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Free transit for public high school students heads to City Council

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

Singh Lens/Shutterstock

Back in February, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced “ORCA Opportunity,” a plan that would provide free bus passes to Seattle Public Schools high school students and Seattle Promise scholars at Seattle Colleges. Wednesday, Durkan passed the plan along to the Seattle City Council for consideration.

Under the current draft of the legislation, existing Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) funds, which come from a voter-approved sales-tax increase and car-tab fee, could go toward free, year-round ORCA bus passes, valid on most area public transit agencies.

The proposal also includes more service hours on Rapidride lines—and expand funding to routes with 65 percent of stops in Seattle as opposed to the current 80 percent—plus some to-be-determined pilot programs and street improvements.

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 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 and for students that live a certain distance away from their school.

The city’s own data shows 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.

“As we saw last year through the summer ORCA youth fares, when we provide reduced costs, our increase in ridership reflects success,” said Johnson in a statement. “I’m thrilled to work with Mayor Durkan on this issue that has been an important one to me for a long time.”

That boost in ridership among young people can pay off longer-term, too. 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 well into adulthood.

The Seattle City Council’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee will hold a hearing on the ORCA Opportunity Program on Wednesday, May 30 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.