DAVE ROSS

Olympia’s fare free bus system is off to a strong start, but is it sustainable?

Jan 31, 2020, 6:09 AM
washington governor, health care, transit...
The Washington State Capitol Building in Olympia. (AP)
(AP)

On January 2, Olympia’s Intercity Transit agency made a radical change — it eliminated bus fare. It’s a move that’s slowly gaining traction nationwide.

KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross spoke to Ann Freeman-Manzanares, the general manager of Intercity Transit, about the reasons behind the change.

“I think it’s surprising to most folks, and it actually was a little surprising to us, how much it costs to collect money,” Freeman-Manzanares said.

Intercity Transit had an outdated fare collection system on the buses that needed an overhaul. The original plan was to switch to the regional ORCA fare collection program, to streamline payment for commuters.

But the costs of installing and running ORCA, combined with an unexpected wait time for the installation thanks to a system revamp, just didn’t add up.

“We actually went through an exercise where every division in the organization did an evaluation of what we would save if fares did not exist,” Freeman-Manzanares said. “And for us, when we subtracted the initial investment with the yearly operating costs of that more sophisticated regional system once it was available … it would cost us more to collect than we would gain, in fares.”

In just the first 17 days of a fare free bus service, Olympia has seen ridership increase by 25,414 people. That’s 13% more than this time last year.

“It’s still relatively new, but we’re not seeing a problem,” Freeman-Manzanares said. “Zero fare doesn’t mean there are zero rules … and people who get on the bus need to have a destination.”

“Really, additional riders means that the service that we put out on the street is more productive, more economical and more environmentally friendly,” she added.

The fare free program will be in effect for the next five years as a pilot program. The transit agency will continue to study how well it’s working. A small sales tax increase and a combination of local and federal grants will fund fare free buses. Freeman-Manzanares hopes the program will start to pay for itself in community impact.

“What if new or expanding businesses consider zero fare transit as an incentive to select a particular community in which to locate?” she said. “The financial benefits of having those jobs here are exponential. Or, what can the colleges and the social service agencies accomplish with the funds that were previously dedicated to purchasing transit passes for their students and clients? Can they keep people in school, can they move people out of poverty … what does that do for the health of the community?”

Listen to the Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5-9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

Dave Ross on KIRO Newsradio 97.3 FM
  • listen to dave rossTune in to KIRO Newsradio weekdays at 5am for Dave Ross on Seattle's Morning News.

Dave's Commentary

Dave Ross

awe...
Dave Ross

Ross: An odyssey of awe, a leaky ceiling and the power of self-confidence

Three weeks ago, Colleen and I interviewed researcher Dacher Keltner on the subject of Awe – which he defines as follows.
1 day ago
ticketmaster...
Dave Ross

Ross: Ticketmaster’s monopoly challenged in congressional hearing

Members of a Senate committee – Republican and Democrat seemed to agree at yesterday’s hearing that Ticketmaster has become a monopoly.
2 days ago
McCarthy house republican spending cuts...
Dave Ross

Ross: Republicans know their spending cuts are unpopular

Have Republicans specified what it is they would cut that's a big enough spending item to make a difference in the debt?
3 days ago
debt...
Dave Ross

Ross: A big, trillion dollar platinum coin can solve the debt crisis

A $1 trillion coin obviously has no practical use – my barista won’t take a fifty – but it would instantly put debt below the current limit.
4 days ago
housing...
Dave Ross

Ross: Finland’s affordable housing strategy could work here too

You can’t make a profit building low-income housing and providing support services to the residents, but one Finland resident found a way.
7 days ago
coffee...
Dave Ross

Ross: The coffee jitters are the least anxious part of my morning brew

Is it environmentally responsible to make your morning coffee with a single-use coffee pod? Dave dives into the data.
8 days ago

Sponsored Articles

safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.
Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.
SHIBA WA...

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
Lake Washington Windows...

Choosing Best Windows for Your Home

Lake Washington Windows and Doors is a local window dealer offering the exclusive Leak Armor installation.
Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Olympia’s fare free bus system is off to a strong start, but is it sustainable?