Starting Sept. 1, King County Metro, Pierce Transit, Kitsap Transit, Community Transit, Sound Transit and the Seattle Streetcar will offer free fares to anyone under 18 years old. These agencies will join Everett Transit, which made the move on July 1.
Washington State Ferries will soon follow suit, extending free fares to youth bicyclists, walk-ons and vehicle passengers on Oct. 1. Drivers between the ages of 16 and 18 will still have to pay.
“As a middle schooler at Dimmitt Middle School in Skyway, I often took Metro home after end-of-day school activities. Finding money to pay the fare could be a hassle and too often a hardship for many of my classmates,” said King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski, in a press release announcing the passage of the county’s free youth fare policy.
These sweeping improvements to youth transportation access come thanks to the recently passed “Move Ahead Washington” transportation package, which Gov. Jay Inslee signed on March 10. Giving up youth fare collection will cost King County about $10 million, according to that press release. However, by passing the policy before Oct. 1, the county is eligible for just shy of $32 million in state grant money.
Even better, the grant money is there for a really long time; “Move Ahead Washington” is a 16-year package. King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, the sponsor of the county’s free youth fare bill, said it’s not likely to sunset either: “Even if the state pulled back, I think we’re going to create a public expectation. Just politically, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”
The bill is also a shining example of how non-means-tested public benefits can be implemented. While youth are asked to apply for and tap special “Youth ORCA” cards, they can also show middle or high school ID. If they don’t have their school ID, the transit agencies involved have effectively decided that it’s all good.
“Youth who do not have one of these can still ride for free,” reads the ORCA page announcing the change.
In theory, that should also reduce police contact with youth. As noted in Real Change reporter Guy Oron’s June 1 article on the impending return of Sound Transit fare enforcement, fare enforcement disproportionately impacts Black and low-income riders and has led to at least one police shooting.
Removing that burden for youth, said Upthegrove, is a triumph that’s been years in the making. A little less than a decade ago, he said, constituents came to him and complained that fare enforcement disproportionately affected Black youth, prompting him to sponsor a bill to decriminalize juvenile fare enforcement violations.
“You would have thought I was promoting crime!” he recalled. “KIRO did a big piece, like, ‘Could scofflaws get off the hook?’”
Fare-free transit for youth makes it a moot point.
“It just goes away,” he said. “At least for juveniles.”
The latest move will also seamlessly transition the youth portion of the City of Seattle’s ORCA Opportunity program, which provides fully funded ORCA cards to populations with a special need for them. Other beneficiaries include college students in the Seattle Promise program, Seattle Housing Authority residents and workers in food service or grocery jobs in certain underserved neighborhoods.
When the free fares go into effect, youth who already have an ORCA Opportunity card will simply keep it.
The benefits to youth are obvious, but it also represents a huge boon for their parents and guardians. Many kids also commute to or from school on the area’s islands. Free walk-on and passenger fares represent a massive savings for those families.
As King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay put it, in the aforementioned press release, “Zero Youth Fare will open opportunities for so many youths in King County—to jobs, to education, to health, to sports, and to so much more. [...] This is an important investment in our youth, our communities, and our futures.”
For Upthegrove, it was also a symbolic victory.
“This is spoken as someone who has been in government a long time now. We put all this political energy in, and we all run for office because we want to change the world, and then we tinker. We’re proud of it. You know: ‘I increased service hours 10 percent in my district.’ This feels like it is meaningful. This is something people will actually see, notice, feel, benefit from,” he said.
However, while the package is a major accomplishment, it prompts another, bigger question: Why can’t we do it for everyone?
That’s the goal, said Upthegrove, but getting there isn’t so simple. The funding for free youth fares came from the state and more than covered current youth fare collection. Replacing adult fares — which he said amounted to $167 million in 2019 — is a bit more complicated.
The main issue, he said, is that a huge chunk of adult fares collected by King County Metro come from massive pass-buying programs at our region’s biggest corporations. These bulk purchases are thanks in part to a state law requiring companies to demonstrate that they have what’s called a “commute trip reduction” plan. Providing bus passes as an employee benefit is, for many large companies, a win-win solution.
If, say, King County did away with fares completely, it would lose out on a great deal of revenue that comes directly from those corporations. To make up for that, the county could do one of two things: reduce service until the cuts covered the amount of forgone fares or raise the sales tax, which the county has a very limited ability to do. Even if the county could raise sales taxes enough to cover the lost fare revenue, sales taxes are regressive, meaning that they place a higher burden on poor people than wealthy people.
“We’re getting millions of dollars from wealthy corporations subsidizing our transit systems. Do we want to give up that revenue and then raise the sales tax?” Upthegrove asked rhetorically.
Without progressive tax reform, Upthegrove said, moving to a completely fare-free transit model would amount to a reverse Robin Hood maneuver: stealing from the poor to pay the rich. There is, of course, the possibility that free transit, which would benefit lower-income people, might make up for that imbalanced tax burden, but the taskforce to study that has yet to even be proposed, let alone convened.
Read more of the Aug. 3-9, 2022 issue.