Free bus tickets are coming to a bus line near you.
Free bus tickets are coming to a bus line near you. Lester Black

King County just took a big step towards the progressive goal of providing free mass transit in Seattle by giving free bus tickets to an estimated 54,000 people in the Seattle area. The program should help get more people onto mass transit in our city, helping fight climate change and providing more mobility for people with low incomes.

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But you need to be extremely poor to qualify for the program.

The King County Council voted this week to give the free transit passes to anyone making 80 percent of the federal poverty level. That means if you make less than $10,208 a year as an individual, or less than $20,960 for a family of four, you’re about to get a free bus ticket. Which is great news! Although even with a free bus ticket it’s still terribly hard to live off only $10,000 in a region where the AVERAGE tech worker makes over $270,000 a year.

Qualified applicants will start getting ORCA cards with the free passes loaded on them as early as July of this year, according to King County Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer. The ORCA cards will give customers access to metro buses as well as the county’s water taxis, the county’s Access program, the Seattle Streetcar, and the Seattle Monorail.

The program doesn’t currently include Sound Transit trains but that could change. A spokesperson for Sound Transit said the Sound Transit Board of Directors will discuss being involved in the program at their March 5 meeting.

The free bus ticket program will initially only be available to people who are already enrolled in one of six other low-income programs provided by the state. Those programs are: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)/State Family Assistance; Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA); Aged, Blind, or Disabled Cash Assistance (ABD); Pregnant Women Assistance (PWA); Supplemental Security Income (SSI); and Housing & Essential Needs (HEN), according to Switzer.

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People enrolled in these programs will be automatically enrolled into the new free bus ticket program. The county will decide during the budget process at the end of this year if they will expand the program to people who are not already enrolled in one of these six programs.

Switzer said around 54,000 people will automatically be enrolled in the free fare program, including 16,000 people who are under the age of 18. He said the new program expands on the ORCA LIFT program, which provides discounted, $1.50 bus fares for people who are at or below 200% of the federal poverty line.

“Since [ORCA LIFT’s] inception, we continue to learn that the fare is still a barrier to the most vulnerable in our community which led to consideration of this fully subsidized fare,” Switzer said in an e-mail.