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Seattle Cuts Public Transportation Fares For Low-Income Commuters

Yesterday, Seattle began offering some commuters lower fares for public transit based on their income. Individuals making less than $23,340 a year and families of four making less than $47,700 annually now qualify for a program called ORCA LIFT, which will give users rates of $1.50 per ride, less than half of usual peak fares. [ORCA stands for "One Regional Card For All."]

In part to pay for the program, King County's Department of Transportation Metro Transit Division will increase fares for other groups, by 25 cents per trip. Those who use the county's paratransit services will see their fares increase by 50 cents per trip.

The Seattle Times is reporting that about 1,000 people signed up for ORCA LIFT last month, though potentially 100,000 low-income commuters could benefit.

In a Facebook post last month, King County Executive Dow Constantine said, "ORCA LIFT is an example of how we're turning King County's commitment to building equity into action ... This program creates opportunities by helping people get to that job interview, to that higher-paying job, or to that college class."

The New York Times says the reduced fare program is meant to counter a challenge many cities are facing as rents grow in urban areas:

"The problem it addresses is that many commuters from places like SeaTac, an outlying suburb, are too poor to live in Seattle, where prices and rents are soaring in a technology-driven boom. If they are pushed out so far that they cannot afford to get to work or give up on doing so, backers of the project said, Seattle's economy could choke."

NPR member station KUOW says some Seattle residents who've seen their fares raised partly to subsidize ORCA LIFT are fine with the higher cost, while others aren't.

"Lou Ann Apostolopoulos takes the bus a lot. She doesn't mind the fare increase that went into effect this weekend. "It's cheaper than driving downtown and finding parking," Apostolopoulos said.

Some people don't even seem to notice the cost of bus fare. Cameron Jamieson works for a tech firm downtown. "My ORCA pass is company provided. So it's no big deal to me," Jamieson said.

But other people find the 25-cent increase more troubling. Brian Bozeman had to come downtown for a physical therapy appointment. "I mean it's hard to make ends meet when everything is increasing," he said. "I've just got to cut out a whole lot of things. I've already cut out entertainment, like movies. Dating. My friend let me piggyback on his Wi-Fi."

San Francisco instituted a program similar to ORCA LIFT a decade ago, called Muni Lifeline. But the BBC reports less than 6% of public transportation card holders in San Francisco actually use the program. CBS News reports Cincinnati also has a reduced fare program for low-income riders called "Everybody Rides Metro," that helps some 35,000 residents of the area every year.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.