A fare chart by Oran
A fare chart by Oran

The Sound Transit Board on Thursday will likely vote to set the base Link fare at $1.75. The fare would be modified with a distance-based surcharge of $.05 per mile rounded to the nearest quarter (you can read about the introduction of the distance-based fare in our archives). The maximum fare from Downtown Seattle to Seatac Airport would be $2.50.

This option was chosen over an alternative which would have had the base fare at $2.00 but given downtown riders free access to light rail in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel. Sound Transit staff notes that while this option would have created higher ridership because there wouldn’t be an incentive for cash-users to avoid the rail fare, the rest of the network would be subsidizing the Link trips within downtown.

Linda Thielke, a Metro spokesperson, said that the bus agency has “no plan” to change the ride free policy in the tunnel. This will create a unique situation where riding buses in the tunnel is free, but riding light rail costs money.

Light rail riders have to either purchase tickets for the appropriate destination before boarding, or tap on and then “tap off” with the upcoming Orca smart fare/pass card. Each of these methods would be much faster than the current on-board payment system on buses which can cause crowding.

The Mayor’s transportation adviser, Andrew Glass Hastings, noted that Metro decided “to keep ride free in the tunnel to maintain headways and not impact their service.” Indeed, we have argued in the past that the absence of bus fares downtown can keep things operating smoothly.

You can read the full resolution on the Sound Transit website (pdf). My favorite part is the 52% farebox recovery ratio expected in 2017 once University Link opens. High ridership and long trains operated by one person will do that.

Follow-up: We have some numbers showing the effect on ridership.

53 Replies to “ST to Decide on $1.75 Base Link Fare, No Free Ride”

  1. I know there’s going to be plenty of confusion especially with KC Metro boasting that rides in the tunnel are free (and I consider myself a veteran of our quirky system)

    3rd Ave is looking mighty tempting

      1. Microsoft ID actually (and a Puget Pass when I visit my father in Pierce County)

        I was writing that for others who don’t

    1. I think the confusion, extra cost of fare inspection, and negative PR/marketing impact are going to end up costing ST more than the $2 million/year they hope to gain by charging a fare on link in the DSTT.

      It isn’t as if the issue couldn’t have been revisited in the future when joint operations end.

      1. Agreed. Sure makes it hard for visitors and tourists to take advantage of our public transportation when it’s so confusing and inconsistent. There shouldn’t be a learning curve with public transportation.

      2. Once we free the beached Orca Port of Seattle and Washington State Tourism should offer highly discounted all mode passes. Sell them at the airport for the duration of round trip tickets (King Street Station?) or at hotels for duration of stay. The ease of getting around should generate more income through sales than the cost of the subsidy and advertise the region as a great place to visit.

  2. Another great piece by Mr. Jensen, on a positive, albeit modest, financial step forward in fiscal accountability in Downtown Seattle.

    The .52 fare recovery is a nice improvement but it comes at a significant capital cost. How many jobs do you cut for every billion in capital spending? Personally, I don’t have a good metric for comparing those two benefits but there are certainly benefits to both sides of the coin.

    It is true that it’s less hassle to manage one driver rather than 10, but IMO opinion any bias needs to lean towards employment – especially employment opportunities that also advance tech, and productivity – hence one of the reasons for my support of busways as an incremental ROW phase.

    But I haven’t run the numbers, and it would be great if you all could find someone credible to do so.

    FWIW, fair chance I’ll be at Thursday’s meeting talking about larger financial problems.

    1. Douglas, if you’re going to do BRT between U District, Capitol Hill, and Downtown — that’s the corridor with the insane ridership — you’re going to need you’re ROW. Perhaps a tunnel… At that point, it’s the same cost as rail.

      Busways in the Eastside I could support with details. There’s no room for busways in much of North Seattle.

