This past Sunday, March 1, King County Metro Transit in western Washington State launched ORCA LIFT, a regional, income-based reduced-fare transit program. Individuals making less than twice the federal poverty level qualify to receive a reloadable ORCA card (ORCA stands for “One Regional Card for All”), which caps the cost of most trips at $1.50 per ride—$1.00 less than the standard adult off-peak rate, and $1.75 off the highest adult peak rate. Although income-based reduced-fare programs exist elsewhere in the country, ORCA LIFT has the potential to become one of the largest yet.
While economies are regional in scale, individual economic wellbeing can be strikingly local. Low-income workers’ job options are constrained by the need for affordable rents and commutes, which push many into outlying, suburban communities with fewer transit options and with fewer nearby jobs. (The story of James Robertson in suburban Detroit is illustrative.)
Because jobs in South King County—where many of the region’s poor live—aren’t clustered as densely as in Seattle, workers may need to travel farther to reach them. By significantly reducing the cost of commuting in the region, ORCA LIFT has the potential to connect low-income workers to better job opportunities, thereby supporting families and communities.
The ORCA LIFT card is good for two years, even if the cardholder starts making more than twice the poverty line, and individuals may reapply after their card expires. The County estimates that an individual commuting daily by metro could save up to $900 per year—which equates to 4 percent of the maximum annual qualifying income for a single individual. As ORCA LIFT is implemented, other counties and metro areas should watch to determine whether the tool might be replicated to better connect low-income residents to regional opportunity through transit.