Earlier this morning we reported that Sound Transit plans to charge fare in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel for its Link light rail service, while buses in the tunnel will still operate for free for intra-downtown trips. While this means a cheaper base fare across the system, our commenters wondered what sort of affects on ridership this would have.

Greg Walker, Sound Transit chief policy and planning officer, said it won’t have much of an impact. “We project about 2,600 people daily” will be deincentivized from paying a fare for light rail compared to jumping on a free bus, Walker told us. The plan only affects “non-transfer, cash-paying” customers who are taking a trip entirely within downtown. He noted that it’s not possible to know how many of those 2,600 people will skip riding light rail.

Walker said that the 2,600 number is “less than 10% of the overall ridership on the line.” Since ridership numbers are hard to predict, he said that’s “within my margin-of-error for ridership projections.” Walker expects that Link ridership will exceed projections, even with this loss, since most other new light rail projects across the nation have exceeded their projections as well.

27 Replies to “No Link Free Ride to Affect Just 2,600 Daily Tunnel Users”

  1. I don’t get how this decision creates any value for Sound Transit and will only create ill-will.

    No one in their right mind will pay $1.75 to ride Link within the tunnel if the buses are free – they’ll just ride the buses. More people gettign on and off the buses in the tunnel will slow the buses, and Link will be delayed waiting for buses to clear the next station.

    Sound Transit will garner no revenue but will generate ill will.

  2. So they could increase ridership by 10% for effectively no money (ok, a little extra janitorial maintenance), and get thousands of riders (per day!) used to this new form of transit. Or, um, they can… wait, what was the downside?

    What Carl said. Who’s decision was this? Can we vote them out?

    1. The downside is that everyone else has to pay a quarter just so 2.6k people can get a free ride. Those people already have the option of getting free rides on buses without affecting Sound Transit’s bottom line. It is pretty confusing having one mode free in the tunnel and the other not, I agree.

      Personally, I would eliminate fares in the tunnel once Orca is adopted and start to increase cash fares vs. Orca, and spend the saved money on additional bus service in the city. But I don’t know if that’s totally the right thing to do.

      The vast majority of riders in the tunnel are going to have transfers or passes, or are leaving downtown, though, so it shouldn’t affect them.

      1. “The downside is that everyone else has to pay a quarter just so 2.6k people can get a free ride”

        I just don’t believe that. It has to be spin meant to create a false choice that led to this decision. Let’s run the numbers:

        If 2,600/day is less than 10% of ridership, then the rest of the ridership is at least 23,400 people. Take a quarter and multiply it by two trips a day per person, and that’s $42,700,000 a year. What Greg Walker and yourself are claiming is that letting 10% of the riders ride a short trip in the tunnel costs an extra $42.7M a year in janitorial costs? Even at $50,000 a year, that’s a full-time staff of 85 janitors for this 10% alone. That means the entire janitorial staff is 850 people! I had no idea Seattlites were so messy.

      2. I agree with your general comment about the costs?

        Perhaps it has to do with the enforcement? They’re worried about making it “Ride Free but you need to have a ticket or ORCA card indicating that you got on in the Ride Free Area so everyone who tries to sneak onto Link without paying can’t just claim that they only got in on Ride Free,” I guess. And I guess there could be an issue with transfers being somewhat complicated, as if you only rode in the Ride Free Area you wouldn’t have transfer credit. It doesn’t seem that difficult, though.

        They must be assuming that a significant percentage of people love rail so much that they’re going to ride the train instead of the bus. After all, isn’t that part of the justification for Link anyway, since it’s not going to be much faster than the 194 for getting to the airport? (Shorter head times between cars, yes, faster transit time once moving, not as much.)

  3. I agree with the commenters above. Why are they doing this then?

    Are they saying that a great number of people will pay to ride the train rather than take the bus? I have a hard time believing that.

    Or are they saying that this 2600 represent most all of the people who go from tunnel stop to tunnel stop, and that it is an insignificant number? If it is an insignificant number, then how does not letting these people ride save so much money?

    Or is it that they don’t want to have certain types of people, who would only ride for free, to be on the trains?

    I don’t see the financial benefit here, especially considering that reducing your ridership numbers could potentially reduce future funding you could get. And if Link is to be more than merely a commuter-only line, it has to be a competitive way to get around within the city, not just into it.

  4. How much would Sound Transit be willing to spend on marketing to attract 2,600 new daily riders?

    What is the cost of the ill will Sound Transit will generate by having such a confusing system while the DSTT is in joint use?

    Oh and lets not forget the capacity issue 2,600 people is roughly 36 buses whereas it is less than 7 two car trains worth.

    Tunnel buses are already overloaded in peak periods especially Northbound during PM peak.

  5. Such shortsighted nonsense – one would think it had come from Olympia instead of Union Station!

  6. So according to ST, they would loose 2 Mil/yr by letting ‘DSTT-only’ riders get a free ride. That’s about 3200 riders/day, charging $1.75 each. That means there’s gonna be 64 bus loads of morons that ride Link every day, and never figure it out for years, if ever.

