Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Who Should Pay for Social Fares?

King County Metro announced a low income fare policy last week. Here is a press release. While laudable, why is it the transit agency's responsibility to pay the $8 million or so annually? This situation is something I discussed a bit in the Atlantic's CityLab, where I noted that transit agencies are  forced to be social services but without just compensation. Here is what I wrote about services, though it can be applied to fare policy:
Of course, lifeline transit services exist because somebody wanted them and people need them. Transit agencies are expected to pay for these services that serve a social purpose but that strain operating budgets.

This is from the King County press release:
"Rising housing costs are leading many families to locate in lower-cost locations that may be farther away from where they work," said Mike Heinisch, executive director of South King Council of Human Services. "Providing a low-income fare is one way we can help keep the region more affordable for working families and ensure equal access to economic opportunity." 
"As a social service agency, we work with people who are in dire need of affordable public transportation to get to training classes, meet with case managers, find and get to jobs and health care appointments, as well as other important appointments," said Mahnaz Kourourian Eshetu, executive director of Refugee Women's Alliance. "The efforts of our County Executive and County staff to make the discounted transit fare widely available to people who need it the most is admirable and will have a positive effect on the County's economy while creating stronger communities. It was an honor to serve on this task force."

"King County is one of the first regions in the nation to put a low-income fare in place, helping to make sure that our bus service really is serving the whole community," said Alison Eisinger, director of Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness. "We can be very proud that we are putting our values into practice in this way, by taking a big step that will help advance greater equity and access to opportunity. Thousands of people, and our community as a whole, will benefit from this progressive policy."
So Human Services, the Refugee Women's Alliance and the Coalition on Homelessness are all part of a coalition supporting low fares for certain groups. While I agree that all of these groups deserve affordable travel, I don't see why these benefits should be paid directly from the transit budget. These should be paid by someone--probably King County--to the transit agency, and I realize these are somewhat one and the same.

King County has asked voters to raise taxes to pay for transit services many times over the past decade, and they expect many service cuts coming up. Expecting the transit provider to also provide social services is not sustainable unless someone directly pays for those social services. The public has a social obligation to provide access to opportunities, but this doesn't mean the mass transit operators should pay for social programs.

There are many alternatives, but the Paris compensatory indemnity program is one place to start.
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