      1. I agree. The only kind of BRT that works is the ones like the Orange Line in LA (great Streetfilms about that here:http://www.streetfilms.org/archives/las-orange-line-bus-rapid-transit-plus-bike-path/) or the Buses in Curtiba and Bogota. But all those projects are running into capacity problems and at some point they are going to have to switch to rail; Curtiba just announced it’s going to build a subway. So putting BRT in as an incremental step actually wastes a lot of money as there’s a fair chance they’re going to have to convert it to rail within a decade or two.

    2. The .52 fare recovery is a nice improvement but it comes at a significant capital cost. How many jobs do you cut for every billion in capital spending?

      Actually the spending creates good paying jobs. Subsidizing jobs through inefficiency doesn’t usually work (i.e. no self serve gas in Oregon). I don’t know how the numbers break down and it sure would be nice to see a study that doesn’t start with a conclusion and work backwards to support it.

      My question is efficiency. If it cost a dollar a mile to move someone by train and you get 50% fare recovery buses at 60 cents per mile and 20% recovery are cheaper. Those numbers have no basis in fact, it’s just to illustrate what we need to look at. Operations and amortized capital costs need to be included in the analysis. The other biggy is true ridership based costs, not idealized full capacity. The percent fare recovery versus percent of full capacity would be very interesting to see.

      1. I don’t think you can look at rail vs. buses without looking at travel time and capacity. North of downtown peak hour capacity to Capitol Hill, the U district, Roosevelt, and Northgate is already maxed out. Any improvements with a bus based system would require exclusive right of way which would have capital costs similar to Link.

        For travel times while link might not do better than buses outside of peak hour it will be much better than buses in peak hour since Link doesn’t get stuck in traffic congestion. In the case of U link and North link rail will have better travel times than buses during midday as well.

        As to capital cost I will point out two things. First rail is still cheaper than adding a lane each direction to a highway. Yes U link and North Link are both expensive, but what would adding a lane to I-5 between downtown and Northgate cost? Second the capital cost of a rail line and exclusive ROW BRT are very similar. However the rail line has greater capacity and lower operating costs.

      2. I don’t think you can look at rail vs. buses without looking at travel time and capacity.

        You can look at all those things. The rue cost per mile vs ridership lets you decide the margin cases. What headways make the most sense. At some times of day does it make more sense to run buses instead of trains (more flexible, feeder service required in some areas anyway). Does it make sense to extend the tracks or stick with buses. And a big one is fare structure (ridership vs actual recovery).

  3. Fifty-two percent right after opening!

    Andrew, what was our bet for farebox recovery? Was it a reasonable timeframe, or was it 2050 or something?

  4. I thought Link was not going to have tap off capability? was that there all along or has something changed?

    Maybe I am thinking of the buses not having tap off…

  5. This is going to majorly confuse people and not be liked much. You have a ton of people getting off of the Sounder train in the mornings who want to ride one or two stops. ST seriously wants the train to wait while it fills from the front even with most people having either a transfer or a flex pass?

    Any bets on how long this scheme is going to last?

  6. The fare box recovery is too low. DT to the Airport should cost much more than 2.50? 1.75 to start, and perhaps .25 per station after that. With DT as a flat rate of 1.75 or 2.00. The current fare system is too cheap, the Airport is 10x the distance than Westlake to Stadium. Each station should cost a little more and with the budget problems likely to come from lower sales tax revenue, it’s in the interest of Sound Transit to have a system that is as effecient as possible and that means a higher recovery ratio. The recovery goal should be 60-75% (NOW) with the remaining shortfall to be covered by advertising or rentals at the stations. In fact, if done correctly, there’s no reason why the system can’t be profitable. There’s a lot more they can do with respect to advertising at the stations/on board trains, etc. That’s our best bet to have a healthly system and any funds saved should be used for expansion or saved for a rainy day. Or better yet, buy back our debt ahead of schedule and save the ST money and tax payers money.

    1. The constraint on the DT/Airport fare is the buses, which currently cost $2.50 in the peak and going up to $2.75 next year. It would be very, very bad to take away the 194 and replace it with something much, much more expensive.

      Very few transit systems in the world are profitable. If we eliminate subsidy for other forms of transporation I’d be willing to consider reducing or eliminating it for transit.

