Get ready to whip out your ORCA cards, Seattle bus riders: Our free ride is over!

After months of debate, weeks of controversy, and a dramatic half day of last-minute, behind-the-scenes partisan bickering, the Democratic majority on the King County Council finally secured the Republican votes necessary to avert a 17 percent cut in Metro bus service via a temporary, two-year $20 car tab fee. The political price: a series of "efficiency" reforms, most notably the elimination of Seattle's downtown ride free area (RFA) by October of 2012.

"This is all about statesmanship," declared Jane Hague in justifying her swing vote in favor of the fee. Yeah, well, maybe. But in a tough reelection year, it probably doesn't hurt the council member from Bellevue Square to at least make the appearance of screwing over big, bad Seattle by taking away its freebie to bus riders.

But the truth is, it's hard to find many Seattleites willing to lament the loss of the RFA, let alone suggest that it wasn't worth sacrificing in exchange for 600,000 hours a year of Metro bus service. "The city has changed," explains Metro general manager Kevin Desmond. "[The RFA] was put in place for very different reasons at a very different time."

What was then called the "Magic Carpet Zone" was first established in 1973 to support economic development in the central core, and later expanded to include the International District and Belltown. At its inception, the city funded 100 percent of the cost of the RFA. But over the decades, that subsidy failed to keep up with rising costs. Today, when lost fares are adjusted for operational benefits (such as faster boarding times), the RFA costs Metro about $2.2 million a year, of which Seattle covers only $400,000.

That said, the RFA was never much of a free ride. Last year only about 28,000 one-way trips were taken entirely within the RFA, but after accounting for pass holders and transfers, only about a third of those were actually "free," leading even transit activists to acknowledge that the money could be better spent elsewhere. Eliminating the RFA could slightly slow boarding by forcing all passengers to enter through the front, but with two-thirds of riders in the zone already using an ORCA card or a transfer, Metro doesn't expect paying on entry to cause significant delays. But while the RFA may have outlived its original purpose, its loss could still prove devastating to the homeless and other low-income riders who have come to rely on it.

"There's a concentration of services in the ride free area because it's there," explains Real Change editor Amy Roe, pointing out that shelters, clinics, and other social services have specifically located within the RFA because that's the area accessible to clients. As government budgets have shrunk, the poor have already absorbed a disproportionate share of the cuts, laments Roe. "This is the one thing they had left. It wasn't made for that purpose, but that is the purpose it has come to serve."

Council Member Larry Phillips agrees and promises that both the county and city councils will work to mitigate the impact over the coming year. But, Phillips insists, "the RFA as we know it is coming to an end." So catch your free ride while you can.