How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love My $81 ORCA Card

By Erica C. Barnett January 3, 2011

Buying my monthly ORCA pass yesterday, I got hit with an unpleasant surprise: Thanks to higher Metro and Sound Transit fares that , my monthly pass now costs $81, a big jump over the previous price of $72. (I knew rates were going up, but didn't know how much the cost of the card would increase). Basically, a ride that used to cost me $2.00 now costs $2.25, and if my calculations are right, I have to ride transit (bus or rail) 36 times a month to justify the cost of the pass (as opposed to paying for each ride individually).

Eighty-one bucks is a lot for me. Despite what you may have heard, journalists' salaries aren't in the six figures, and the beginning of the month is also when I pay my rent. Others have already started to gripe about the fare increase, and not without reason: Even as agencies are making service more expensive, they're reducing its quality and frequency. Over the next two years, Metro says it will cut 200,000 hours, of which a little less than half will be cuts perceivable to riders (the rest will be made up with "schedule efficiencies," which I'm hoping doesn't translate to "late buses.") Metro has also started expanding the number of days it's on a reduced schedule---cutting service to "holiday" levels, for example,  between December 24 and the end of the year. Meanwhile, Sound Transit is now saying they can no longer build out the entire Sound Transit 2 plan that voters approved in 2008.

So what's the good news? Riding the bus is still a great deal compared to owning a car. According to AAA, the true cost of owning a car---including gas, maintenance, tires, insurance, license, registration, taxes, depreciation, and finance charges---ranges from $6,496 a year ($541 a month) for a small car like a Nissan Sentra to $11,085 a year ($924 a month) for a four-wheel-drive SUV like a Jeep Grand Cherokee. With prices that high, I'll take a $9 monthly fare increase over car ownership any day. Incidentally, according to the New York Times, the average annual cost of owning a bike is $390, meaning that my total transportation costs---augmented a couple of times a year by a Zipcar or a rental---are less than $1,500 a year.*

The problem with ever-higher fares, of course, is that fare increases are a known disincentive to riding the bus (as are cuts to service). At some point, you get a drop-off in ridership, creating a vicious cycle: Fewer riders means less fare revenue means cuts to routes means fewer riders, and so on. The solution, instead of raising the regressive general sales tax even higher, is to create sustainable, long-term options to fund transit, something groups like the Transportation Choices Coalition plan to push for next session in Olympia.**

*For a truly accurate calculation, of course, I'd have to factor in the taxes I pay to fund the public transportation system, something I don't have the knowledge or wherewithal to do. Fortunately for my calculation, though, transit is funded with sales taxes that are paid by everyone, including car owners, so the equation more or less balances out.

** Actually, the solution is changing the state constitution so that gas taxes can be used for a wider range of projects than just highways, but no one in the current legislature has shown an interest in taking that one on.
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