      1. If we eliminate subsidy for other forms of transporation I’d be willing to consider reducing or eliminating it for transit.

        Well that requires state and (especially) local action. There is essentially no federal subsidy for roads. Rather, drivers subsidize other methods of transportation. The amount of money that comes out of the federal Highway Trust Fund for rail and transit and other uses is so enormous that you would have to envision a level of externalities exceeding that of any estimate I’ve seen. However, the state and (especially) local level is quite different, where local property taxes often pay for a lot of roads.

        Actually, there has been federal subsidies for roads in the last two years, in the amended transportation budget and in the stimulus. Republicans opposed raising the gas tax, but also didn’t spend more on roads than in the gas tax trust fund. When the Democrats took Congress, they were either too scared to raise the gas tax or couldn’t get it past opposition (within and without), but felt that roads and bridges were underfunded, so money has been transferred from General Funds to roads and bridges for the first time in many, many years over the last two years.

      2. It would be very, very bad to take away the 194 and replace it with something much, much more expensive.

        But that’s what we voted for. The train is a much nicer ride for not a whole lot more money (zero if you’re using a pass). A lot of the fare from the airport will be out of towners. A classic way to increase revenue while minimizing impact on locals; like the tax on rental cars and the hotel/motel tax. If I remember right we paid a fairly hefty fair to take the train from downtown London out to Heathrow (and then you’re at Heathrow, yuck ;-).

        Is there really a need for a low income subsidy to the airport? Maybe for some employees that would take the train from Rainer Valley but that can be handled through the employers by the Port of Seattle. I’d look at a $1 surcharge for the segment from Hwy 99 to the terminal. A free shuttle paid for by the hotels, airport parking and rental cars along International Blvd would provide the cheaper option and free up seats at the terminal. Sure it’s a bit elitist but don’t we really want this Portal to the City to shine? When we’re looking a service cuts a cheaper seat to the airport doesn’t seem like a priority.

    2. The only way to get 60-75% fare recovery ratio is to severely jack up fares and reduce service so the trains are always crowded. But this isn’t Brazil. A transit system with those qualities would put people back to driving. It’s impossible to see those fare recovery goals in the near-term.

  7. We need some graduation in the fares. Are there any examples out there of systems that provide discounted fares on the basis of financial need? For working professionals, I think $3.00 to the airport is totally reasonable. (Even $4 sounds reasonable), but I see the need to look out for the low-income riders.

  8. Sound Transit’s decision to opt out of the Ride Free Zone seems to be based on a fundamental logical error. Furthermore, there is much to be gained and almost nothing to be lost by having Link be part of the RFZ.

    The resolution linked in this post states that Sound Transit would lose $2 million in revenue by participating in the downtown Ride Free Zone. This means it is expected that enough people will pay $1.75 to ride Link for trips that both begin AND end inside of the 4-station Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel during ride free hours to generate $2 million in revenue per year. Remember, only those trips that occur entirely within the DSTT during ride free hours are relevant to this discussion, because anyone whose trip begins or ends outside of the tunnel, or whose trip occurs after 7PM, will be paying no matter what fare structure is adopted.

    This means that Sound Transit is counting on huge numbers of people to pay $1.75 for a trip that they could get for free by simply getting on any Metro bus at that same station in the DSTT – busses that will arrive more frequently, take the exact same amount of time to make a very short trip, and will serve an additional station (Convention Place) that Link does not go to.

    Aside from the novelty of riding Link, there is absolutely no reason for anyone to pay $1.75 for a trip that can be had for free by simply getting on a bus instead of the train. If there are a handful of people willing to pay $1.75 for the extra joy of riding a train for 5 minutes instead of a free bus for 5 minutes, I assume that novelty will wear off after a handful of trips, and those riders will join everyone else in choosing the free ride.

    I will be shocked and disappointed in the collative intelligence of Seattleites if Sound Transit makes $2 million per year on passengers whose trips occur entirely within the Ride Free Zone.

