Metro Report Short on New Ideas for Improving Transit Access

More people than ever are riding transit in our region. King County Metro was recently named the best large transit system in North America, and is recognized as a leader for the ORCA LIFT reduced fare program. But many folks are still being left behind, so this summer the King County Council asked Metro to find ways to serve more low-income people.

Motion 2018-0255 directed Metro to identify opportunities to make public transit more affordable and accessible for youth, community college students, affordable housing residents and low-income employees, as well as options for very-low-income Metro fare “for individuals who are in households with incomes of two hundred percent or less of the federal poverty level and are unable to afford the ORCA LIFT fare.”

The resulting report from Metro recommends a pilot program to serve very low-income individuals as compliance with an earlier 2016 Council ordinance (Ordinance 18409, Section 115, Proviso P1). Unfortunately, Metro’s report is short on ways to make transit more accessible to the other groups named by the Council. Instead, Metro opens the report’s third paragraph with this conclusion:

“Although individuals in all the markets considered for this report would benefit from increased transit access, we conclude that special pricing for specific groups is not the best tool to achieve this end.

This conclusion runs counter to Metro’s current practices, including the Regional Reduced Fare Permit (RRFP), which entitles senior riders (age 65 or older), riders with a disability and Medicare card holders to reduced fares. Metro also offers a discounted youth fare.

Metro suggests that “a comprehensive, income-based approach to fares would be the most equitable, viable, and aligned with adopted policy.” This sounds good, but then they kick the can down the road suggesting “policy updates supporting this approach in future updates of King County Metro’s Strategic Plan for Public Transportation,” which isn’t scheduled for update until 2021 or later.

In the body of the report, Metro makes broad assumptions about a small set of options for serving youth, students, low income residents and low wage earner groups might work to argue in each case that the cost would be too high to address their respective needs. In addition to considering limited options, Metro takes a very conservative approach to estimating the costs of potential programs, an approach which Metro admits in the report “may overstate the impact that programs could have on farebox recovery.”

Let’s look at how these assumptions play out in relation to one group—affordable housing residents—and a proposed program to adapt the Multifamily ORCA Passport to better serve this population.

Assumption 1: We can’t afford it.

In the existing Multifamily ORCA Passport program, costs are shared between the riders and their for-profit apartment landlord. Metro points out that subsidized housing operators “have very little if any availability to fund the partner/building operator share of the ORCA Multifamily Passport program.” This is true and is why we’ve argued that the Passport program is broken. We believe a modest subsidy of less than $1 million would go a long way towards fixing the program and increasing ridership among affordable housing residents, and suggest Metro work with other transit agencies to reduce the trip rate for Passports in affordable housing and think creatively about sources of funds to cover some or all the operator share. Following are potential sources to explore:

New Revenue: Metro is currently above its farebox recovery requirements and has a variety of options for new revenue.  New revenues of $3 million and $5 million are expected to come from Metro’s recent fare simplification.  Other revenues, such as parking user fees, should be explored.

Other Jurisdictions: We’ve heard some local jurisdictions suggest that if Metro could bring down the cost (e.g. by reducing the trip rate for Multi-Family Housing Passports in affordable housing), those cities might help to cover the partner/operator share for buildings in their jurisdictions. These conversations have been mostly informal and should be followed up.

Sound Transit: Metro’s report assumes other transit agencies won’t participate in a reduced fare program serving affordable housing. But there’s no suggestion in the report that they’ve asked for input from Sound Transit or the other transit agencies part of the ORCA pantheon (Community Transit, Everett Transit, Pierce Transit, Kitsap Transit, Washington State Ferries).

Federal Funds (e.g. CMAQ): The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) administers millions of dollars in mitigation funds block granted from the Federal Highway Administration to address the pollution impacts of congestion. For example, in 2018 PSRC will distribute $26M under the Congestion Mitigation/Air Quality (CMAQ) program. Metro could explore options with PSRC to see where there might be a good fit in 2019.

