligible for the programs. “Public transit agencies provide transportation,” Desmond said. “We’re not social service organizations that are in the business of identifying people’s income status.”

He said Metro will likely partner with another organization to verify riders’ incomes. He estimates that the low-income fare will cost Metro roughly $3.6 million per year in lost fare revenue, and $4 million to administer.

As for the potential $20 car tab rebate for low-income car owners, Metro won’t handle that process.

Solid Ground president Gordon McHenry said he’s not clear how that rebate will be administered. “We’re hoping and asking that it be done in a very low-barrier, efficient and non-onerous fashion,” he said.

Overall, McHenry said he supports Prop 1, while lamenting that it’s a regressive tax that falls most heavily on the poor. He said it’s a better alternative than service cuts, especially as Seattle’s high cost of living sends more low-income residents farther from their work.

Year started with KUOW: 2005