Is It Time for Free Transit?

Image of Metro’s Route 99, a free waterfront bus that ran until 2018, by Atomic Taco

By Katie Wilson

Last week, PubliCola reported a “surprising consensus” among Seattle mayoral candidates on the subject of free public transit. Jessyn Farrell, Lorena González and Andrew Grant Houston have all displayed enthusiasm for pursuing this vision, while Colleen Echohawk and Bruce Harrell have expressed more cautious interest.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when local transit agencies stopped charging fare and implemented back-door boarding, transit riders who kept on riding got a taste of what a fare-free system might be like. No more fumbling for change, no tapping a card, just hop on the bus or the train. But even before the pandemic, free transit was having a moment.

On January 1, 2020, Intercity Transit, which serves Olympia and the rest of Thurston County, went fare-free. In the first month, ridership jumped up 20 percent. Bobby Karleton, a community organizer and daily bus rider in Olympia, noticed the change: “More people of color, elderly and disabled people and families with small children appear to be using the system,” he said. “For IT’s most impoverished riders—many who are homeless—free service means saving $1.25 every bus ride. That may not sound much, but it adds up.”

But even before the pandemic, free transit was having a moment.

Olympia wasn’t alone. In December 2019, Kansas City, Missouri became the first major U.S. city to dispense with fares. A few months earlier, Lawrence, Massachusetts began a two-year pilot. It was starting to look like a trend, but it wasn’t entirely new—in fact, the Pacific Northwest has long been something of a quiet national leader on free transit. A number of smaller cities and rural areas in Washington, Oregon and Idaho have operated fare-free systems for decades. Visiting Whidbey Island? Put away that wallet. Traveling around Mason County? Welcome aboard.

For Seattle, a city accustomed to being on the leading edge of progressive policy, this is all a little embarrassing. How could we let other parts of our own state—including some that vote Republican!—get so far out ahead? Why are many of us still paying $2.75 to stand, crammed in like sardines, on buses crawling down car-choked streets? Why do we submit to the indignity of fare inspections, with steep fines that punish poverty and disproportionately harm Black riders? In a global climate crisis, why are we still erecting barriers to choosing sustainable transportation? In short, when is fare-free transit coming to Seattle and King County?

Sadly, it’s not quite that simple — but it’s not an impossible dream, either. Let’s take a look.

The transit agencies that have recently hopped on the fare-free bandwagon all have one thing in common: They’re smaller systems, and their revenue from fares is small both absolutely and as a portion of their total budget. Kansas City had to scrape together a modest $9 million per year. In the case of Intercity Transit, fares covered less than 2 percent of operating costs, and the agency was facing an expensive upgrade to the ORCA card system. For some rural systems the calculus is even more extreme: The ancillary costs of collecting fares exceed the fare revenue itself. In both cities, fare-free just makes sense.

The notion that fare-free transit somehow pencils out without a massive infusion of new tax revenue is a pipe dream.

By contrast, in a large, dense urban system like ours, fares bring in real money. Pre-pandemic, farebox revenue covered about a quarter of the operating costs for King County Metro’s bus system. Metro’s annual haul from fares was somewhere in the neighborhood of $175 million. Sound Transit, which operates Link light rail, regional Express buses and the Sounder line, brought in another $100 million. While it’s true that collecting and enforcing fares also costs money—a 2018 audit found that Metro spent $1.7 million per year on fare enforcement, for example—the amounts simply aren’t comparable. The notion that fare-free transit somehow pencils out without a massive infusion of new tax revenue is a pipe dream.

That’s not the only challenge for fare-free transit. While it’s undeniable that the cost of fares is a hardship for many and a disincentive for many more, the bigger problem for most people—including those with low incomes—is the service itself. Public transit doesn’t come frequently enough or get people where they need to go fast enough. Buses and trains are overcrowded and don’t run at all times of the day and night. So even if the transit agencies found a quarter billion dollars on the doorstep every year, eliminating fares might not be the highest and best use of those funds—especially since people would respond to this change by riding still more, further increasing the demand for service.

Recognizing these realities, over the past decade community organizers, advocates and transit riders have taken a needs-based approach to fare-free transit. Through pressure and work with elected officials and agency staff, they’ve won and expanded a suite of reduced- or no-cost transit programs serving specific populations: the Human Services Ticket program, ORCA LIFT reduced fare program, Seattle Youth ORCA program, and, as of last fall, a no-cost annual transit pass program for people below 80 percent of the federal poverty level. I have been involved in all these efforts through my work with the Transit Riders Union.

Now might seem like a strange time to start thinking bigger, what with transit agency budgets reeling from pandemic revenue shortfalls and Sound Transit contemplating delays or cuts to long-promised projects.

But this is also an important moment, as transit agencies across the region are preparing to make the move to the “Next Generation” of the ORCA fare collection system — a transition whose capital costs are expected to top $85 million. Wouldn’t it be great if we could move in the opposite direction instead? I see a sliver of hope. Hear me out.

A tax could be weighted towards those employers that can better afford to pay, and it would bring the laggards—employers that can afford transit benefits but aren’t providing them—into line.

As Erica Barnett noted in her piece, those hundreds of millions of dollars in farebox revenue aren’t all from the pockets of individual riders. More than half comes from transit pass accounts associated with employers. Those fares are paid by the employers, sometimes including a contribution from their employees. In 2019, for example, Microsoft bought unlimited ORCA passes for some 57,000 people. Before the COVID-19 pandemic derailed our plans, the Transit Riders Union was leading a campaign called ORCA for All, aiming to require that more Seattle employers subsidize transit for their workers.

