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Originally published September 25, 2012 at 8:32 PM | Page modified September 25, 2012 at 11:40 PM

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End of Seattle's free-ride zone to hit poorest of the poor hardest

The switch to all-paid buses could reduce drunkenness, misconduct and abuse of the free-fare system, plus raise $2 million more per year in fares. But thousands of people wonder how they'll come up with $2.25 for bus trips or find alternatives.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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If this does keep reduce the number of people on the bus who stink to high heavens, or ... MORE
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When downtown Seattle's ride-free bus area disappears Saturday, a day's chores will become a bit more strenuous for the poorest of the poor.

The switch to all-paid buses could reduce drunkenness and misconduct, and will stop people from boarding downtown and riding to outlying neighborhoods without paying, say transit officials and police. King County hopes to raise $2 million more per year in fares, which haven't been collected downtown in nearly 40 years.

But thousands of homeless and nearly homeless people wonder how they'll come up with $2.25 for bus trips or find alternatives.

Social-service managers worry that their supplies of free-ride tickets will dry up quickly. Some transit customers will register as disabled, to obtain a pass for a 75-cent fare. Others might pay partial fare and hope they don't get kicked off the bus.

Seattle and King County Metro Transit are providing some relief by paying for a pair of free weekday circulator buses, available to anyone, running in a loop roughly along First Avenue, Virginia Street, Boren Avenue and Yesler Way.

"We're pleased to be able to supply this service. It's a recognition of the fact people have needs," said Gordon McHenry, CEO of Solid Ground, which will operate that service. Drivers were chosen based on their enthusiasm to work with vulnerable people, and have been trained in de-escalating potential conflicts, he said. There will even be a backup vehicle in case of overflow crowds the first few days, he said.

But there isn't enough money to provide service after 4 p.m., or on weekends, or to run quickly back-and-forth through downtown.

"We don't believe the circulator that's going to start operating the first of October is sufficient to meet the need," says Josh Hicks, a housing case manager at the Plymouth Housing Group, which shelters nearly 1,000 formerly long-term homeless people.

The business-led Downtown Seattle Association has also said more needs to be done.

Foraging for fare

John Feller and Sharee Seminole each survive on government support, and the couple can't imagine where they'll get full fare.

He carries a disabled-fare pass from a methadone treatment program, but she lacks a pass. Last week they rode from their University District apartment to the Compass Center, alongside the Alaskan Way Viaduct, where they shower or wash laundry. From there, they caught a bus toward the Seattle Public Library. Other days, Seminole goes to a health clinic for a pregnancy checkup.

They say it's common to collect used transfers off the ground, and cup them to conceal the hour they expire, when entering a bus. Feller says he has a whole book of the colored transfers, to use on different days.

Or, they might toss whatever coins they have into the farebox.

Most bus drivers are cool with that, Feller said, as long as the rider behaves. Bus operators are told in their training and rule book to request fare, but not to provoke confrontations, for safety.

"If we paid every time, we'd pay $10 a day for transportation," Feller said.

For 68-year-old Marc Wagner, who lives in a subsidized Plymouth apartment, the change brings only minor inconvenience.

He already pays 75 cents on his senior pass for trips from Belltown to Ballard, so he'll have to pay an additional $3 a week or so for various rides down Third Avenue — to buy paint at Aaron Brothers Art & Framing for his nature portraits, look around at Macy's, or weigh himself at Bartell Drugs in his attempt to drop 40 pounds. Watson says he'll ride his mountain bike on the street more, once he gets his inner tubes replaced.

Marcus Jones, a shelter resident volunteering for SHARE/WHEEL, said losing the free-ride zone will cause tension.

"It's going to cause a lot of people to force their way on the buses, or they might stay off the buses period," he said.

Ticket shortage

Bill Hobson, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, said downtown fares will cost $50,000 more a year for his staff to escort or visit clients.

That's before helping 2,100 clients a day, typically people with addictions or mental illnesses, to get around.

"Some people who depend on the county for their services and well-being are going to suffer as a result of this," he said. "The ride-free zone should have never been eliminated."

The circulator will benefit 300 to 350 clients a day who go to Harborview, which is outside the existing free zone, he said.

But to reduce the broader loss of mobility, caseworkers will be helping clients register with Metro for disabled-citizen passes, which allow trips for 75 cents, Hobson said.

A few blocks up Third Avenue, a single mom named Virginia said she already did that this month, based on her depression, to prepare for the change. With her 4-year-old daughter, she made six bus trips Thursday downtown, including to school, day care and a welfare office.

"I'm happy with my 75 cents," she says.

Metro says it already spends $1.8 million in tickets for the needy through social-service agencies, which pay 20 percent to Metro's 80 percent, allowing for 1.1 million rides a year.

Some Tent City residents affiliated with SHARE/WHEEL testified Monday, to the County Council, that they will run out of tickets within days. Councilman Larry Phillips, of Magnolia, blamed an increase in homelessness, and a change in the group's personnel, for the shortage. But SHARE/WHEEL is expected to get some of the 41,000 tickets Metro is making available this month countywide, in a special distribution.

"I've been asking my colleagues, after the testimony, if there's something more we can do," Phillips said. One possibility long-term is to offer a discount pass for low-income people, in suburbs as well as Seattle, he said.

Demand is expected to grow immediately at sites such as YWCA Angeline's Center for Homeless Women, which provides food, showers and other services for up to 250 homeless women daily.

Bus tickets are handed out based on trust, says program director Rochelle Calkins: If a woman says she needs a ticket, even for short distances, she gets one. You can't tell from just looking whether somebody has joint damage that makes two blocks feel like two miles.

So tickets may run out more often.

"When we reach that, we will find a way. We will always find a way," said Calkins.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom.

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