Assumption 2: It wouldn’t be fair, Part 1.

Metro suggests it would be unfair to offer a less expensive pass to affordable housing residents because they might get a deal unavailable to similarly low-income or lower-income people not living in affordable housing. We share Metro’s commitment to fairness and recommend better service to low- and very low-income individuals everywhere they reside in the County, including within subsidized housing.

Affordable ORCA Passports would be a complement to other reduced fare products like ORCA LIFT, not a replacement. Passports are effective for reaching groups of riders connected to an apartment building or business, just as the student program services students in Seattle Public Schools. ORCA LIFT is a good option for individual low-income riders not connected to an institution.

Assumption 3: It wouldn’t be fair, Part 2.

Metro suggests that because not all affordable housing is located near transit, offering a lower price transit pass to all affordable housing residents would not serve folks living away from transit hubs.

We suggest offering a program that affordable housing providers could opt into based on the level of interest of residents in their building. It is most likely that buildings with poor transit access would not have a great demand for the program as compared to buildings near transit and would not opt in. This is consistent with how the current Multi-family ORCA Passport program works. Buildings opt in, at least that is the idea. Currently, Metro has very few customers for the Multifamily ORCA Passport program. This is likely because in market-rate buildings near transit, most of the residents already have a Passport through their employer. This is far less likely in an affordable housing property where residents are less likely to have a pass subsidized by their employer.

Assumption 4: We should just do more of what we do.

What is perhaps most disappointing about the Metro report is the absence of creative problem solving. To be fair, Metro was only given a couple of months from when Council passed Motion 15171 and when Metro was required to deliver a report. But instead of offering opportunities, as the motion requested, and perhaps asking for more time and/or resources to develop creative solutions, Metro retreats to promoting what they’re already doing or committed to do.

The main recommendation of the report besides piloting a very low income program is to focus “on increasing ORCA LIFT enrollment among youth, students/trainees, subsidized housing residents, who have low-wage/low-incomes and are communities of color, limited English speaking, and immigrants and refugees.” In other words, better marketing.

Sure, better marketing and outreach to support existing programs is a good idea, but it shouldn’t be the only idea coming out of a report that was supposed to expand opportunities for serving low-income riders. It may not even be the best way to improve ORCA LIFT enrollment.

RECOMMENDATIONS

King County Metro could make the ORCA LIFT program immediately better and likely boost enrollment by bringing the eligibility requirements for the program into alignment with the eligibility requirements for affordable housing. Currently, Metro bases eligibility for ORCA LIFT on 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), which is set annually in relation to income levels across the continental US and used to qualify for federal programs like food stamps and Medicaid. The FPL is woefully LOW ($12,140/year for an individual; $25,100/year for a family of four), especially in an expensive place like King County.

Area Median Income (AMI) is based on income levels in King County, which makes it far more relevant as a measure of how someone is doing in our local economy. We suggest resetting the ORCA LIFT eligibility to 60% AMI, which would have the dual benefits of qualifying more cost-burdened people and making it easier for affordable housing providers to help enroll residents already income qualified for 60% AMI housing.

Similarly, Metro could consider applying a lower AMI rate, say 30 percent of AMI, to qualify for the new very low-income product they hope to pilot. With Motion 2018-0255, the King County Council directed Metro to identify opportunities to better serve low-income and very low-income riders. Metro has responded by recommending a pilot program to reach very-low income riders. We look forward to working alongside Metro for the success of this program and its full scaling to reach the many folks who need transit access but can’t currently afford an ORCA LIFT card.

We also offer to help Metro respond to the other needs outlined in Motion 2018-0255 and take a deeper look at modifying the ORCA Passport to serve low income folks. Finally, we support the crafting of a comprehensive, income-based approach to fares and recommend that Council and Metro not wait until the next strategic planning process to craft it.