King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci serves at the Regional Transit Committee Chair. Photo by Joe Veyera
King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci serves at the Regional Transit Committee Chair. Photo by Joe Veyera

Bus riders in King County could soon pay one flat fee regardless of the time of day they board a Metro bus, or how far they travel, as part of a proposal unveiled Thursday by County Executive Dow Constantine.

As early as July of next year, Metro could do away with its current zone and peak surcharges, setting a $2.75 adult fare throughout the system. Under that plan, approximately two-thirds of riders would see either no change or a 50-cent reduction in the cost of their trip, while the other third — those now riding during off-peak hours — would experience a 25-cent increase. The financial impact of the changes is expected to be minimal.

“This fare change is not about increasing revenues,” Constantine said during a press conference at the International District/Chinatown Station, “it’s about making things simpler and more efficient.”

That efficiency would have wide-reaching impacts across the county, according to Metro Transit General Manager Rob Gannon.

“When just one of those customers has to pause to ask a question about bus fares or fumble with change, those few seconds of delay ripple through our transit system,” said Gannon, who also noted that the system is on pace for record ridership in 2017.  

The proposal released Thursday comes after several months of public engagement and more than 11,000 responses to a pair of surveys. During the second phase of feedback, Metro sought input on both the $2.75 flat rate, and a $2.50 off-peak/$3 peak fare option, with 80 percent of respondents expressing support for one flat fare.

“Achieving simplicity is not simple at all,” said King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci. “It takes a lot of regional coordination.”

Balducci, who chairs the Regional Transit Committee and represents District 6 on the County Council (which encompasses 10 cities on the Eastside), said changes like this one make the system both a more affordable and attractive option.

“As we are now massively expanding transit service throughout King County, it’s important that we continue to find ways to make it easier for people to choose to ride the system that we’re building,” she said.

Shefali Ranganathan, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, framed the looming change as one that would make the system more accessible, saying that, “fare complexity is more than just a nuisance.”

“For people who are not familiar with the transit system, a complex fare system is a real barrier to getting around,” she said.

Ranganathan also noted the punitive nature of the current two-zone peak for those priced out of the city center. Currently, all of Seattle is one zone, while all areas outside the city limits but within King County comprise the second.

“Our affordability crisis has resulted in people having to travel further and further away to get to where they need to go,” she said, “and there should not be a penalty for that.”

That’s something that Tukwila City Councilmember Kathy Hougardy — one of the elected officials on hand in support of the proposed changes — has noticed as well.

“As our cities in south King County continue to grow, and especially as those lower-income people move farther south in search of more affordable housing, these fare changes become more and more important,” she said.

Along with a streamlined single fare for adults, the proposal also calls for raising the Human Services Ticket Program subsidy by $400,000 (to $4 million) for social service agencies to off-set higher costs, and includes plans to work with ORCA partners to eliminate the $3 fee for a regional reduced fare permit while reducing the adult and youth fee from $5 to $3. It also expresses intent to continue working with local schools, colleges, and universities to improve fare programs for students.

The plan now goes to the full King County Council for approval.

To learn more about the fare review process, go to www.kingcounty.gov/depts/transportation/metro/programs-projects/fare-review.aspx. To comment on this story, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.