News releases

King County Metro and Sound Transit offer new subsidized annual pass for riders in greatest need

On Oct. 15, King County issued this press release about a new program in which Sound Transit is participating.

Publish Date

One of the largest undertakings of its kind in the country, the subsidized annual pass is available to qualified riders living in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties and covers travel on services provided by King County Metro, Sound Transit, and the City of Seattle. The pass will cover travel on:

  • King County Metro's buses, Access paratransit, water taxi, Via to Transit, and Trailhead Direct;
  • Sound Transit's Link light rail, Sound Transit Express buses, and Sounder commuter rail;
  • The City of Seattle's Monorail and Streetcar.

The new program is intended to serve people with no income or very low income who cannot afford the reduced fare on public transportation already available through ORCA LIFT, the Regional Reduced Fare Program, or the ORCA Youth fare. Sound Transit committed to join the program for a two-year pilot period.

"Building off the strong track record of ORCA LIFT and other discounted fare programs, we are proud to announce a new subsidized annual pass to ensure that people with very low or no income are able to ride transit," said King County Executive Dow Constantine.

"Our goal is to connect people to the opportunities that enrich their lives, and support their health and well-being. We expect to learn a lot as we implement this program, and we will be sharing our experiences with other communities committed to tackling inequities."

The subsidized annual pass program was guided by community input as the county sought ways to improve transit affordability. To streamline putting transit passes into the hands of people who need them most, partnerships were forged with human service providers who had established track records with the successful ORCA LIFT program.

Providing transit passes through existing state benefit programs simplifies the eligibility process for those who qualify and better serves more people with the greatest need. Utilizing existing eligibility criteria also integrates transportation service benefits alongside other critical food and housing support.

Cards will become gradually available in the coming weeks and months as people enroll with their navigators and case managers at Catholic Community Services, Public Health – Seattle & King County, and the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.

Participants qualify if they receive services from one or more of the following programs, each of which has income qualifications at or below 80% of the Federal Poverty Level:

  • Aged, Blind, or Disabled Cash Assistance
  • Housing & Essential Needs
  • Pregnant Women Assistance
  • Refugee Cash Assistance
  • Supplemental Security Income, and/or
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families/State Family Assistance

Enrollment is expected to grow gradually as agencies sign up more people and as the enrollment process is refined based on customer and partner feedback. Currently, approximately 107,000 people are enrolled in the prerequisite benefit programs in the three-county area and would be eligible, however the coming months will better signal the demand for the new passes and the expected ongoing pace of enrollments.

Depending on demand, an estimated $30 million of fare value will be provided to riders annually. The program is entering its startup year and administrative costs are estimated to be $3 million for 2021-22. Metro, Sound Transit, and program partners will be monitoring participation, and researchers will assist in evaluating the broader impacts of providing this travel benefit to riders.

The region's transit agencies and policymakers are deeply committed to helping riders travel more easily and pay a fare that fits their needs. The subsidized fare value cannot transfer to other transit agencies, so customers who use other regional transit agency services will need to pay for their ride in full, but at the lowest rate offered by those agencies and for which they qualify.

"Metro is working to improve mobility for customers with low-incomes while continuing to invest in transit service and accessibility. At the root of the issue is income inequality and regional poverty – issues that Metro cannot solve on its own," said King County Metro Interim General Manager Terry White. "Mobility is essential to move people out of poverty, and to improve economic and health outcomes."

"This two-year pilot program is one way Sound Transit is working to create an equitable fare system in which the most vulnerable members of our communities are able to access transit services and the opportunities they provide," said Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff.

Tracking and evaluating progress

From the start of the program through 2021, Metro will continue to expand its understanding of how to reach populations with low incomes and how best to distribute cards to eligible people. Metro will use that data to inform the potential expansion of eligibility criteria as early as 2022.

Rigorous evaluation is integral since findings will inform if investments in transit subsidies at this level have a measurable, positive impact for people with the greatest need. Metro developed the evaluation plan with non-financial support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Evidence for Action (E4A) program. In 2019, Metro successfully applied to E4A's technical assistance matching service and, as a result, researchers from the Lab for Economic Opportunities at Notre Dame, University of California - Irvine, and the Center for Health Care Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania provided valuable input. Metro and external evaluators intend to apply to E4A for funding to complete portions of the evaluation described in this plan.

Annual reports, transmitted to Council in June of each year from 2021-2024, will detail learnings and process adjustments made to date, progress on key measures, and potential program modifications to maximize equity, impact, and effectiveness. An evaluation report also will be available to the Sound Transit Board to aid in decision-making at the end of their pilot.

The subsidized annual pass program and findings from the evaluation deliver on several key county initiatives:

  • Furthers the guiding principle of the "King County Strategic Plan" as it pertains to, "addressing the root causes of inequities to provide for equal access to opportunities for all," by ensuring that the subsidy program is effective in serving its target audience of riders with very low incomes.
  • Helps implement the "King County Equity and Social Justice Strategic Plan" by applying the Equity Impact Review process to identify, evaluate, and communicate the potential impacts of the program on equity. The subsidized annual pass is designed to make investments upstream and where needs are greatest, and to invest in community partnerships and in employees. In addition, with publicly available annual evaluation reports, the program ensures that King County continues to lead accountably and transparently.
  • Supports the objectives in the "Strategic Climate Action Plan" by making it easier for more people to ride transit.
  • Furthers the mobility goal of "Metro's Strategic Plan," specifically in the area of "providing more equitable mobility access and reduce historic gaps," by minimizing the impact of fares on those least able to pay and increasing human potential.

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