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News / Northwest

Seattle will give free transit cards to all public housing residents

By Mike Lindblom, The Seattle Times
Published: January 25, 2023, 7:32am

SEATTLE — Moxie Hubbard-Shirley and her 14-year-old twins moved from Indiana to Seattle in 2021, but she said they’ve yet to see all the city’s neighborhoods, or even set foot on a saltwater beach. A map in their apartment marks where they’ve gone by transit.

They now plan to cover more territory, thanks to a new city of Seattle program giving zero-fare ORCA cards to all Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) residents.

“Washington has loved on us since we’ve been here,” said Hubbard-Shirley, who says she’s amazed by the region’s myriad buses, ferries, trains and especially the First Hill Streetcar, which runs past her Yesler Terrace apartment. “One of my goals with my daughters is to ride all the lines with a card.”

An estimated 10,000 people will receive the black farecards at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $2.2 million per year, city staff said.

Mayor Bruce Harrell, Seattle Department of Transportation Director Greg Spotts, and SHA Executive Director Rod Brandon announced the new service Tuesday at the Hinoki Apartments along Yesler Way. It expands on a city pilot project serving 2,000 SHA residents.

Others already were using the regional ORCALift card, which allows trips for $1. For people on fixed incomes, who must count every dollar, zero-fare rides “give people more flexibility in their day,” Brandon said.

“We will not be the city of our dreams, we will not be a world class city, unless and until we realize or recognize the value of people that come from limited means that are lower income,” Harrell said.

The SHA farecards are funded by a sales tax voters passed in 2020, and they’re valid through 2026. It formerly subsidized free ORCA fares for all youths, but the 2022 Legislature passed statewide free youth fares, underwritten by new carbon taxes. That move gave SDOT a new cash source that it shifted to public-housing residents, explained Laura Lee Sturm, transportation access manager.

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It’s just the latest in a series of fare discounts. Besides youth and public-housing cards, Seattle has provided 2,200 free-fare “ORCA Recovery” cards to restaurant employees and other essential workers in the Chinatown International District, Pioneer Square, Othello and Rainier Beach neighborhoods, until at least Aug. 31, 2023. Another 1,300 community college students in Seattle hold free-fare cards.

Regional ORCA Lift cards, promoted by King County Executive Dow Constantine in 2015, have spread to Snohomish and Pierce counties; by now at least 17 U.S. transit agencies have created low-income farecards. Some transit systems also waived fares early in the COVID-19 pandemic and have made rides free on New Year’s Eve to promote traffic safety. Businesses buy farecards in bulk to provide an employee benefit.

Metro and Sound Transit are not consistently enforcing fares as of early 2023, though most riders still pay.

A step to free transit?

The new zero-fare service raises the question: Should the Seattle area seek to offer free transit for everybody? Some cities are considering that option, including Washington, D.C., which is scheduled to make city buses free July 1.

“That should be our goal,” Harrell said, noting that Seattle is moving in that direction by extending free and low fares to residents that most need them. “I think it’s doable and it’s achievable.”

Fares comprise just a fraction of transit budgets, but millions are at stake.

Metro collected $150 million in fares in 2019, with a goal to cover one-fourth of the agency’s operating costs. A county budget summary says it would need to replace fare revenue “or service would likely need to be cut.”

Another question is whether cheap farecards boost regional transit use. Sound Transit reported last week that ORCA Lift enrollment, after a slump during the pandemic, increased since August by 22% to 54,000 cardholders, still lagging the potential market of 105,000 low-income residents.

Sound Transit doesn’t have enough data yet to conclude the addition of roughly 10,000 ORCA Lift holders led to more trips, fares director Chad Davis reported last week.

But SDOT reports 91% of survey respondents said they rode more transit after obtaining a free Recovery card, a statement Hubbard-Shirley would endorse.

“I love meeting every type of person, so I want to say thank you all for even providing that transit,” she said. “It is so major for me and my family.”