Seattle's free-ride zone is ending; 'funeral' is set for Friday

Sep 24, 2012

A cultural shift is taking place in Seattle. It’s the elimination of a free-ride zone downtown, for bus riders.

It’s been in place for four decades. And on Friday (Sept. 28) it will go away. 

Kevin Desmond is the head of King County Metro. He says the deficit the system is facing is about $6o million, annually.

"To be perfectly honest, we’re trying to save the service for all the people who use it," Desmond says. "So, the ride-fee area had its place for 40 years. We are the only city in the United States now that has such a ride-free area. Cities throughout the world, you pay fare to use transit. ”

He says even Portland, Ore., recently phased out theirs for buses and the Max light-rail line.

But advocates for transit riders say many social services are located near the free ride zone. A new group called the Transit Riders Union has started meeting on Monday nights at Seattle’s labor temple.

They're advocating for a revival of the free ride zone and they’ll lead what they're calling a “funeral march” on Friday afternoon, along with longer-standing homeless groups such as share/wheel.

Katie Wilson is an organizer with the new group that is trying to raise awareness for people like her and others who are worse off. She says she’s 30-years-old, doing odd jobs to make ends meet. She manages her apartment complex in lieu of paying rent. And she still says at times she has to rely on government support to buy food. 

“I don’t have a car. I can’t afford a car," Wilson says. "I’m luckily able-bodied, so I can bike and walk most of the places I need to go, but, when I need to use the bus, I need to use the bus.”

She says that’s getting really expensive. She’s seen fares go up dramatically.

"When I moved to Seattle in 2004, it cost $1.25 and now it’s you know $2.25 or $2.50. And I mean, for me, I have a really low income and I can’t afford to drop $2.25 or $2.50 every time I need to go somewhere.”

But King County can’t afford to keep the free ride zone in place, says Councilmember Larry Phillips. He says the problem is not limited to people in Seattle, which has footed the bill for subsidizing the free ride system.

Philips says it’s about fairness in the county.

“And that’s part of the process that we’re under right now to see how we can help those most in need – the destitute or near destitute, across King County, to be able to use our public transportation system at a reduced cost in the future, but not just downtown,” Phillips says.

The county says Metro is facing a $60 million deficit, just to maintain the service it has. They’ve streamlined many routes to save money and eliminating Seattle’s ride-free zone is part of that picture.

But  they say, they’re still doing better than neighboring counties, such as Snohomish, where there is no bus service at all on Sundays or Pierce County, which is facing the possibility of similarly harsh cuts.

The funeral march for Seattle’s free ride zone takes place on Friday afternoon, it starts at 3:00 at Westlake Plaza, followed by a procession to the county courthouse.