    Furthermore, it is extremely disingenuous for the ST resolution to state that Link’s participation in the Ride Free Zone would amount to downtown trips being subsidized by those paying for rides elsewhere along the line. Trips occurring entirely within the DSTT will ONLY happen at all if Link is part of the Ride Free Zone. This is simply a debate between a $1.75 base fare and a $2.00 base fare. We can leave the RFZ question out of it, since no one will (or should!) pay any amount to ride Link in the DSTT as long as busses are free. There is no way that the extra income generated by a handful of people illogically paying to ride Link instead of taking a free bus in the tunnel will make up for the cheaper $1.75 base fare as opposed to the alternate $2.00 base fare.

    So, even if the base fare is $1.75, I don’t see any argument at all for not participating the Ride Free Zone. On the other hand, there is one very good argument FOR being part of the RFZ, regardless of what the base fare is for trips that extend outside of the tunnel. If busses and trains are the same price in the tunnel (free during the day, $1.75 after ride free hours), many people will ride Link for trips within downtown who would otherwise take a bus.

    Having more people ride Link downtown is important for Sound Transit, even if they don’t pay (bearing in mind that they will either ride for free or not ride at all) because it will continue to whet the public’s appetite for more light rail, and will create excitement about Link among those who might work downtown but don’t live along the Central Link line (and therefore will only ride Link for free trips within downtown during the day). Those people will then be more likely to consider taking Link to the airport, taking a trip to Columbia City for dinner, or taking Link to a Mariners’ game this summer.

    Has Sound Transit addressed this question at all? I would love to know why they believe anyone, let along enough people to generate $2 million in income, will pay $1.75 to ride Link when an identical bus ride is free.

    1. Your post assumes that Link can take an additional rider without affecting costs. That’s true for one rider, but not hundreds. Over time, additional riders paying no fare would necessitate additional service and that costs money.

      1. I still think it would be more intelligent for ST to keep Link as part of the RFZ until such time as either the buses are evicted from the tunnel or the RFZ is dropped for buses entirely.

        OTOH anyone who is a monthly pass user isn’t really going to give a flying fig since their pass will cover downtown Link rides.

      2. I think it’s the “flying fig” riders where ST hopes to gain their $2mil from. As I understand the revenue sharing scheme that Puget Pass/Flexpass offers, is that a percentage of total pass revenue goes to each agency based on card swipes. So if more pass riders choose to take LINK, the percentage of swipes that ST records goes up, therefore their revenue goes up.

      3. But that gets to the heart of the matter. This is not about more income for Sound Transit, as people staying in the tunnel will switch to the bus instead of paying. It’s about saving money by eliminating free riders. BUT those free riders are just shifted onto another tax-subsidized transit utility, which happens to be less efficient and thus costing the tax-payers more. So, it is a false savings. Sound Transit is getting better farebox recovery, sure, but the public cost actually goes up.

    2. I have my own problems with this proposal, but one possible mechanism is that people with unlimited-use passes might very well take the train. If the revenues from those passes are divvied out based on ORCA records, it might very well cost ST money.

      But I have no inside info on whether or not ORCA will cause the agencies to go from their current formula-based model to a more precise one.

  9. Are there any light rail systems in America that have a downtown ride free area, and ask that the rider pay as they leave?

    1. I assume that if ST had chosen for link to participate in the RFA it would have been handled somewhat like the fareless square in Portland.

      Essentially no fare inspection in the tunnel and you’d need to tap on/off or buy a ticket for your destination if you were going outside the RFA.

    2. Pittsburgh. Fare is due while boardin inbound and while deboarding outbound. Fare is collected at staffed station fareboxes, or by the operator (who has a farebox available) when stations are not staffed (non-peak hours usually)

  10. I don’t see how making link free in downtown would be a subsidy. People wouldn’t knowing pay $1.75 to ride in downtown when they could take the same bus. The thing about link, it should be able to handle the extra traffic because of the many doors and standing room. The busses are not as well equipped for the extra traffic, plus, link has it’s terminus downtown, while many of the busses will pass through, and people will be shuffling in and out.

