Seattle Transit Charges People Based on Income
ORCA Lift program cut fares by more than half
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 1, 2015 2:00 PM CST
A Sound Transit bus rotates a "Seahawks" logo with its route number as it drives past a noontime "Blue Friday" rally for the Seattle Seahawks, Jan. 16, 2015, in Seattle's downtown Westlake Park.   (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

(Newser) – A Somali immigrant outside Seattle took her child to the doctor this week and left with something unexpected: a card that lets her take public transit for more than 50% off. "What’s the trick in it?" asked the 27-year-old mother of two, Basro Jama. "No trick," said the guy processing her card. It's part of a new program in King County, Wash., enabling low-income people to ride ferries, trains, and buses at more affordable rates, the New York Times reports. "I would characterize this as a safety valve," says county transit executive Dow Constantine. In short, he says, officials learned that most county residents are either rich or poor—and if suburban people can't afford to commute into Seattle, where a tech boom has sent costs soaring, the economy will choke.

"It’s people doing really well, and people making espresso for people who are doing really well," says Constantine. Enter the ORCA Lift program, which lets people living on up to double the federal poverty level travel for just $1.50 per ride. It's part of a bigger issue in US public transit, which is hugely government-subsidized but has still cut back services and boosted fares since the recession (King County just raised fares by 25 cents today, the Seattle Times reports). San Francisco and places in Ohio and Pennsylvania have already created low-fare programs for those in need. But why, you ask, did Jama get her card at the doctor? Because organizations and health clinics that enrolled people in ObamaCare were brought in to enroll for ORCA Lift. "What Seattle has done is what others might consider," says an analyst. "Everyone is watching."