If you work for King County or the City of Seattle, an unlimited ORCA transit pass comes with your job. Same thing if you work for Swedish Hospital, Seattle Children’s Hospital, Seattle Pacific University, Microsoft, or most other major institutional employers in the Seattle area.

It makes sense. Large workplaces like hospitals, universities, and tech campuses are the magnetic nodes of our transportation system. Every morning workers in the tens of thousands are drawn into them from all directions, and every evening those same workers are repelled out again through clogged, exhaust-choked streets to their homes. Incentivizing the commute modes that contribute least to congestion, pollution, and climate catastrophe is the responsible thing for employers to do.

You know what major institutional employer doesn’t provide full transit benefits? The University of Washington and its hospitals, Harborview and UW Medical Center. If an employee of the UW wants a transit pass, they have to shell out $50 per month.

This hefty price tag forces UW employees, many of whom are struggling with high housing and transportation costs, to make tough choices. Rosemary Bryson, a Patient Services Specialist at UW Medical Center, explains: “I drive every day. I have 12-hour days. I would like to have the option to take a bus or train some days. But I can’t afford a U-Pass and drive. But I need to drive some days.”

With over 10,000 employees at the UW Seattle campus alone, day-to-day commute decisions like Rosemary’s have a huge aggregate impact. Not surprisingly, 40% of UW staff and faculty choose not to spend $50 of their paycheck each month on a transit pass. Over a third of commute trips by UW employees are single-occupancy vehicle (SOV) trips.

We’re all paying for the UW’s poor policy choice, especially residents of the surrounding neighborhoods–in traffic delays, in poor air quality, in unsafe streets. These costs will only rise as the university undergoes an aggressive expansion. The Seattle campus is expected to grow by 13,000 people during the next ten years, and an Environmental Impact Statement concluded that the likely additional 6,195 SOV trips will lead to gridlock or near-gridlock at 12 out of 13 U District intersections, and massive transit delays. The UW has a responsibility to start mitigating these impacts today.

Seattle’s light rail ridership has spiked after University Link opened in May 2016 with stations at Capitol Hill and at Husky Stadium. (Photo by Scott Bonjukian)

Let’s also remember that the University of Washington is a huge beneficiary of the taxpayer-funded expansion of our regional transit system. When the U District station opens in 2021, not one but two Link light rail stations will more or less directly serve the UW’s Seattle campus. The least the UW can do is make sure its employees are equipped to actually use this system. It is embarrassing that this leading educational, medical, and research institution has not yet adopted the best practice of putting transit passes in all employees’ hands.

A coalition of community and environmental groups and labor unions has come together to demand that the UW get with the times and offer full transit benefits starting this fall. You can learn more on our website, uwpassorfail.org, and send an email to President Ana Mari Cauce and other key UW administrators at uwpassorfail.org/email.

The Transit Riders Union is a democratic organization of working and poor people–including students, seniors and people with disabilities–taking control over our own lives, and building up the power we need to change society for the good of humanity and of the planet. Seattle Transit Riders Union will fight to preserve, expand, and improve the public transportation system in Seattle and beyond, so that every human being has access to safe, affordable, and reliable public transit.

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1 COMMENT

  1. I fully support the idea of the UW giving all employees (and students for that matter) a free transit pass. However, I also generally feel there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The reason that I’m very conflicted about this campaign is that they offer no estimates of the costs, and no suggestions on how to fund it. My back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that even if the the current subsidies to $50/mo were able to cover all 10k employees, the cost would be about $6mil/year. Much of the UW’s funding is tightly constrained by law… does anyone with knowledge of the UW’s budget have a concrete suggestion for where this money would come from?

    If you take it out of the general payroll account, then the employees end up footing the bill again (and likely the lower paid will do so disproportionately). The UW already allows pre-tax payment for the U-pass, so there’s not even a gain there. It’s also not exactly fair to expect student tuition and fees to foot the bill, when U-pass participation is already mandatory (not at all free) for students. I would be all for using the football coaches’ salaries, but I doubt that would ever happen.

    There’s also the issue of relatively high rates of other sustainable mode shares. Based on the 2016 report, 14.9% of UW faculty bike to work, and 6.5% walk. Staff and Employees (not sure the difference) have lower bike/walk percentages, but higher transit usage. It hardly seems right to expect those who walk/bike to subsidize transit passes for the faculty who chose to live far from campus.
    https://facilities.uw.edu/transportation/files/reports/transportation-survey-report-2016.pdf?ref=

    Right now, the U-Pass program is subsidized by parking revenues, but this has proven to be a self-defeating model since parking usage (and therefore revenue) goes down as the transit usage increases (I’m having trouble finding the article I read on this recently).

    In the grand scheme of things, $6mil/yr (or even $10mil for that matter) isn’t that big of a number for the state budget, especially for how much positive climate/sustainability impact it would have. I would suspect that this decision really lies in the hands of the state government. If we lobbied the state at budgeting time to include transit passes for all state employees, I’d be all for it. Or maybe we should be telling Ana Mari to lobby the state?

    I really appreciate the sentiment of this campaign to increase transit incentives, but I think in reality what they’re advocating for is a *mandatory* orca card, which is very different from a *free* orca card. I’m not sure i’m totally opposed to the former, but if that’s really what we’re proposing then there are some serious equity issues that would need to be addressed.

    If anyone can supply me an alternative funding model, i’ll happily change my mind.

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