Hop on any bus in the International District (ID) heading downtown during a rush hour, and it’s likely you’ll be surrounded by groups of excited elementary school students with their teacher on a field trip, young women with shopping bags, high school students, homeless people, senior citizens, and suited adults with take out boxes rushing to get back to their office after spending their lunch hour in the ID.
The Ride Free Area (RFA) in Seattle was known as the “Magic Carpet Zone” when it first started. Since 1973, fares have not been collected between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. in the area. But starting on September 29, the RFA will be eliminated.
Metro Transit is currently facing a $60 million deficit and the agency either had to cut service by 17 percent throughout the region or take away the RFA. With King County spending about $1.8 million a year and the City of Seattle spending $400,000 in 2011 to keep it, the RFA was voted to be cut.
The RFA extends from Battery Street in Belltown, south to Jackson Street in the International District. The convenience and perk of not having to pay has encouraged shopping, transit usage and tourism in downtown and the ID. That may change in September when Metro begins to charge in the area.
“I think the RFA has helped with a lot of our business,” said Dawn Cropp, manager of Phnom Penh Noodle House in the ID. Cropp’s restaurant, along with the many other restaurants in the community get a lot of business from customers working in downtown coming in for lunch. “I think it would decrease business around here especially during lunch and hurt small businesses.”
In September, there will be several changes to how people ride the bus in the area. Right now, riders pay as they enter a bus heading towards the RFA. When riders enter a bus in the RFA heading out, they pay as they leave. Once the RFA ends, riders will always have to pay the same way when they board the bus. To exit, almost all riders will exit through the rear doors of the bus, with the exception of people with wheelchairs or mobility issues.
But while these new changes help Metro buses move more quickly and efficiently, will it benefit their own riders?
According to Metro data, there are over 8 million boardings a year throughout the RFA.
For many years, the RFA has served as a “backbone” of human service providers, shelters, clinics, and community centers in the area that it has covered. With 3,000 residents living in the ID alone, many riders will experience hardship without these new Metro services.
To mitigate the changes, Metro is considering different plans to help the riders that will be negatively affected.
One plan is to operate a circulator. It will be a free shuttle system that operates on a loop, connecting important destinations for low-income people in the downtown area. Metro is considering 15 passenger shuttles that run about every 20 minutes around Belltown, looping around Boren and over by Harborview Medical Center. While maintaining shuttle buses will cost money, it will be substantially less expensive than keeping the RFA.
Another plan is to give out more subsidized bus tickets to human service organizations.
Metro will spend $1.9 million this year distributing subsidized tickets to human service agencies within the RFA area that serve homeless or low-income people. King County subsidizes for 80 percent of the tickets’ retail cost.
King County asked Metro to report back finalized plans on how to compensate the negative effects by early May.