Zero Fare Just Get on and Go!

As part of Intercity Transit's commitment to the community after the November 2018 passage of Intercity Transit Proposition 1, the Intercity Transit Authority (Authority) has been exploring ways to make collecting fares easier and faster, to reduce delays and simplify access for more riders. This was one of the community-identified priorities that resulted from our two-year public engagement process, IT Road Trip.

On December 4, 2019, the Authority approved moving forward with implementation of a five-year demonstration “zero-fare” project. The project will go into effect on January 1, 2020. This will mean that bus and Dial-A-Lift passengers will not pay fares to use the services during the demonstration.

Additional information about zero-fare service and how the Intercity Transit Authority reached this decision is provided below.

 

Zero-fare transit systems collect no fares from passengers. Some agencies refer to this as “fare-free.” In this case, however, fares would be “pre-paid” through sales tax revenue.

Intercity Transit made a commitment to the community after the passage of Proposition 1 to fulfill nine community-defined priorities, including making fare collection more efficient and integrated with peer transit systems. After careful review of a number of different options, the Authority determined that zero-fare offers the most economical, effective and fastest way to deliver the transformational service voters wanted.

Zero-fare transit systems report many benefits. Going zero-fare increases ridership which in-turn improves the environment and reduces congestion. It enhances access and equity making communities more livable. Eliminating the fare reduces barriers both for those individuals that can afford to pay as well as those that cannot. And zero fare makes boarding easier and faster which reduces travel times for all.

 

Yes, many other options were considered including magnetic swipe cards, contactlesss RFID cards, mobile flash passes and other new technologies. Many existing and potential new riders asked us to integrate with the ORCA card which is used by transit systems in Pierce, King, Snohomish, and Kitsap Counties.  Regional integration eliminates the need for travelers to utilize multiple fare collection systems. A zero-fare system would achieve the same objectives as multi-system integration at a much lower cost for Intercity Transit.  We also discovered the ORCA card is in the process of being replaced.  The newer version, ORCA II, won’t be available to us for approximately two to four years. So at this time, there is no regional fare collection system to which we could migrate.  In addition, it was found that investing in the capital and the operating expenses of a new fare collection system would cost us more than we were going to collect in fares. That’s not a good value proposition.

With the passage of Proposition 1, Intercity Transit is purchasing new buses to replace buses that have been used beyond their expected service lives. Because of this, we need to decide now whether to have these buses built with or without fare boxes. In addition, the fare boxes we currently use are obsolete. Not replacing that old technology allows us to avoid those expenses and invest those resources in service enhancements.

Fares account for less than 2 percent of our net revenue. After considering the capital and operational costs of a new system, the difference is negligible. The opportunity to offer faster service, increase ridership, improved access and equity is a far better investment. 

No. Intercity Transit is expanding service per the mandate voters approved last year. In fact, after accounting for the costs associated with fare collection, fares amount to less than 1.5 percent of total annual operating revenue. That amount is not enough to impact service.

Peer systems report very few problems or challenges related to zero-fare programs. Nonetheless, we are working to address several issues noted by peer agencies as follows:

  • Perception: Some people resent “subsidizing transit” when they don’t use it. However, everyone benefits from reduced congestion, fewer carbon emissions and knowing that friends and relatives can access employment and medical appointments regardless of income.
  • Safety: Some worry that “if anyone can ride,” transit will become less safe. Intercity Transit already has strong rider code of conduct. Our Operators and Operations Supervisors are well trained to address issues if they arise.
  • Overcrowding: Some peer systems experience overcrowding immediately following the introduction of zero-fare. Intercity Transit has already added capacity, so we don’t think this will be an issue. In addition, new buses and more frequent service are planned and being added to major routes.

We expect the pilot project to last five years. This will provide enough time to promote our service and measure the impacts of moving to zero-fare. However, the Authority may decide to end zero-fare if needed. Alternatively, if zero-fare proves successful over the life of the demonstration, they may decide to get rid of bus and Dial-A-Lift fares permanently.

Intercity Transit currently collects about $600,000 in prepaid fares from local partners including the State of Washington, non-profit organizations, municipalities, and colleges. If we move forward with implementation of zero-fare, we will no longer collect those resources. Our partners could then invest those resources toward other goals, from expanding scholarships to increasing workforce development or ensuring access to medical appointments.

Zero-fare systems typically operate in three types of communities: small urban areas, resort and university towns. Thurston County has elements of all three, as the seat of state government and host to multiple colleges. Systems that most-closely reflect the zero-fare program Intercity Transit is considering include Mountain Line (Missoula, MT), Chapel Hill Transit (Chapel Hill, NC) and Corvallis Transit System (Corvallis, OR).

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Yes. We currently manage a wide range of fares, passes and programs (see image below).  With zero-fare, our customers and our drivers will no longer have to spend the time making sure that have the correct pass, sticker or dollar value, speeding up travel.

Another incredible benefit is the opportunity to recruit new businesses to our area.  This means great employment opportunities and adds dollars to our economy.

Image of fare poster identifying different types of passes