Most public transit now free to kids across Washington

Sep 1, 2022, 6:38 AM

(Flickr Creative Commons)...

(Flickr Creative Commons)

(Flickr Creative Commons)

Just in time for back to school, free youth transit fares begin across western Washington on Sept. 1. Anyone under 18 years of age can ride most forms of public transit for free.

The legislature made this a priority in the massive $17-billion transportation package, known as Move Ahead Washington. The deal was simple. Public transit agencies won’t be eligible for grant money unless they eliminate youth fares. Lawmakers gave the agencies until October to make this happen.

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Some started this summer, like Kitsap Transit and Community Transit in Everett, but the biggies join the parade today. Sound Transit, Metro, and Pierce Transit are now fare-free for anyone 18 and under.

“Over 600,000 youth in the Sound Transit district would be eligible for free fares,” board member Kristina Walker said earlier this summer.

Light rail, Sounder, and Sound Transit buses used to charge a $1.50 youth fare. That goes away today, and Walker said that will cost the agency a lot of money, since the agency is not eligible for state grants.

“The proposed action is expected to reduce Sound Transit fare revenue by an estimated $148 million through the life of the financial plan,” Walker told the board. That’s through 2046.

King County Metro, on the other hand, stands to gain a lot of money with this move. Its youth fares usually generate about $10 million. It is now eligible for over $37 million in grant money.

Metro general manager Terry White said kids should just flash drivers whatever form of identification they have. “Riders ages 13 and older are encouraged to show either a youth Orca card or a current high school or middle school I-D,” he told the board. “Youth that do not have one of these can still ride for free.”

It will take about a year before a new youth Orca card will be created that kids can carry to show their proof of age.

King County council member Dave Upthegrove called this a win-win at a July meeting. “This will save families money,” he said. “It will get cars off the street. It will build a new generation of transit riders, and it’s good for our climate.”

Buried in that statement is the key component to this entire plan: by making youth fares free, transit supporters hope to create a new generation reliant on public transit. “There is no better way to ensure support and participation in public transportation than to start with our youth,” King County council member Sarah Perry said earlier this year.

By making it free today, King County council member Rod Dembowski believes those children will grow into adults who will vote for and support public transit going forward. “Policies like this build future transit riders,” he said.

The Washington State Ferry system is still working out the details, but it plans to eliminate youth fares on October 1. It’s likely that youth fares will be eliminated for walk-ons and passengers in cars but not 16-18-year-olds who are driving on.

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Most public transit now free to kids across Washington