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Many Top Mayoral Candidates Support Free Transit. Here’s What Corporations Would Save.

Image by Atomic Taco, via Creative Commons

As the leading mayoral candidates establish (and sometimes alter) their positions on major campaign questions, including homelessness, growth, and transportation, a surprising consensus has emerged around an issue that wasn’t even on the table four years ago: Free public transit.

The city has slowly expanded programs subsidizing transit passes for students and low-income residents, providing free or reduced-cost passes to thousands of riders. But elected officials, as well as the leaders of Sound Transit and King County Metro, have balked at making transit free for everyone, arguing that free transit would punch a huge hole in their agencies’ budgets. About a quarter of both agencies’ budgets come from revenue collected at the farebox.

Current city council president Lorena González and former council member Bruce Harrell both said they support free fares, at least in concept, although González has been more enthusiastic in her support. At a forum sponsored by the MASS Coalition last month, González said she “would be committed to making sure that we initiate every effort we can to accomplish the goal of free public transit,” looking to US cities and cities in Europe that have made transit free, such as Talinn, Estonia, as examples.

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Jessyn Farrell, a former state legislator who directed the Transportation Choices Coalition, was more effusive, saying at the same forum that she “absolutely and with a great amount of enthusiasm” supported eliminating transit fares. “Free transit is a core component to getting us to net zero [carbon emissions],” she said. “And it is a core component to racial equity in our system and access and decriminalizing the use of our transit system.”

People who pay full price for public transit would benefit from fare-free transit, obviously. So would large and small businesses, which provide a substantial chunk of transit agencies’ revenue through free or subsidized transit passes for employees, including highly compensated tech workers who could easily afford to pay full fare. This raises potential equity questions, because free transit would shift the cost burden for these workers’ free transit from corporations like Amazon and Microsoft onto taxpayers.

The region’s transit agencies have long argued against making transit completely free, saying that they would have to make up revenue shortfalls by raising taxes or cutting services.

Sound Transit, for example, received about half its fare revenues from employer business accounts—more than $48 million of the $97 million the agency received in farebox revenue in 2019. Sound Transit is currently facing a funding shortfall of about $7 billion through 2041, and is currently in the middle of a “realignment” process that will delay or eliminate elements of the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure voters approved in 2016. “Eliminating fares would affect the affordability gap the realignment process is addressing,” the spokesman, Geoff Patrick, said. “Fare revenue is assumed to be $6.6 [billion] in the Financial Plan (2017-2041).”

Sound Transit, for example, received about half its fare revenues from employer business accounts—more than $48 million of the $97 million the agency received in farebox revenue in 2019.

King County Metro would also forego significant fare revenue if companies no longer subsidized transit passes. According to a spokesman, the agency received about $84 million in 2019 from corporate subsidies—more than half the $165 million it collected in fares. “The remaining $81 million includes $19.5 million ORCA Choice customers (businesses which are not required to pay a subsidy but might) and from individual customers,” the spokesman, Jeff Switzer, said.

When Metro eliminated the downtown Ride-Free Area in 2012, then-general manager Kevin Desmond argued that an additional $2 million in fares would enable the agency to expand service on other routes and would cut down on fare evasion and crime.

Of the other mayoral candidates, Casey Sixkiller, Art Langlie, and Lance Randall have said they do not support free transit for all, and Colleen Echohawk has said she would want to “look at [the idea] carefully” before taking a position.

Andrew Grant Houston elaborated at the MASS forum that he supported free transit more as “a justice issue” than a proposal to increase transit ridership, saying that “what does actually increase the number of people who ride the bus is improving the infrastructure related to getting to a bus or transit stop,” which is why he supports putting a new vehicle license fee on the ballot next year. A $60 license fee that paid for local bus service expired last year.