Seattle may soon offer free transit to public high school students
- The Seattle City Council's transportation committee approved a plan to give free transit passes to all students at the city's public high schools and those attending Seattle colleges on city-funded scholarships. If finalized, Seattle would become the largest city in the country to offer the transit benefit, which would cover some 16,000 high schoolers.
- The mayor’s office had requested $5 million to cover high school and college students, but the legislation approves up to $7 million, leaving enough money to potentially give all K-12 students transit passes.
- The full city council must approve the plan; full consideration is expected in the coming weeks.
Seattle’s transit agency is in a situation unfamiliar to most American cities: it has too much money. A 2014 ballot measure that added a car tab fee and a 0.1% sales tax has brought $50 million a year to the King County metropolitan area, leading to more buses and service hours. The student pass plan would draw from that pool.
The proposal also comes as Mayor Jenny Durkan has promised to be “creative” about getting residents onto public transit and out of cars, warning "traffic’s going to get worse before it gets better; megaprojects will mean mega-gridlock."
Seattle has some anecdotal evidence that the passes will result in higher transit ridership. The city already gives free passes to students who live more than two miles from school or come from low-income families; a survey last summer found that 90% of those use the passes at least three days a week, and 69% use them more than five days a week. A majority also said the passes helped them get to school, and 40% said they wouldn’t use transit if not for the free pass.
Research from Rutgers and Columbia University has show that bus and train ridership in early years makes people more likely to rely on transit later in life, making students a prime target for cities looking to expand public transportation. Cities like Washington, DC and Portland, OR already offer free transit to students during the school year (Seattle’s would be year-round) and New York City has a limited number of free metro cards. Seattle’s would be the largest program in the country and could herald more exploration of free transit for other groups. Paris has even studied free transit for all citizens.
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