Keep this unsung transit benefit rolling for another 30 years

In the wake of COVID-19, leaders in the Puget Sound region are focusing on strategies to support the long-term Health of downtowns as we transition to a new hybrid work environment. Seattle saw successes downtown this year, with the return of Amazon employees to the office relying on public transit for their commute. Additionally, Taylor Swift fans set pre-pandemic ridership records on Link light rail, and transit agencies offered free transit and additional service during Major League Baseball All-Star Week.

Despite these victories, challenges remain as pandemic-era federal funding for transit agencies like King County Metro will run out next year, jeopardizing their financial stability and the vital services they provide.

The Puget Sound region has an important tool to support transit agencies and improve accessibility, especially for downtown employers – the ORCA Business Passport, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Initially known as Flexpass in 1993, the program allows employers to provide transit to all their employees, similar to healthcare benefits. By participating, employers save significantly on individual annual transit passes, with the added benefit of a tax credit from Washington state. The program has been a success, with nearly half of transit agencies’ revenue coming from employers who provide transit through ORCA Business Passport.

In recent years, small businesses have increasingly utilized the program to retain and recruit top talent while meeting climate goals. Addressing the pressing issues of climate change and affordability, programs like ORCA Business Passport play a crucial role in supporting public transit and revitalizing downtown areas. With transportation being the second highest cost for most families after housing, programs like these are essential in addressing the region’s affordability crisis and reducing climate-warming emissions.

To ensure the continued success of the ORCA Business Passport for another 30 years, the state Legislature is encouraged to renew the tax credit for participating employers set to expire in 2024. Additionally, local jurisdictions and employers can play a role in promoting and utilizing the benefits of this program.

Kirk Hovenkotter, the outgoing executive director of Commute Seattle, emphasizes the importance of programs like ORCA Business Passport in addressing these critical issues and supporting public transit. As we navigate the post-COVID landscape and the new hybrid work environment, the continued support and utilization of programs like ORCA Business Passport will be vital in shaping the future of our downtown areas and improving accessibility for all.

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