‘We don’t know how we’re going to do it’: Transit agencies scrambling to work out free youth fares

The governor signed the new $17 billion transportation package last week, and that started the clock ticking for transit agencies across the state. They have until October to figure out how to provide free fares for everyone 18 and under.

Washington governor signs $17 billion transportation package

This was one of the key components of the Move Ahead Washington package, providing free transit for anyone 18 and under.

It sounds like something transit agencies could make happen without much work, but it’s exactly the opposite. Right now, those agencies are actually scrambling to figure out how to make it happen. I reached out to the major transit players last week, and they all told me they aren’t sure how it’s going to work, but they’ll get it done.

“The honest answer is we don’t know how we’re going to do it,” Ian Sterling with Washington State Ferries said.

This came up at the Sound Transit board meeting last week, when board member Claudia Balducci asked for a progress report from outgoing CEO Peter Rogoff.

“Do you need any kind of a head nod from the board here today to empower the staff to be full speed ahead with working on a proposal?” she asked. “We want to make a decision, but we don’t want a decision to be made for us by virtue of the clock running out.”

Concerns from agencies include difficulties verifying the age of riders, and figuring out acceptable forms of identification. A 15-year-old might only have a school ID, but a young-looking 20 year old might try to exploit the system.

We already saw how people exploited the ferry youth fare program during the pandemic once tickets were able to be purchased at kiosks.

Sound Transit mulls aggressive fare enforcement with revenue forecasts in ‘wrong direction’

Sterling said it’s a good thing that all the agencies are talking to each other.

“These are all things that we are really looking into and trying to partner with our other agencies to see how they’re going to do it, and if we can come across with some form of uniform way to do this,” he said. “What it comes down to is if you’re going to check IDs or not, and how is that going to work. Do you pre-register? What’s that mean for people coming in from out of state? How do you apply this equitably?

And on the ferries specifically, if a 17-year-old drives onto the ferry, is the vehicle fare free too? Will parents put their young drivers behind the wheel to save on the fares?

As Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff told the board last week, there is a lot to figure out.

“It is being advertised as ‘free fare for youth,’ but there are actually other policy things embedded within it that are getting less attention — every transit agency also needs to wrestle with about serving under-served communities,” he said.

Next up, the agencies are going to meet in April to begin their discussions. Each transit board across the state will have to approve the changes and systems — whatever they turn out to be — to implement the free fares.

Then, in October, everyone 18 and under rides transit for free.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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