Seattle It’s Time to Make the ORCA Passport Program Work...

It’s Time to Make the ORCA Passport Program Work for All

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By Joel Sisolak, Senior Director of Sustainability and Planning, Capitol Hill Housing

If you have an ORCA card, there’s a good chance you got it through your employer or your apartment building. The largest group of ORCA users get their pass that way, taking advantage of one of two “Passport” programs (ORCA Business Passport Programfor employers and the Multifamily ORCA Passportfor apartment-dwellers).

Either way, you are a beneficiary of the most effective transit pass program in the system. In 2017, King County brought in $76 million in revenue from the ORCA Passport programs for approximately 35 million boardings.

The ORCA Passport Program is both effective in getting people on transit and popular, but unfortunately, it doesn’t serve most low-income people. In 2016, Capitol Hill Housing (CHH), a city-wide affordable housing developer and community development organization, surveyed people living in apartments along Pike Street. We found that in market rate buildings, 68 percent had an ORCA pass subsidized by their employer. In contrast, only 22 percent of the residents in affordable housing buildings had Passports.

Far fewer affordable housing residents are offered an ORCA Passport by employers. These residents must resort to more expensive individual passes or walking long distances to work, school or appointments.

To address this disparity, in 2016-17 CHH piloted an expansion of the ORCA Passport programin affordable housing. The project, funded by Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and Enterprise Community Partners, enabled  57 households in three CHH buildings making below 60 percent of the area median income (roughly $60,000 for a family of four) to purchase ORCA Passports at under $20/month, the same amount or slightly more than what many local employees pay for their Passports through work or their apartment building.

The pilot tested three things:

  • Would affordable housing residents making $20,000-40,000/year pay $10-20/month for an ORCA Passport?
  • How much they use the Passport once purchased?
  • Would the program be easy for an affordable housing provider to administer?

The results of pilot were illuminating. More than half of our residents participated in the program and they used it A LOT, an average of 43 trips per month, 80 percent above what KC Metro models anticipated. And the program was easy to administer. Each month, we collected the rider share of the cost via the same mechanism by which we collect monthly rent.

Our residents loved the Affordable ORCA Passport Pilot. It made it easier for them to connect to jobs, healthcare, and opportunities in our city. Here’s a sample of quotes from participants:

“Makes my family feel normal and connected to public transportation, allowing my family to have extra funds to apply to other household cost(s).”

“Please keep it funded and going! I decided not to keep my car and just use this $10 pass and walk. Loving it and saves me money.”

Unfortunately, the pilot ended in 2017. CHH is pressing for an expansion to affordable housing residents across King County. Other housing organizations, including Seattle Housing Authority, King County Housing Authority and the Housing Development Consortium, support an expansion. King County Council has also received letters from Forterra, Futurewise, the Transit Riders Union, the Mayor of Tukwila and the North Urban Human Services Alliance Board, among others.

Advocacy is working. Last month, King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski introduced a motion co-sponsored by Councilmembers McDermott and Kohl-Welles. It instructs Metro to address transit access and affordability for affordable housing residents, as well as youth and community college students. The projected costs of these strategies will inform the Council’s Fall budget deliberations and could lead to a major expansion of transit access to low-income households.

So far, response from King County Metro has been mixed. Metro points to success of ORCA LIFT for reaching low-income riders, but they also recognize that the ORCA Passport is a better product for riders (it is cheaper, does not require regular income qualification hurdles, and does not expire) and is better for reaching groups of people connected to an institution that can handle bulk purchasing and billing.

Motion 2018-0255 is open ended. One big question is how an expanded Affordable ORCA Passport program would be funded. Based on our estimates, the cost should not be prohibitive. The subsidy cost to serve three CHH buildings for a year was under $35,000. We suggest the County create a $1M pool of funds to launch a robust Affordable ORCA Passport program County-wide and target households making 60% of the area median income and lower-income buildings near transit.

There is still a lot left to figure out, which is why Metro’s work under the motion is so important. It directs them to price options for Council consideration in the Fall budget cycle, allowing for a more nuanced discussion of how we can better connect low-income residents to public transit.

An expansion won’t be simple, but folks are willing to roll up their sleeves to figure it out. Mayor Allan Ekberg of Tukwila writes: “The City welcomes the opportunity to participate in conversations about this expansion and how Tukwila might both contribute to its success and benefit our constituents.”

This is a pressing issue that affects all parts of King County, not just Seattle. In a letter to Councilmember Dembowski, the North Urban Human Services Alliance Board, which includes the Cities of Shoreline and Lake Forest Park, laid out a case that could be made for cities throughout our County and underscores why this should be a high priority for Council and Metro going forward:

“As you well know, North King County is growing rapidly. All of the NKC cities are investing in transit infrastructure.  And all of these cities and the County are spending millions of dollars to build affordable housing near transit  hubs. We want to be sure that the folks who live in those buildings can afford to ride transit to school, jobs and other services.  Fixing the ORCA Passport is a logical step towards meeting this goal.”

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