King County Executive Dow Constantine transmitted a policy to the King County Council that will allow young people under age 19 to ride transit at no cost starting later this summer.

In his State of the County address last month, Executive Constantine touted the great work of King County Metro and acknowledged key investments for the future, including the Free Youth Transit Pass that will connect youth to the freedom of transit throughout our region. The proposed free youth transit pass builds on King County’s many years of success in providing ORCA passes to middle and high school students during the school year, and also stretching into summertime for those who most need travel support.

By adopting a year-round free youth transit pass policy, King County Metro and other agencies across the state will provide access to a network of public transportation services that expands opportunity and provides equitable access for young people.

“Ensuring access to reliable, carbon-free transportation – especially for younger generations who will bear the climate burden – is why I am committed to providing every youth up to their 19th birthday with a free transit pass. Knowing the ease of riding transit to get around means today’s youth will be tomorrow’s transit commuters, and that’s good for traffic, the economy, and the environment,” said Executive Constantine. “Transportation is our biggest source of climate emissions locally, and choosing clean, efficient transit is good for you and the planet.”

text on photograph: Coming Soon, Free Youth Transit Pass. Image: A young woman wearing headphones sitting on a bus seat looking out the windowUnder the state’s recently adopted Move Ahead Washington package, Metro becomes eligible for an estimated $31.7 million in grant funding if a zero-youth fare policy is adopted by Oct. 1. This potential revenue far exceeds the estimated $10 million in annual fare revenue typically received from youth under age 19.

Thousands of young people already count upon King County Metro and Sound Transit for safe, reliable transportation to and from classes and school activities. By having a transit pass at no cost to them, young people will be able to travel to school, see a friend or relative, get to a part-time job, visit a museum, or explore a hiking trail or park. Additionally, this new access will introduce them to King County’s innovative regional transit system of bus, light rail, streetcar, water taxi, and much more.

“We know that the ability to move throughout our region easily and efficiently improves opportunity in life,” said King County Councilmember and co-sponsor of the legislation, Dave Upthegrove. “This is as true for our county’s youth as it is for our workers. The new free youth transit pass program will further enable mobility for getting to school and anywhere else, all while not costing our often overburdened youth a cent.”

“Zero Youth Fare will open doors of opportunity for so many. Public transit connects people to jobs, medical care, food, opportunities, and community,” said King County Councilmember and co-sponsor of the legislation, Girmay Zahilay. “I’m excited for King County to make this leap in ensuring that transit is open and accessible to all of our youth!”

In the weeks ahead, Metro will continue to partner with community groups, families, schools, youth advocates, and other organizations to share the benefits of the free youth transit pass and to work together to ensure it meets the needs of young people.

“When youth get the opportunity of transit without the pressure and worry of money and income, I believe the freedom leads to more community engagement,” said Samara Pendley, a youth member of the Metro Mobility Equity Cabinet. “I feel youth should always be supported to join the bigger picture of making effective decisions and this pass represents the changes being made to open up space and consider future generations in county processes.”

Cards available following policy adoption

The Regional Transit Committee and the King County Council are expected to take up the proposed policy change to create a free youth transit pass in June and July. Metro expects to develop a program that will distribute ORCA cards across King County, with further card distribution proposed to roll out in 2023 and expanded over time.

King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski, Chair of the Transportation, Economy and Environment Committee, recalled riding Metro transit as a youth in King County.

“As a middle schooler at Dimmitt Middle School in Skyway, I often took Metro home after end-of-day school activities,” Dembowski said. “Finding money to pay the fare could be a hassle and too often a hardship for many of my classmates. I am so excited that today’s King County kids will now be able to hop on board Metro transit to get to and from school and around the county to activities, without having to worry about whether there’s enough money on their ORCA card. This important legislation will ensure that all kids in King County have the same, free, access to our transit system and help them become life-long transit riders on what will soon be a zero-emissions transit system.”

Transportation Choices Coalition (TCC) is eager to see the policy change open doors for young people.

“TCC couldn’t be more excited about King County Metro’s rollout of the zero-youth fare, which will benefit nearly half a million people 18 and under living in King County,” said Alex Hudson, Executive Director of Transportation Choices Coalition. “This policy is critical in creating lifelong transit riders, making it more affordable for families to get around, addressing climate change, and giving youth the gift of freedom and mobility.”

Next steps: information and implementation

In the coming months, Metro will launch a customer information campaign through schools and community outreach. Seattle Public School students can ride free this summer using their current school-issued ORCA card; high school students in the rest of King County who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch can sign-up online for a free summer ORCA pass. Any youth, including students, who currently have an ORCA card, should plan to hold onto it and begin using it in the fall as their Free Youth Transit Pass – any expiration dates will be extended.

By the numbers

  • There are an estimated 329,000 students enrolled in K-12 (public and private) schools in King County, however, only about 22,000 possess subsidized ORCA cards (during the school year).
  • Current fare for youth is $0 for ages 0-5 and $1.50 for ages 6-18.
  • During the 2019-20 school year, 34% of King County’s students qualified for free and reduced-price lunch.
  • Less than 20% of King County high school students who receive free and reduced school lunch have a subsidized youth ORCA card (2020 data).

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