Category: Transit

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.


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.



It’s Time to Make the ORCA Passport Program Work for All

If you have an ORCA card, there’s a good chance you got it through your employer or your apartment building. The largest group of ORCA users get their pass that way, taking advantage of one of two “Passport” programs (ORCA Business Passport Programfor employers and the Multifamily ORCA Passportfor apartment-dwellers).

Either way, you are a beneficiary of the most effective transit pass program in the system. In 2017, King County brought in $76 million in revenue from the ORCA Passport programs for approximately 35 million boardings.

The ORCA Passport Program is both effective in getting people on transit and popular, but unfortunately, it doesn’t serve most low-income people. In 2016, Capitol Hill Housing (CHH), a city-wide affordable housing developer and community development organization, surveyed people living in apartments along Pike Street. We found that in market rate buildings, 68 percent had an ORCA pass subsidized by their employer. In contrast, only 22 percent of the residents in affordable housing buildings had Passports.

Far fewer affordable housing residents are offered an ORCA Passport by employers. These residents must resort to more expensive individual passes or walking long distances to work, school or appointments.

To address this disparity, in 2016-17 CHH piloted an expansion of the ORCA Passport programin affordable housing. The project, funded by Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and Enterprise Community Partners, enabled  57 households in three CHH buildings making below 60 percent of the area median income (roughly $60,000 for a family of four) to purchase ORCA Passports at under $20/month, the same amount or slightly more than what many local employees pay for their Passports through work or their apartment building.

The pilot tested three things:

  • Would affordable housing residents making $20,000-40,000/year pay $10-20/month for an ORCA Passport?
  • How much they use the Passport once purchased?
  • Would the program be easy for an affordable housing provider to administer?

The results of pilot were illuminating. More than half of our residents participated in the program and they used it A LOT, an average of 43 trips per month, 80 percent above what KC Metro models anticipated. And the program was easy to administer. Each month, we collected the rider share of the cost via the same mechanism by which we collect monthly rent.

Our residents loved the Affordable ORCA Passport Pilot. It made it easier for them to connect to jobs, healthcare, and opportunities in our city. Here’s a sample of quotes from participants:

“Makes my family feel normal and connected to public transportation, allowing my family to have extra funds to apply to other household cost(s).”

“Please keep it funded and going! I decided not to keep my car and just use this $10 pass and walk. Loving it and saves me money.”

Unfortunately, the pilot ended in 2017. CHH is pressing for an expansion to affordable housing residents across King County. Other housing organizations, including Seattle Housing Authority, King County Housing Authority and the Housing Development Consortium, support an expansion. King County Council has also received letters from Forterra, Futurewise, the Transit Riders Union, the Mayor of Tukwila and the North Urban Human Services Alliance Board, among others.

Advocacy is working. Last month, the King County Council passed a motion that instructs Metro to address transit access and affordability for affordable housing residents, as well as youth and community college students. The projected costs of these strategies will inform the Council’s Fall budget deliberations and could lead to a major expansion of transit access to low-income households.

Motion 2018-0255 is open ended. One big question is how an expanded Affordable ORCA Passport program would be funded. Based on our estimates, the cost should not be prohibitive. The subsidy cost to serve three CHH buildings for a year was under $35,000. We suggest the County create a $1M pool of funds to launch a robust Affordable ORCA Passport program County-wide and target households making 60% of the area median income and lower-income buildings near transit.

There is still a lot left to figure out, which is why Metro’s work under the motion is so important. It directs them to price options for Council consideration in the Fall budget cycle, allowing for a more nuanced discussion of how we can better connect low-income residents to public transit.

An expansion won’t be simple, but folks are willing to roll up their sleeves to figure it out. Mayor Allan Ekberg of Tukwila writes: “The City welcomes the opportunity to participate in conversations about this expansion and how Tukwila might both contribute to its success and benefit our constituents.”

