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Move by Olympia, Washington to Create 'Zero Fare' Public Transit Called a 'Beautiful Thing'

City is latest in the country to offer publicly-funded transportation for residents and visitors.

Intercity Transit Bus 902 on Route 12 to downtown Olympia.

Intercity Transit Bus 902 on Route 12 to downtown Olympia. (Photo: Bluedisk/cc)

Public transit in the Washington state capitol Olympia and surrounding areas is free at point of service as of January 1 as the region's Intercity Transit pilots a "zero fare" program through the next five years.

"It's a beautiful thing," bus rider Nate Hooks told Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB).

The change reportedly came after the transit system mulled over the best way to continue to collect fares and found that the cost of upgrading collections machines outweighed the benefits of the revenue.

According to the Olympian:

[Intercity Transit] says fares currently net less than 2 percent of its operating revenue, while replacing an outdated fare collection system would cost at least $1 million.

Instead, the system decided to fund the "zero fare" approach to riders by increasing sales taxes in the Olympia-Lacey-Tumwater tricity area serviced by Intercity Transit.

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"It costs a lot of money to collect money, which is surprising to a lot of people," the system's general manager Ann Freeman-Manzanares told OPB. "Looking at the broad list of things the community wanted us to address—in terms of access, equity, speed, reliability, addressing the environment, making sure that we're as efficient as possible—the combination of those things actually led us to zero-fare."

All services by the transit system save vanpool rides are fare-free. 

Intercity Transit says that it is using the term "zero-fare" because the rides are already paid for by taxes, including a bump for the purpose of providing free-at-point-of-service approved by voters in 2018.

Olympia joins a number of other cities and municipalities in the U.S. experimenting with fare-free rides. As Common Dreams reported, Missouri's Kansas City approved a measure to that effect on December 5. 

Mitchel Patrick Irons, a transit rider, told OPB that the new policy would be materially helpful to him.

"It will make a big difference in a lot of ways," said Irons. "I'm used to not having what you need in life, let alone what you want. I think it is great having a little more money."

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