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King County Metro Presents Innovative Low-Income Fare Program

King County DOT-Communications

King County Metro Transit's new reduced-fare program is making public transit service more affordable for thousands of lower-income riders.

Metro serves the Seattle area--well known for its tech-fueled prosperity but home to stark inequities as well. While the average annual income for the top 20 percent of households in King County is $248,000, for the lowest 20 percent it's only $15,000--affecting access to transportation and the opportunities mobility makes possible.

That's why last year King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed a reduced bus fare for anyone whose household income is below 200 percent of the federal poverty level (about $23,340 annually for one person). He was acting on the recommendation of a community advisory committee and his commitment to social equity.

Set at $1.50, the fare is discounted 40 percent or more from regular Metro fares and has no peak period or zone surcharges. The program rolled out March 1.

The fare is available only with the Puget Sound region's ORCA fare payment smartcard. Cards for the reduced-fare program, dubbed "ORCA LIFT," are free. Cardholders must add a monthly pass or "e-purse" value, which they can do at public transit center and light rail station vending machines, many grocery and drug stores, Metro's customer service offices or by phone or online. Metro also sends "ORCA-to-Go" vans to community centers and events.

Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond credits two community advisory committees for making invaluable contributions to the program. In addition to the committee that recommended a low-income fare, a second one offered advice about implementation.

"We didn't have a model to follow, and they helped us break the trail," Desmond said. "The advisory committees set lofty goals and gave us down-to-earth advice about how to achieve them."

ORCA makes fare payment easy for Metro's customers and operators and has another big advantage. Quick taps with the ORCA LIFT card replace many slower cash fare transactions, resulting in faster boardings and lower operating costs. As ORCA LIFT enrollment grows, Metro expects fare transactions using ORCA to increase from 62 percent today to around 75 percent--possibly leading to phasing out cash fares altogether someday.

As Metro planned the program, its biggest challenge was how to verify customers' eligibility and get ORCA LIFT cards into their hands. Metro's solution was to contract with the Seattle-King County Public Health Department to provide those services.

Public health has a long history in the community and recently managed local Affordable Care Act enrollment. Now Metro is leveraging the agency's wide network of outreach locations, relationships with clients and expertise in communicating with the target audience--including many people with limited English proficiency.

Metro also contracted with eight human service agencies, for a total of about 40 sites where people can apply for ORCA LIFT and leave with a card if they're qualified.

Several of Metro's partner agencies--Sound Transit Link light rail, the Seattle Streetcar and the King County Water Taxi--are extending the reach of the program by offering ORCA LIFT reduced fares. As a result, Metro's ORCA LIFT program is opening the doors wider to transportation and opportunity.

King County Metro Transit's new reduced-fare program is making public transit service more affordable for thousands of lower-income riders.

For details, click here.
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