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Update on the Low-Income Fare Options Advisory Committee
In October 2012, the King County Council voted to establish the Low-Income Fare Options Advisory Committee, a group of diverse stakeholders that was charged with reviewing Metro’s current low-income fare options, and developing recommendations for a new low-income fare program. Those recommendations are due to the council by July 1, 2013.
On Wednesday, June 12th, the committee held their seventh and final meeting (this and prior meeting materials can be found here), where members discussed and revised a draft of their final report. While no further meetings are planned, members will review and sign off on an updated version of the report over email before handing it over.
Below is a rough preview of the committee’s thoughts and recommendations. To learn more, join us at our next Friday Forum, where we'll hear from members of the committee and a representative from Metro.
On funding options:
Given that Metro is facing potentially massive service cuts, it is not an easy time to be asking for new programs. Therefore the committee was careful not to frame their recommendations in such a way that pitted the creation of a low-income fare against service restoration and preservation.
First, the committee stated that as new or increased revenue becomes available, the low-income fare program should be considered as a beneficiary. The committee also recommended that Metro should consider both seeking out new revenues (at one point, the committee debated the merits of instituting a regional employer tax) as well as revising the existing fare box structure. While the financial impacts of a low income fare might be offset by raising some or all existing fares, the committee was quick to point out that any fare increases or redistribution should be backed by a strong policy basis.
During the last meeting, an interesting discussion developed around whether Metro alone should be responsible for funding and implementing a new low-income fare program. Some committee members felt it was the job of the county as a whole to help meet the needs (mobility and otherwise) of low-income residents, and that the county should therefore help fund such a program. Other members countered: “If Metro came back with a proposal to implement this program using only farebox restructuring, would we say no? I don’t think we would.” A specific recommendation for the county and Metro to jointly fund the program was ultimately dropped.
On existing King County reduced fare programs:
Part of the committee’s charge was to review the current fare options available to meet the mobility needs of low-income individuals. While King County Metro does have some reduced fare options, most target seniors, youth, or those with disabilities, rather than riders below a certain income level. (Metro’s existing fare structure is well documented in the Advisory Committee notebook.)
The primary exception is the Human Services Ticket Program, which provides bus tickets to human service agencies at 20 percent of cash value to help low-income and homeless riders get around. Members of the committee agreed that those served by the Human Services Ticket Program would not be served by a low-income fare no matter how low. For this reason, the committee felt strongly that any low-income fare should not replace the human services ticket program.
On the definition of low-income:
The charge of recommending a definition of low-income proved particularly challenging. There was general agreement that the low-income fare should serve the working poor, which typically includes those earning between 100% and 200% of the federal poverty level. However, some committee members felt that by expanding the definition to 200%, the program could be more expensive to sustain, making it less likely to be implemented in the first place. Others argued that by broadening the base of users served, the number of riders who would advocate on behalf of the program would increase.
The report ultimately did not make a firm recommendation one way or the other. The committee did, however, suggest that it would make sense to use eligibility requirements that mirror those at other regional human services organizations. This would also streamline any cooperation with such agencies that provide income verification.
On eligibility verification and administration:
There was a general consensus that eligibility for other human services programs in the area should itself establish eligibility for the low-income fare (despite some variation in income requirements from agency to agency). This would limit the amount of income verification that Metro would have to do.
However, there was a strong argument that eligibility for other services should not be the sole means of qualifying for a low-income fare. Some immigrant and refugee populations may be excluded from these programs, and therefore the ability to qualify based on income was still necessary.
The committee hoped to minimize the administrative and financial burden on Metro of income verification, suggesting that Metro partner with third-party agencies that have established income verification processes, rather than create a new entity solely for the purpose of administering the low-income fare. While the committee did indeed recommend that Metro explore such relationships, some members pointed out that these third-party organizations would still need to be compensated financially, and that even with third-party verification, there will still be plenty of administrative work on Metro’s end.
On potential cost and fare price point:
Both a lack of consensus and a self-proclaimed lack of expertise prevented the committee from recommending an exact low-income fare amount, but the report did include projected revenue and ridership impacts at four different fare levels ($0.75, $1.00, $1.25, and $1.50, see inset) and across the two different definitions of low-income initially discussed.
In the end, committee members agreed that “something is better than nothing,” if it helps get a low-income fare program off the ground. In other words, they recommended that Metro implement a low-income fare at the lowest price that it is sustainable, and that a phased or incremental approach that helps some low-income riders now would be preferable to delaying the program due to lack of full funding.
Stay tuned! After the report is delivered by the committee, the council will schedule a briefing to discuss - likely in July or August. The committee is requesting a formal response to their report by the end of the year.
Although the committee won’t hold any further meetings, there’s still time to voice your support for a low-income fare. (You’ll be in good company - TCC supports a low-income fare, too!) King County is accepting comments online, and the Transit Riders Union is circulating a petition similarly expressing support for a low-income fare. Signatures will be delivered to the King County Council on July 1, 2013.