Intercity Transit’s nine-member board of directors voted unanimously this month to move into a five-year, zero-fare system for buses and Dial-A-Lift services.
This change of fee collection — which starts Wednesday, Jan. 1 — means easier, more affordable transportation for Yelmites around the county, two board members said.
“Yelm is definitely on the less affluent side of Thurston County, so this is a big deal for the people in our community. We need to be able to get to jobs, hospitals and libraries … It’s really important to be able to get into the Olympia area and if you don’t have to pay to get there, that’s great,” said board member Molly Carmody, who also serves as a Yelm City Council member.
Board members say the hope is that the new system will increase ridership and decrease travel times on routes, all at no expense for riders.
“With transportation accounting for as much as 28 percent of the budget of low-income families, this change could be transformative for our community across the entire economic spectrum,” board member Tye Menser recently wrote in a Facebook post. Menser also serves as Thurston County’s commissioner for District No. 3.
In an interview with the Nisqually Valley News, Menser explained what led to the system in more detail.
After voters approved Intercity’s Proposition No. 1 last year, which increased sales and use taxes in the benefit district by four-tenths of a percent to improve transit services and expand routes, the transit authority had an obligation to look at alternative fare collection structures.
Menser said this was because the fare boxes Intercity was using were decrepit and cost more money maintaining and transferring funds than they were worth.
“We knew the way that Intercity Transit collected fares was extremely antiquated,” Menser said. “We were literally collecting parts on eBay to keep our fare boxes working.”
He also said that the fares only accounted for about 3 percent of Intercity’s entire revenue in the long run.
After hiring a consultant and briefly looking into the ORCA card system, Intercity looked to other similar-sized transit authorities and how they made the transition to no fare.
Overall, Menser recalled, the four cities they looked at made the transition fairly efficiently.
“What we want to accomplish is to increase ridership … We saw that this could really benefit people,” Menser said. “The zero-fare model can increase speed and efficiency in the system.”
Menser said it’s agreed that this move is a financially stable one, especially as the county looks to grow significantly this next decade. He also said a zero-fare system is beneficial to the county because it has the tendency to attract employers to the more urban areas.
Carmody looks at the move toward a zero-fare system as a win-win for all parties involved. She also noted that similar communities that implemented zero-fare programs saw a 40 to 60 percent increase in ridership.
“I think it’s a really good step in the right direction. The current fare boxes weren’t paying for themselves,” she said. “It slowed down boarding significantly as people were searching for change.”