Save Seattle's Free Ride Zone
MORE THAN 100 people rallied on September 28 to protest the elimination of the Free Ride Zone (FRZ) in downtown Seattle, a program that has provided free transit service since 1973.
Last year, a funding crisis of $60 million threatened 17 percent cuts in bus service. After protests that overflowed council hearings, the county instituted a car tax to temporarily fill the gap. However, part of the "compromise" was the elimination of the FRZ, as of September 29.
Not only will this be a tremendous burden on homeless and other low-income people, but it will increase homelessness. Sixteen homeless shelters require their residents to leave during the day. To do that, they need access to the bus. Without the FRZ, homeless people will need more bus tickets.
The county has refused to sell SHARE/WHEEL, a homeless organization, the tickets needed to fill the gap. This could mean that at least 300 people will lose their shelter.
The rally was called by the Transit Riders Union (TRU) and supported by SHARE/WHEEL, which brought dozens of members to protest. The TRU has been organizing around the bus crisis since last summer. It collected more than 2,500 signatures on a petition to save the FRZ in just two weeks.
On their march to the King County Courthouse, protesters chanted, "No ifs, no buts, no transit cuts!" Signs read "People Before Pucks" and "Homeless Before Hockey."
The signs referred to the city and county's recent decision to build a third sports stadium south of the downtown business district. Though local governments claim the new stadium will be privately funded, the city has authorized up to $200 million in bonds to finance it. The city will also have to make traffic revisions and zoning changes to accommodate the stadium.
The city rushed through approval of the stadium at the behest of a rich potential team owner and developer, Chris Hansen--even though Hansen doesn't own a team! Yet Seattle officials refuse to find the more limited funding--about $2 million--needed to maintain the FRZ.
Besides compounding the poverty of the poor and placing a new burden on other working people, the change will disrupt transit in the downtown area. People have been able to quickly board and exit buses since they don't have to pay. After the elimination of free service, waits will be much longer and schedules will be delayed, affecting everyone, even those who can afford bus fare.
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AT THE courthouse, TRU presented a massive scroll of 2,500 signatures to King County Council member Larry Gossett. Though Gossett voted for the original compromise that eliminated the FRZ, he has proposed smaller changes to relieve the plight of the poor, including a countywide "low-income fare."
He also said that the county would issue $100,000 worth of bus tickets to low-income service organizations. But neither of these will fill the hole left by the demise of the FRZ, and neither is in effect yet. The county also says it will set up a free shuttle service in the downtown area, but this too will be a drop in the bucket compared to what the FRZ provided.
The FRZ could be easily restored. Proponents of transit pointed out during hearings last year that small tax increases on the wealthy could raise the $60 million needed to solve the crisis. The state legislature has authorized the county to levy an employer tax, which could raise $40 million. Local Improvement Districts taxing commercial property are another option.
In an area that has some of the most profitable companies in the U.S., including Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks--and some of the richest people in the world, like Bill Gates and Paul Allen--it's beyond ridiculous that the county can't find the $2 million necessary to restore the FRZ.
When a new stadium is "needed" or more jails and prisons "must" be built, there is never a shortage of money. But ask for homes for the homeless or better transit, and the answer is: Sorry, we're broke. The economic crisis is only an excuse when it comes to services that workers and the poor need.
At the protest, homeless people spoke about what losing the Free Ride Zone would mean. "How are we supposed to get back and forth between shelters and services without the bus?" said one protester. "They say they want us to try to improve our lives. Then they pull the rug out from under us."
"People will see the effect of closing these shelters," said another protester. "There will be far more homeless people on the streets."
TRU organizers Scott Myers and Katie Wilson made a pitch for those attending the protest to get active in the union: "Only a few of us collected 2,500 signatures. If we had a few more organizers, we could have collected 10,000 signatures. This crisis will continue. We have to get organized to fight back!"