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Councilmember calls for free public transit during viaduct closure

Councilmember suggests free public transit during viaduct closure (PHOTO: KOMO News)

Just a few days remain until the permanent closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. It’s a shutdown that will affect anyone who commutes into or out of Seattle.

To help manage the "Seattle Squeeze" one city council member wants to offer free rides on public transit.

The three-week closure will force 90,000 drivers to find another way into Seattle when viaduct closes for good.

City and county officials say they’ve worked to keep commuters moving with more buses, temporary bus lanes, more water taxi service — while also encouraging people to work from home or during off hours.

Now Councilmember Kshama Sawant says it’s not enough.

In a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan and County Executive Dow Constantine, Sawant called for all bus and light rail services to be free during the shutdown and possibly beyond.

“This would not only be a benefit for regular transit riders, it would also make public transit a more realistic alternative to driving for many working class people, and encourage its continued use,” Sawant said in the letter. “That will mean fewer cars on the roads, less traffic and less pollution as an additional benefit.”

If King County Metro and Sound Transit stopped collecting fares they would need to find funds elsewhere.

“By mandate we must collect fares in order to pay for the services that voters approved,” said Kimberly Reason, a public information officer at Sound Transit.

Fares pay 40 percent of the operating cost for Sound Transit light rail. At King County Metro that number is 27 percent.

Sawant says making transit free during the shutdown would cost about $10 million. It’s not clear where that money would come from.

“If that means an increase in taxes and what not, so be it,” said Kyle Nunes, a daily light rail commuter from Beacon Hill.

The Transit Riders Union says free transit is a great idea but more capacity to the system is more important.

“Bus lanes are our biggest priority and I really think that Mayor Durkan and the City of Seattle can do a lot more than what they are currently planning to do on that front,” said Katie Wilson, the general security for the Transit Riders Union.

No one really knows how bad the traffic will be – but one thing is for sure – we will be paying a fare if we ride the bus.

“There’s a lot of good things coming up and we have to get through different phases in order to get through to the good part,” said Reason.

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