Clallam Transit driver Duane Benedict looks down at his fare box before departing The Gateway transit center in downtown Port Angeles on Saturday — the last day of collecting fares on most bus routes. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

Clallam Transit driver Duane Benedict looks down at his fare box before departing The Gateway transit center in downtown Port Angeles on Saturday — the last day of collecting fares on most bus routes. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

Clallam Transit provides free rides

One-year pilot program aims to boost ridership

PORT ANGELES — Keep that dollar in your pocket.

Starting today, Clallam Transit System passengers can bypass the fare box as part of a one-year pilot program initiated to boost ridership and ease the financial burden on those who rely on it.

Fares have been eliminated on all fixed-routes, Interlink and Dial-A-Ride services and on rides within Clallam Connect’s service area. (Clallam Connect passengers will still be charged $3.75 per mile for rides originating or terminating more than three-fourths of a mile outside its fixed-route service corridor.)

Excluded from the program are the Strait Shot, which runs between Port Angeles and the Bainbridge Island Ferry Terminal, and the Hurricane Ridge Shuttle that operates in the summer.

“You know, 99 percent of the feedback I’ve received has been positive,” General Manager Jim Fetzer said about the decision to go fare-free. “It seems to be a trend across the state and not only the state but across the country.”

Of the 32 public transportation agencies in Washington, about a third have eliminated fares, including neighboring Jefferson and Mason transit authorities.

Jefferson Transit elected to go fare free in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and has remained fare-free for fixed route and route-deviated services. On Tuesday, zero-fare will apply to all buses, including the No. 14 Kingston Express.

Clallam Transit estimates it will forgo about $425,000 in going zero-fare this year. But unlike a large metropolitan system like King County Metro in Seattle, where fares represent its second-largest source of revenue, fares make up just 4 percent of Clallam Transit’s bottom line.

The greatest portion of the system’s revenue — about 80 percent — comes from a countywide sales tax of 0.3 percent of one cent.

Funding for the pilot program comes from a grant of $1.9 million from Move Ahead Washington, the transportation package legislators passed in 2022 that provided $3 billion over the next 16 years to support public transit programs and aid in the development of new ones.

To qualify for the $189 million allocated for transit operations, systems had to meet a number of requirements, including adopting zero-fare policies for riders younger than 18, which Clallam Transit did on June 1, 2022. (Peninsula College students could ride free as well).

Since then, youth ridership on Clallam Transit has more than doubled — a pattern it would like to see repeated with the zero-fare program.

Save expenses

Eliminating fares will save staff time and some expenses, Fetzer said. There will be no fare boxes to collect, no cash to be counted and no need for armored vehicles as well as no individual tickets, monthly passes or tokens to be sold and collected.

Veterans still will ride free, but they will no longer need to be issued an ID — another task that can be relinquished.

Transit board member and Port Angeles Deputy Major Brendan Meyer said the program would be an immense benefit to organizations that provide transportation assistance and individuals across the county who use Clallam Transit.

“Other nonprofits in the area are also going to see capacity savings in the form of time spent on administrating these kind of programs within their own organizations,” Meyer said.

“People who are dependent on the public transportation now don’t have to pay for it. If they buy a monthly pass, it’s $50 a month. That’s like a $750 savings for this year.”

Clallam County Commissioner and transit board member Mike French, who also served on the board as a member of the Port Angeles City Council, said he had been among those reticent about eliminating fares because he believed making the system more convenient by redesigning routes and increasing the frequency of service was key to increasing ridership — not making it free.

He said having funding to support the program for an entire year and a plan in place to gather data the board can review every few months gave Clallam Transit the opportunity to monitor the program’s progress and help determine whether to extend it, make it permanent or return to charging fares.

French cited the example of the Strait Shot and the Hurricane Ridge shuttle as services that convinced people who might not have considered riding a bus that Clallam Transit was a viable option. It might also dispel some misconceptions.

“The buses are clean and the staff is professional,” French said. “It will help with how people perceive the system.”

Fetzer said staff and drivers were part of the conversation in deciding how to approach a fare-free system and he had spoken with eight zero-fare agencies around the state for their input.

“One of the things was that it was important to have a policy about people continually riding the bus,” he said.

So, in response, Clallam Transit had tightened some of its policies, such as requiring all passengers to deboard at the end of a route.

French said it was important drivers and staff had input into the program, because they would be on the front lines of the new policy.

“We listened to our staff and their opinions were really important,” he said.

Drivers’ input

Drivers are taking a wait-and-see approach to the program’s rollout, said Rick Burton, who is the union representative for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587 and has been a driver for 6½ years.

Burton said drivers anticipate the biggest benefit of the policy will be eliminating fare disputes, which can be a significant problem with some passengers.

“We see an issue around more people riding the bus on the west side [of Port Angeles] with wheelchairs and walkers,” Burton said. “That takes up a lot of space in the ADA section and there’s not a lot of space there.”

He said people would also find a way to ride a bus all day despite the stricter policy.

“They have to get off at Gateway [Transit Center], but they can keep hopping on other buses,” Burton said.

French said he is still pushing for designing new routes — there will be public hearings in 2024 about proposed changes — because when it comes to public transportation, convenience is as — or more — important to some people than cost.

“It has to be as useful to as many people as possible,” French said.

Fetzer said people need to be reminded that the zero-fare program is not permanent, and that public feedback is important.

“It’s supposed to be a one-year pilot,” he said. “The board will evaluate it at the end of the year to see if it’s worthwhile.”

For information about the zero-fare program or Clallam Connect, call Clallam Transit at 360-452-4511 or go to www.clallamtransit.com/fares#dm.

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