This is a pressing issue that affects all parts of King County, not just Seattle. In a letter to Councilmember Dembowski, the North Urban Human Services Alliance Board, which includes the Cities of Shoreline and Lake Forest Park, laid out a case that could be made for cities throughout our County and underscores why this should be a high priority for Council and Metro going forward:

“As you well know, North King County is growing rapidly. All of the NKC cities are investing in transit infrastructure.  And all of these cities and the County are spending millions of dollars to build affordable housing near transit  hubs. We want to be sure that the folks who live in those buildings can afford to ride transit to school, jobs and other services.  Fixing the ORCA Passport is a logical step towards meeting this goal.”


Tap ORCA Here: When Transit and Housing Access Collide

It's great, I can't ride my bike everywhere_web

“It’s great, I can’t ride my bike everywhere.”


Transit Access Is An Equity Issue

After housing, transportation is the second highest cost for most people.  The Center for Neighborhood Technology estimates that households in the Puget Sound Region spend about 19 percent of their income on transportation.  Living in a central, walkable, transit-rich neighborhood like Capitol Hill can help households save a lot on transportation expenses by driving less or not even owning a car – one of the reasons that Capitol Hill Housing believes it is so important to provide affordable housing in neighborhoods like Capitol Hill. However, for many low income people, the regular cost of using transit is still unaffordable.

In 2014, we surveyed over 300 Capitol Hill households about their transit expenses.  We found that while 42 percent of households in market rate buildings had all or part of their transit passes paid for by their employer and school, only 16 percent of households in affordable housing received similar help paying for transit. We wanted to change this for our residents.  An opportunity came when we learned about King County Metro’s new Multi-Family Passport program that allows property managers to offer the same subsidy and discounts as employers.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have the money to contribute our share to the subsidy.  Luckily, SDOT agreed to step in and cover those costs in 3 buildings as a pilot project.

"We love the light rail and the streetcar and go more places than you would think."

“We love the light rail and the streetcar and go more places than you would think.”


How Affordable Housing Providers Can Tackle Climate Change

Promoting transit use has other benefits as well. If affordable transit passes reduce driving, that reduces greenhouse gas emissions.  Driving just recently surpassed power plants as the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.  Transportation is an even bigger contributor to emissions in Seattle because we get most of our electricity from hydro power.  If we want to tackle climate change, we need to reduce emissions from driving in ways that also have positive impacts for low income people.


Last but not least, transit pass can help reduce housing costs associated with parking.  If transit passes reduce the need for our residents to own cars, we won’t need to build as many expensive parking places.  The average parking garage space on Capitol Hill costs about $33,000 to build.  If our residents no longer need parking in our existing buildings, through our district shared parking program, we can rent out those unused spaces to generate revenue that helps support building maintenance and operations.

How Does the Affordable Housing Transit Pass Program Work?

With funding from SDOT, Capitol Hill Housing was able to purchase transit passes for residents of three of our income restricted apartment buildings, totaling 122 units.  Residents who wish to participate pay 50% of the monthly cost, which is $10, $16, or $17 depending on the building.  This compares with $117 per month for a standard individual pass or $55 per month for a standard individual low income fare or LIFT pass.  Payment for the card is processed along with rent.  Passes completely cover unlimited trips on all local transit including Metro, Sounder Train and Light Rail.

"Please keep doing this. We love it."

“Please keep doing this. We love it.”

Preliminary Results

  • Over 50% of passes sold.
  • 52% of participants previously had a card for which they paid 100% of the cost
  • The small administrative burden is small (less than 4 staff hours per month)
  • We have received anecdotal reports of over $100 in monthly savings by some participating households

Capitol Hill Housing will conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the program in early 2017.

Expanding the Program

Everyone in Seattle should have affordable access to transit.  An expanded Affordable Housing Transit Pass program would leverage affordable housing providers to connect more low income people to low cost transit options.  We hope that by continuing to work with King County Metro, the Seattle Department of Transportation, other affordable housing providers, our residents, and the community at large we can expand this program to eventually serve all affordable housing properties in the city.

"It's an amazing deal. Thanks for setting this up."

“It’s an amazing deal. Thanks for setting this up.”