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Mayor announces free transit passes for public high school students

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The plan would give year-round transit access to high schoolers—and some college students

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At Mayor Jenny Durkan’s first State of the City address on Tuesday, she announced some big news for area high school students and their families: “ORCA Opportunity,” a plan that would provide free bus pases to Seattle Public Schools high school students and Seattle Promise scholars at Seattle Colleges.

Under the plan, around 15,000 students would get year-round ORCA bus passes for free, valid on most area public transit agencies: King County Metro, King County Water Taxi, Seattle Streetcar, Sound Transit, Community Transit, Pierce Transit, Kitsap Transit, and Everett Transit.

During the program’s first year, it would be funded jointly by King County Metro and the Seattle Department of Transportation. The Seattle Times reports that the program would cost the city $3.8 million from the Transportation Benefit District, with $1 million from King County Metro.

Seattle has been slowly building up transit accessibility for young people. After extensive lobbying from students at Rainier Beach High School, Seattle implemented a program for low-income students to get free bus passes. A pilot program over this past summer slashed youth bus fare on King County Metro buses to 50 cents (or $1 for Sound Transit). At the time, City Councilor Rob Johnson told us that he was working toward a loftier goal: free transit for everyone under the age of 19.

While this program isn’t quite as sweeping as Johnson’s idea, or plans floated by other mayoral candidates like Cary Moon and Nikkita Oliver during the mayoral race—this applies to public school students, not all youths—it’s still among the most generous in the nation, reports the Seattle Times. Other cities that implement similar programs will often restrict them to households of certain incomes, or limit them to during the school year.

Seattle already has a number of free bus pass programs in place for low-income students—about 2,700 of them year-round—or students that live a certain distance away from their school.

The city’s own programs show that easier access to transit increases student ridership. After that summertime pilot, youth ridership on King County Metro rose 35 percent over the previous summer, with 376,000 boardings, and 42 percent on Link light rail.

A study from Rutgers and Columbia—and another from University of Cardiff—show that transit-riding habits that are established early in life can last a lifetime, meaning that programs like this can boost transit ridership in the long-term, not just among youth.

“As a city, we are committed to combating climate change, increasing economic opportunity, and decreasing housing costs,” said Johnson in a statement. “The best way to achieve all three of those goals is to increase access to frequent, reliable and affordable public transportation; expanding affordable transit access for students is something I feel very passionate about. I am thrilled to see this program take root and grow after the highly successful pilot I helped implement last summer and that we continue our work to make a positive impact on Seattle’s students.”

“We’re doing this so students can worry more about their grades and less about how they get places—so that working moms and dads can save a little money each month and know their children are safe,” said Durkan in her State of the City address. “I look forward to working with the City Council to make this a reality for our students for years to come.”

A spokesperson for the Mayor’s office told Curbed Seattle that the plan is to implement the program this fall for the 2018-2019 school year.