By Katie Wilson
Starting this month, retirees who rely on public transit are taking a big hit to the pocketbook. On March 1st the senior fare on King County Metro and Link Light Rail went from seventy-five cents to $1.00, an increase of 33%.
You may recall that not so long ago, back in 2010, an unlimited annual bus pass for seniors cost just $100. Then Metro raised the cost of a monthly pass from $9 to $18, and then to $27, while eliminating the annual pass. In 2011, seniors’ yearly transit costs leapt from $100 to $324. As of March 1st, with the new monthly pass price of $36, that number has shot up to $432.
I hope you’re feeling outraged, because this is nothing if not an outrage. So many low-income seniors subsist on fixed incomes and must budget every expense with the utmost care. How many will find themselves stuck at home, their mobility and freedom curtailed? Where does King County get off raising seniors’ transportation costs by nearly 450%, and that during the deepest recession in generations? Don’t our County Councilmembers have parents? Grandparents? Don’t they expect to retire some day? Well, maybe they don’t expect to be poor or to be stuck riding the bus.
We can fight back. Seniors are not alone in facing rising transit costs. Riders with disabilities have seen their fares skyrocket in exactly the same manner. Access Paratransit riders are getting a double-whammy, with fares increasing fifty cents from $1.25 to $1.75. Youth, too: in 2011 the youth fare went from seventy-five cents to $1.25, and on March 1st of this year it rose again to $1.50. Public school students who live less than two miles from school don’t even get a subsidized pass. How many low-income youth will miss school or activities because their cost burdened families can’t afford to get them there and back every day?
If King County needs a good example to follow, there’s one not far away. Coincidentally, also on March 1st, San Francisco made riding the bus free – yep, you read that right: free – for all low- and moderate-income seniors and people with disabilities. San Francisco already has a free bus program for low and moderate-income youth.
Enough is enough. At some point we need to put our collective foot down — and that point is now. That’s why the Transit Riders Union (TRU) is building a mass delegation of transit riders (yes, you can join!) to meet with county councilmembers to reject the fare hikes and lay out concrete steps toward more affordable transit. And we’re not going to let up until we see results.
There is a silver lining for some riders: on March 1st, the low-income fare TRU fought for, with the support of PSARA and many other organizations, finally became a reality. The new ORCA LIFT program allows riders with incomes below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines to ride for a reduced fare of $1.50.
Of course, many of us remember way back in 2008 when the standard fare was $1.25. Since then King County has raised bus fares four times and eliminated the downtown Ride Free Area. So, while the new reduced fare for low-income riders is a welcome step in the right direction, it does not by any means solve our crisis of affordable transit.
Now standard fares are going up yet again. The new offpeak adult fare is $2.50, and the peak fare is $2.75. Many welloff commuters who can afford the increase may think, “Well, OK, I’m happy to pay a little more…” But this is another step in the wrong direction. Metro already has among the highest fares in the nation. Fare hikes cause reductions in ridership. An increase of 10 percent, such as the peak fare increase from $2.50 to $2.75, will cause ridership to fall an estimated 3.5 percent. Climate change is accelerating. Gridlock is already at unacceptable levels. We should be doing everything possible to increase, not decrease, the use of public transit.
Ultimately, all this boils down to a simple idea: Public transit is a public good, not a business. It should be treated as basic infrastructure, and it should be amply and publicly funded. Yes, those who can easily afford to pay should pay for public transit – but this should be done through progressive taxes, not user fees like fares. And most important, the tax base should include not only high-income individuals but also the many multimillion and billion dollar corporations that reside in Seattle and King County, which profit immensely from the transit system and other public amenities.
It’s true that our state’s legislature in Olympia hamstrings county and city governments, severely limiting local funding options. But legislators aren’t quite as helpless as they’d like us to think. For example, King County, the City of Seattle, and Sound Transit’s Multicounty Transportation Benefit District all have the power to levy a modest Employee Hours Tax on business to fund public transit. This would generate more than enough revenue to roll back the fare hikes. We could start making strides in the other direction. But it’s not going to happen as long as the business lobby creates the loudest noise our elected representatives hear. It’s time transit riders put our voices, and our votes, together.
Katie Wilson is a member of PSARA and the General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union. To learn more about the ORCA LIFT program, including enrollment locations, visit www.orcalift.com. To join the Transit Riders Delegation and learn more about the campaign against fare hikes, visit www.transitriders.org or leave a voice message at 206-651-4282.