There has been much public discussion on the future of King County Metro’s paper transfer program, which may have the wind taken out of its sails by both Pierce Transit’s upcoming vote on eliminating paper transfers, and the potential implementation of a King County Metro low-income fare program. Once Pierce Transit abandons paper transfers (which is expected to happen November 1, 2014), Metro will be the last agency in the ORCA pod with paper transfers that are good for more than just an immediate transfer at a transfer center (which is all Kitsap Transit’s are accepted for).
One other rogue feature of Metro’s fare system that may lose its wind if the low-income ORCA program is implemented is what Metro likes to call the “off-peak discount.” Metro’s off-peak discount is unique not only in the ORCA pod, but among all transit agencies in the State of Washington.
Metro has been justifying the off-peak discount as being targeted at lower-income riders (See pages 23-24.). The time-of-day demographics aren’t expected to change when Metro raises fares next March 1, but who benefits will, presuming the low-income fare program is implemented. This is because low-income riders will already have a single fare all day: $1.50. Only riders without a low-income ORCA will be getting the off-peak discount of 25 or 75 cents. So, the off-peak discount will simply benefit higher-income riders.
Among the 17 other bus agencies and groups of agencies around the country that have contactless cards as their primary tool of fare payment, only one agency still charges a peak surcharge on buses: Minneapolis/St. Paul Metro. However, Minneapolis/St. Paul Metro provides the equivalent of a roughly 9% per-ride discount for paying with their Go-To Card instead of with cash. (The per-ride discount is far from unique, especially outside the U.S. It is just something local agencies have not adopted. Each agency could do so on their own.)
While the savings on eliminating Metro’s off-peak discount would be minor — in the range of a few million dollars a year at most — doing so would bring Metro’s fare system more in alignment with other agencies in the region and with peer agencies around the county, but would also improve the legibility of the fare system.
Whatever purposes this increasingly unique off-peak discount still serves probably pales into comparison to helping fund the low-income fare program or saving more bus service.