Contemplating the leap to a fare-free system, it would be a shame to replace this revenue—paid for by big business!—with a regressive tax like the sales tax, now the primary local funding stream for transit. But replacing it with some kind of employer tax, based on number of employees or payroll (as David Gordon proposed in The Urbanist in 2019), makes a heck of a lot of sense. It’s kind of a lateral move.

Of course, we’d be asking employers to pick up the tab for transit riders at large, not just their own workers. But the shift from a benefit model to a taxation model could yield great returns in efficiency and equity. A tax could be weighted towards those employers that can better afford to pay, and it would bring the laggards—employers that can afford transit benefits but aren’t providing them—into line. There’d be substantial savings in administrative costs, especially for the transit agencies and nonprofits that currently spend millions running the above-mentioned reduced and no-cost transit programs.

Let’s do some simple math: Together, Metro and Sound Transit brought in roughly $275 million annually in fares pre-pandemic. Spread over King County’s 1.43 million jobs, that’s an average tax of $192 per employee per year—far, far less than most employers who provide this benefit pay now—to make transit free for everyone. What a screaming deal.

Governor Jay Inslee may have lost his bid to be the first climate president (remember that?), but how about making Washington the first fare-free state in the nation?

With the passage of “JumpStart Seattle,” a tax on high salaries paid by large employers, last summer, Seattle now has a precedent for precisely this type of tax, albeit directed to COVID relief, affordable housing and Green New Deal programs. King County is a tougher nut to crack.

King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, who believes that “fare free transit would be a powerful change in our region,” explains: “We have a broken tax code. King County specifically is authorized to raise revenues primarily through regressive taxes such as sales tax and property tax. In my view, a move toward fare-free transit would need to be funded through a sufficiently progressive taxing source, a source King County does not currently have the authority to pursue” without new permission from the state.

State Sen. Joe Nguyen, who is challenging King County Executive Dow Constantine, has said he would seek authority from the state to tax big business as a means to fund countywide free transit.

If King County or Seattle did succeed in implementing an employer tax for fare-free transit, they could simply give every resident an unlimited ORCA pass. But the greatest freedom and the greatest efficiencies would arise from ditching cards altogether: riders could board faster, speeding up buses, and all the costs of the ORCA system would evaporate. Our region’s patchwork of overlapping and integrated transit agencies makes this challenging. With the agencies’ cooperation, it’s possible that a city-wide or county-wide Ride Free Area could be created, kind of like the one downtown Seattle enjoyed until 2012—though some tricky problems of revenue sharing would arise. It’s hard to imagine our whole regional transit system getting to fare-free without firm direction and coordination from the state level, which is itself a hard thing to imagine.

And yet, if some of our region’s largest corporations and key elected officials really wanted to make this happen, they could. Governor Jay Inslee may have lost his bid to be the first climate president (remember that?), but how about making Washington the first fare-free state in the nation? Two years ago the entire country of Estonia went (nearly) fare-free, but you could fit four Estonias inside our Evergreen State. We could have the largest fare-free public transit zone anywhere in the world.

Even without state-level cooperation, Seattle’s next mayor will have a range of options for advancing the cause of free public transit. The city can expand on free pass programs that serve specific populations, like low-income riders and students. It can require employers to pay for transit passes for their workers, especially lower-wage workers who are now much less likely to receive an employer-subsidized pass. And it can raise progressive taxes like JumpStart to fund a more ambitious, even universal, fare-free system. The Transit Riders Union has long believed that free, fast, reliable and accessible public transit is the future, and we’re ready for a mayor who will make it happen.

Katie Wilson is the General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union, a Seattle-based organization advocating for improved public transit and other progressive urban issues. 

11 thoughts on “Is It Time for Free Transit?”

  1. Concerns for costs aside, if the busses are free, homeless people must also be given a safe place to sleep, or else these free busses will become mobile homeless encampments. That will deterr a lot of people from wanting to take the bus and even complain about it being free. We will still need some sort of enforcement of bus rules because who likes to hear other people’s music, watch fights, get robbed, thrown up on by drunks, etc.

  2. Still wondering how the cost of collection and enforcement compares to what gets collected…if we are spending anything close to the same amount on uniformed enforcers and anything more than a counter, we may be better off making transit free. We spend a lot of money making public assets private, sometimes more than we get back on what we charge for access to them.

    1. ” Metro’s annual haul from fares was somewhere in the neighborhood of $175 million. … a 2018 audit found that Metro spent $1.7 million per year on fare enforcement.”

      One percent.

  3. Free fare is a tempting idea but I would argue the priority is better and more comprehensive service, including especially getting Link built out much much faster and more comprehensively. Of course the other piece to transit is increasingly density. Really difficult, maybe impossible, to have a great transit system without density.

  4. Here is your summary of this article:

    Tapping your card to get on the bus is like real work and very unfair to lazy people who prefer free stuff. Free stuff works much better for those who lack basic planning skills. When businesses pay then all rides are free stuff and there is no cost to anyone. When all rides are free stuff, then the homeless can stink up the entire bus while they tour the City in circles all day for free. It is unfair to Black people if they are not allowed to rip off the transit system and get the free stuff which is owed to them. Transit is already so close to being free that it should just be free stuff already. Everyone should vote for whichever politician promises the most free stuff. The future will be so bright when everything is free stuff. Steve Willie.

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