    1. BTW, its been a couple of years since I checked, but the DSA, not Seattle, pays Metro for the RFA. It had not gone up in many years, and was only about $90,000 per year at that – no where near what it cost Metro to shuttle all the freebies around town.
      Of course the flip of that arguement is that it makes the buses faster, and more efficient(which is true), so there’s a cost saving for Metro in that.

      Does anyone know the current reimbursment to Metro from the DSA?
      Then the question has to raised, who will pick up the tab for all the riders that choose a free bus, rather than pay $1.75 to ride the train.
      Maybe ST should pay for that.

  7. If nothing else, This will get rid of the deadbeats that ride mass transit. You know, the ones who say they thought they were still in the ride free zone but are lying. They just do not want to pay. I’ve seen people say they thought they were still in the ride free zone when leaving the bus in tukwila, kent even federal way.

    1. If they were on a 49 the other day they’d have no one to blame but themselves. The operator called out several landmarks and after each one he called out “Last stop in the ride free area” (saying that several times). Some just want a free ride

      1. It has been my experience that most people know where the ride free zone ends. They just do not want to pay. Most people who claim that they thought they were still in the ride free zone that are pressed by the driver will pay. Espically if the driver closes the door before they can get out.

    2. Good luck getting rid of such deadbeats without arming the bus drivers. They’ll just use a different excuse, or none at all.

      1. I think ST is counting on the heavy presence of fare inspectors on Link to discourage the idiots and freeloaders.

        I don’t know what Sound Transit’s agreements for security and police response to Link are. Hopefully it is somewhat better than what Metro operators have to deal with.

    1. The cash rider is going to have enough problems with transferring from Link to a bus. No ORCA means no transfer credit, right?

  8. According to the Seattle PI article, Sound Transit is loosing $2mil if they do not collect in the RFA and will have to make it up with a higher fare on the streets. The RFA option would be $2 base fare. While the No RFA option will be $1.75 base fare.

    Many of the bus drivers are opposed to the RFA anyway.

    Another option being considered will do away with the RFA in the DSTT altogether. In my opinion, buses collecting fares in the tunnel will be the real slowing factor.

  9. Anything to keep the Bums and Transients off of the trains, I say!

    Besides, will there really be any effective Fare Inspection in the tunnel? Most people who want to ride for free between Westlake and the ID will get away with it. Just post some signage so the tourists don’t get miffed; Bus is Free, train is not. Heck, the 99 Waterfront Benson Street Car (remember that?) was not free even though all of its service was once inside the RFA.

    1. Those that rely on the RFA are mostly office workers looking to expand their lunch options or get to meetings faster. This helps retail and the lubricates business. Your hate for the homeless is not relevant.

      1. Then they can take the bus, or if they want to pay and avoid the urine smell, the train. Link involves going way down into a tunnel station. Unless one is travelling from Westlake to ID or v.v., it is hardly worth the climb down to the tunnel versus riding a free surface bus.

        Again, rail is not free in Downtown Seattle. 99 Waterfront Streetcar never was. And if the Sounder ever opens a stop at Pier 70, it will not be free for travel from King Street either.

        My “hate” for the “homeless” is based on many many years of urban living, ’cause guess what: they usually aren’t.

    2. Since the 550 is operated by ST as opposed to KCM, will it cost to ride on it in the DSTT as well?

  10. I know that this is not possible right now with budget problems and all that, but, I like what San Diego does. They have a full time police force that only handles transit. They patrol buses and the Trolly. (the San Diego trolly is in my opinion the best mass transit system in America.) Also San Diego has a system where you but a ticket that is good on trolly and bus. It is either good for time or distance. So basically the father you go the more you pay on the trolly. The Transit Police check the tickets and make sure that you are using a valid ticket. In not they can cite or arrest you.

  11. This is a letter I sent to main@soundtransit.org just now. It has many of the same points discussed in the thread, but maybe with a little different point of view.


    After all these years, with irrefutable evidence that “all door access” in the Ride Free Area saves millions of dollars annually in operating costs, the pinchpennies are at it again.

    Since the Link trains will be stopping at the same platforms in the DSTT as do the buses and will follow them through the bored sections between the stations, they will be operating at the same speed as do the buses. There is no information I can find on the web identifying which routes stop at which bays in the tunnel (a SERIOUS oversight), but one can assume that you are smart enough to have the trains stop at the “front” bays so they can move out in front of any buses which might be delayed for wheelchair loading.

    However, since the trains are limited to the guideway, if a bus passing through the tunnel in the previous pulse stopping at the “back” bays has been delayed long enough for a wheelchair at a station, the train will have to stop in the bored sections to allow it to clear the path. So there will be no fully reliable higher level of service for the rail vehicles than the buses that remain. For the person traveling from University Street to the ID/Chinatown station for an Asian lunch, the elapsed time will normally be exactly the same. Yet one type of vehicle will charge $1.75 for the trip while the other will be free. That is stupid.

    If you have aggressive fare inspection you will alienate your riders by embarrassing them on the platforms, and if you don’t you will net very little revenue.

    It seems to me that an agency as smart as yours could not make such an egregious error were it not that you are setting the stage for removal of the Ride Free service from the tunnel buses.

    The penny pinchers always win in the end, don’t they?

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