Metro Transit: poor people stuck with the tab again?

In with Metro's new $20 vehicle license renewal fee, out with Seattle's old ride free area downtown.

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In with Metro's new $20 vehicle license renewal fee, out with Seattle's old ride free area downtown.

When a supermajority of the King County Council approved a special $20 car tab fee for two years, the 7-to-2 vote forestalled draconian cuts to Metro bus service in the region as a whole but also ordered the phaseout of the popular Ride Free Area (RFA) downtown. Some social service groups, not to mention individual downtown users of the service, see that as a serious blow.

The debates about how to implement the change and, to some degree, ease the impact began almost immediately. Indeed, an amendment to the legislation, called the "transit incentive program," seems to anticipate the scramble for alternatives. It will provide eight free bus tickets for each paid car tab renewal to encourage drivers to try public transit, but car owners may donate their tickets to human service agencies for impoverished clients to use. A second amendment proposes a choice between two options: increasing the number of discounted bus tickets currently sold to service agencies at 20 cents on the dollar for distribution to clients as needed, or deepening the ticket discounts.

Beyond those amendments, however, there is a search for ideas, many of them only vaguely sketched out so far, that could help fill much more of the gap that will occur as the council's car-tab hike goes into effect next year. History helps illuminate why the County Council's decision is provoking considerable thought among some local leaders.

When Metro’s “Magic Carpet” free bus ride zone was introduced in September 1973, it was bounded on the north and south by Stewart and Jackson and on the east and west by Sixth Avenue and the waterfront. Its purpose was to encourage shoppers from outside the city as well as office workers on their lunch hour to patronize a variety of stores in the downtown core, where commerce was declining so badly that newspaper editorials of the times worried that the downtown was dying. The special zone was also intended to relieve traffic congestion caused by buses idling at stops while collecting fares from passengers.

The Magic Carpet was a big hit, an innovation that made headlines in newspapers overseas, says a chapter in the online library of county history. Today the ride-free area (RFA) extends from Jackson to Battery in Belltown, and the east-west corridor between the waterfront and Sixth stretches briefly to Convention Place Center at Ninth on Pine.

But the steep rise in American poverty and homelessness that began in the 1980s has made more people in the city depend on the free zone as their only affordable way of getting around downtown. “For a lot of people who don’t have money,” said Joe Martin, a social worker in the downtown community since 1977 and a cofounder of both Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) and the Pike Market Medical Clinic, “paying a couple of bucks for a ride has a severe impact on what little they have in their pocketbook.”

And homelessness is systemic as well as epidemic now. Martin noted that in Michael Harrington's classic 1962 study of U.S. poverty, The Other America, "not on one of those 250 pages does he use the word homeless. There were slums, rural poverty, the Bowery, but homelessness? Not. That was something that happened in the Third World." Faced with the human misery arising from this historic change, many citizens rich and poor came to view the ride-free program as part of Seattle's social safety net.  

However, the expense of a ride-free zone has grown since the $64,000 it cost in 1973. It now costs Metro about $2.8 million annually in lost fares. Only $400,000 of the total is borne by the city of Seattle.

Two groups will sharply feel the impact of an RFA shutdown, said M.J. Kiser, Compass Housing Alliance program director: “homeless people, and low-income people living downtown. The latter, especially, don’t have much access to discounted bus tickets provided by service agencies.”

For both groups, she said, the RFA was a huge help to those who had multiple appointments around town on the same day — traveling perhaps from a meal program or food bank to a medical clinic, and then (for a homeless person) to a shelter for the night. Or perhaps someone had to spend an hour or more in a waiting room or long queue while the bus transfer for their trip back home lapsed. Soon people in both groups will start needing not just a ticket but two tickets in order to get around.

In an email Committee to End Homelessness project director Bill Block noted the distance between essential human services around Pioneer Square and those farther north and east: the Belltown DSHS community services office and the Family and Adult Service Center near Lenora, for instance, and the Urban Rest Stop hygiene center on Ninth near Virginia. Al Poole, homelessness division director for Seattle human services, expressed concern about lessened mobility for frail seniors and disabled individuals who are also poor.

For DESC clients, executive director Bill Hobson described ending the RFA as “inconvenient, but not catastrophic. Officially, the agency is not protesting this.” Many services are located near the DESC shelter, including free meal programs and medical care. But for the good of the city as a whole Hobson, like Block and Poole, hopes that dollars saved from the RFA phase-out will be used to phase in free city shuttles and expanded fare subsidies. Details haven't been worked out on how those could work or how much money would be needed, for instance, for a shuttle to be effective.

Other potential problems have surfaced since eliminating the RFA was announced. Simulation studies cited in an internal Metro report first discussed on Seattle Transit Blog indicate that without the RFA, delays in the tunnel while fares are collected would require significant reductions in the number of buses routed through it. Could the agreement to cut free rides, which made the Congestion Reduction Charge acceptable to a council supermajority, end up actually thickening congestion?

At a Crosscut editors meeting last Tuesday (Aug. 23), Seattle city council member Tom Rasmussen, who chairs the council’s transportation committee, said that to prevent potential tunnel congestion “perhaps we would keep the tunnel free” for riders. (But if fares aren't collected from people boarding in the tunnel, a major problem that eliminating the RFA was supposed to solve would remain: the loss of fare income from passengers embarking in the free zone, then refusing to pay when disembarking outside the zone.)

Rasmussen called the ride-free zone “a remnant of the past. It has served us in some ways fairly well, but its purpose in the 1970s was to help save a dying downtown.” Now, he says, it’s hard for the county to justify a system that costs so much annually. He added that “King County cities such as Auburn have asked, ‘Why give Seattle free bus service, when we could use it, too?’”

He would like the city to retain the annual $400,000 saved for transit-related purposes “like free bus passes and vouchers for people in need. This would let us keep some of the benefits of the RFA.” He also wants to see a free city shuttle start circulating in the commercial core.

A free circulator shuttle downtown run by the city between Belltown and Pioneer Square (perhaps designated for disabled riders), plus an expanded supply of discounted tickets for service agencies, plus free vouchers given out by the city and free tickets donated by car tab renewers — these in combination (if affordable) might take up the slack. The combination could also actually increase mobility for people with limited or no incomes, by enabling more of them to ride beyond the downtown core. They might see this as an improvement over free trips in one tightly restricted area. A task force will explore possibilities.

Meanwhile, by voting for a two-year car tab increase, the county council forestalled deep cuts to Metro service. At public hearings hundreds of county residents had told the council that cutting routes and timetables would seriously hurt them. Working families and seniors scraping by on fixed incomes, they said, would have suffered the most.


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