Results of an income-based fare policy show potential for wider adoption

By Mary Ebeling

Most transit agencies offer some type of discounted fare; typically for seniors or students, and occasionally for low-income customers. In the Seattle region, King County Transit, Sound Transit, and other regional agencies have partnered to launch a first in the nation program that prices fares based on household income. The region’s ORCA LIFT program issues discounted transit passes to applicants with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. ORCA LIFT breaks new ground in several important ways, offering a model for other transit agencies. It is a successful example of regional transit coordination, an important element for the development of truly useful regional transit. It addresses the growing equity concerns surrounding transportation and income inequality. The program also helps the region achieve greenhouse gas reduction goals by improving access to transit.

The ORCA LIFT program now has a year-long track record and is showing potential for adoption elsewhere. Program managers at King County Metro took advantage of databases and contacts developed for the launch of the Affordable Care Act to proactively reach low-income transit riders. Usage data shows the utility of this effort. Passengers used ORCA LIFT to make more than 3.7 million trips during the first year of the program and there are more than 25,000 county residents in the program.

In targeting transportation equity, the program offers a policy to address the problem of low-income workers using a much greater percentage of household income on transportation, often forcing choices between paying for travel for employment or food. ORCA LIFT helps to bridge this affordability gap. Other benefits of the ORCA LIFT card are numerous, including providing transit access at up to a 50 percent discount on:

  • Sound Transit services
  • Metro Transit buses
  • Kitsap Transit buses
  • King County Water Taxi
  • Seattle Streetcar

Recently the program expanded to include Sound Transit ST Express buses and Sounder trains, covering King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties. Metro Transit also started a new program, LIFT Kids for the children of LIFT participants.

One additional benefit being realized by the agencies is unexpected cost savings. The program records a “staggering number” of reduced fare ORCA LIFT cards being used in the Seattle region, but may still save money for agencies. Operating costs are reduced through cashless fare media for low-income people. Time savings through not collecting fares in cash may be so great the program pays for itself.

This program has generated interest in other metropolitan regions, with cities like Boston and Charlotte, NC, watching closely to see the results of the program. “The success of ORCA LIFT shows the rest of the country how transit can be part of the solution to our nation’s growing income inequality,” Executive Constantine said. “By helping more people get to that higher-paying job or college class, we are helping passengers climb the ladder of success.”

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.