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Seattle will provide free transit for some low-income residents

The “ORCA Opportunity” plan will be expanded to residents of some low-income housing communities—at least for now

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Back in June, Seattle officially launched the “ORCA Opportunity” program with free bus passes for Seattle public high schoolers and some Seattle Colleges students. This year, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced in her State of the City address Tuesday, the program will be expanded to some of the lowest-income Seattle residents living in Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) properties.

ORCA Opportunity uses existing Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) funds, which come from a voter-approved sales-tax increase and car-tab fee and pay for expanded transit service in and around Seattle. The program directs some of that money toward free, year-round ORCA bus passes, valid on most area public transit agencies. So far, about 14,500 high schoolers and Seattle Promise scholars have participated in the program, according to the mayor’s office.

The expansion will add capacity for 1,500 SHA residents between ages 19 and 64 who make under 30 percent area median income (AMI)—as of 2018, 30 percent AMI is $21,050 a year for a single person or $30,100 for a family of four—that live within the benefit district.

SHA spokesperson Kerry Coughlin told us over the phone that while city funds are limited, the 1,500 figure is about “parallel” to those eligible: “We think that’s about who will fall into these categories.”

“High density SHA sites near transit hubs or along routes with [STBD] investments will be given priority for this pilot expansion of ORCA Opportunity,” said mayor’s office spokesperson Chelsea Kellogg in an email.

King County low-income residents making double the federal poverty level or lower are also served by ORCA Lift. With the Lift discount, adult fare is $1.50. Under ORCA Opportunity, there would be no fare at all for unlimited trips. Durkan’s office estimates that this could save a Lift participant $648 a year—which would be 432 bus fares, a little less than one would pay taking two trips every weekday.

“The residents who will participate in this pilot are extremely low income, and most cannot afford a car or even the cost of public transportation,” said Seattle Housing Authority Executive Director Andrew Lofton in a statement. He called the program a “lifeline.”

The expansion will start as a 12-month pilot program, then be re-evaluated for an extension by SHA, King County Metro, and the Seattle Department of Transportation.

Coughlin said that “it’ll take a little while to get this up and running,” but the mayor’s announcement means that SHA can get the ball rolling with program administration, which could take a “couple of months.” SHA could start distributing cards early this summer, said Coughlin.

This article has been updated with comments from the mayor’s office.

The original version of this article said “30 percent AMI is $2,050 a year for a single person”—this was a typo. The actual figure is $21,050.