Members of the Transit Riders Union (TRU) rallied in City Hall Park outside the King County Courthouse on Tuesday, getting a lot of love from people sitting and catching some of the last rays of Seattle’s mild summer.
“What do we want? Bus tickets! When do we want them? Now!” they chanted.
Union members took to the bullhorn to explain how the public transit system facilitated their lives, and what that reliance means when regular fares start at $2.50 and even orca Lift cards — subsidized for low-income riders — are out of reach.
Jesse Smith and his dog, Zena, walked up just as the group began the trek up the steep incline of Jefferson Street to King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office to deliver their demands: a reduction in the cost that social service providers pay for bus tickets for their clients and a $5 monthly bus pass for very-low income and homeless people.
“It would free up so much,” Smith said.
Smith and Zena have been in town a couple of weeks. He’s got vision problems and has already experienced loss since arriving in Seattle, namely the vest that Zena usually wears.
“It has been a challenge and a half to get around this town,” Smith said, going on to wonder if freeing up the money that people spend on the buses wouldn’t lower other costs on other county services as well.
Transit Riders Union members delivered more than 400 signatures gathered over the course of the past two weeks to Constantine’s office and then marched back down to the area by the courthouse to do the same at the King County Council offices.
The action comes off the back of a win just the day before when the King County Council agreed to put more money behind the Human Services Reduced Fare Ticket Program run by Metro. The county budgeted $2.55 million and will now spend $3.2 million.
That has the effect of bumping up the total number of tickets available to service agencies, which can then purchase them for 20 percent of their face value. tru has been organizing to lower the cost to 10 percent, arguing that if the alternative is a bus trip that a person would otherwise forgo, the program would still be a boon to Metro.
“The marginal cost of another person on a half-full bus is extremely low,” said Katie Wilson, co-founder of Transit Riders Union.
As for the $5 bus pass, the idea isn’t as revolutionary as it sounds. Transit Riders Union member John Yost told a transit summit in July that in the late 1990s, he was able to buy a monthly bus pass in King County for $5 that could be re-upped at a local drug store.
There’s more recent precedent as well. In 2017, the Canadian city of Calgary will debut bus passes priced on a sliding scale based on income, with the lowest income members paying just $5.15 per month.
The “If they can do it, why can’t we?” sentiment was shared by many people who attended the rally.
The Transit Riders Union has had a number of successes around transit for youth and low-income people this year.
They successfully lobbied the county to create a joint ticket that combined bus passes with a light-rail pass for service agencies when it became clear that Metro tickets would not transfer to the Sound Transit light-rail system.
The union also worked with students at Rainier Beach High School to get ORCA cards, the rechargeable transit passes that work on most public transportation in the county, for students who live two miles from their home school.
Scott Myers, lead organizer of the Transit Riders Union, said that the organization builds its tactics and principles from the labor organizing movements of the 20th century.
“Yes, we want more bus tickets, but more than that we’re fighting for the principle that human beings are more important than money, and that if we don’t have money, we’re not disposable,” Myers said.