    This will only redirect extra passengers, and it won’t allow people to get a taste of the future of transit. In transit, public opinion is key, and it is always good for people to get used to using transit, even if it is just to go from Intl. to Westlake.

    1. I have to agree.

      There is also a potential capacity problem on the buses as more routes get removed from the tunnel. The only downtown riders who are likely to opt for Link will be those with ORCA cards bought as monthly passes or those with trips beginning or ending outside the RFA.

  11. Is saving $2.50 a week worth carrying around a pocket full of quarters? This seems like the Post Office constantly raising stamp prices by one or two cents resulting in the annoying need to buy make up stamps (I do like the “forever stamp”). Why not start off with an even fare amount and see how long it can be held at that price.

    Most “full time” transit users buy a pass. Upping the base fare to $2 will push more people that are at the margin to buy a pass. That has to improve efficiency not only in accounting but more importantly in boarding. I see the free ride zone issue the same way. My opinion of rail is that it should be for moving large amounts of people quickly over a relatively large distance. I know you need lots of stops in downtown because so many people get off and on there but the train should be for people actually going somewhere. The bus system is for the short hops.

    Can’t we get a system where you pay to get on the platform? Can you imagine what would happen in London if they switched to a system where you pay as you get on or off of the tube!

  12. Actually, many cities have transits systems that are profitable or at least have a recovery ratio of 75% or more. Unfortunately not many in the U.S. ST doesn’t have to reduce service levels and in fact can improve the level service. Think of it this way, the high the fare box recovery, the more likely and faster we’ll get an expansion. I’m talking about just a couple of quarters more, and maybe a buck or two more to the Airport. Link is not bus, and given the option at even a dollar or more, I’ll take Link any day. For example, Airport to Downtown Seattle by taxi 35 bucks, Airport to Downtown by bus 2.50. Link, I’m sure is still a very good option at 3-4-5 bucks. In many cities around the world, Airport to DT is between 10-30 USD. Seattle is getting a great bargain, it will be a great system but it’s actually not that difficult making it break even (operating) if managed right.

    1. You’re really simplifying a complex problem. Fare at $5, improved level of service and “managed right” and we can just end up with a huge recovery ratio? It’s not that easy! Even if things are “managed right,” which is a really hand-wavey way of saying that the issue’s more complex than you’re saying :)

      The problem when comparing America with foreign countries is that we generally have a much bigger infrastructure for cars. So raising fares for transit is just as likely to drive away riders than improve your recovery ratio. Also, we’re less accepting of being packed tightly into trains and demand frequent peak service. With those conditions plus high fares people would just drive since our society accommodates that without questions of profit/loss. This is why no system in America comes close to turning a profit.

      Perhaps the airport stop should be more expensive as the system grows — that’s not too uncommon — but you’re never going to see 75% recovery ratio for a 14 mile rail line with no other rail connections and a bus system that has half the fare. So yeah, it’s pretty difficult right now to make rail break even with operating costs, otherwise we’d just do it and get more rail rather than funding operations costs. But the more positive side is that rail has better fare recovery ratios and more capacity than buses, allowing us to spend more of the same tax pool on capital investment than salaries.

      1. Even with U Link and North Link I just don’t see Sound Transit getting to 75% farebox recovery. The 52% predicted is pretty damn impressive, especially for first year operations.

  13. Since we are on the suject of Link and the tunnel.

    Since Light Rail/Link must run underground through downtown, will the hours of the tunnel be extended past 7:00 PM?

    Thank you,

  14. They should just turn the free ride zone into a 1 dollar zone if you have an orca card (assuming swipe on and off). then trains and the bus could be on the same page.

    Off peak capacity is a non issue and I would rather have people use Link then take the bus if they can.

    1. The Ride Free Zone exist to speed up boarding through downtown, which will be especially important when busses need to hurry through the tunnel to synchronize with trains. So, charging anything on busses in the tunnel would not work. You could, I suppose, get rid of the ride free if you implimented card swipe only boarding, no cash, for bus boardings in the tunnel, as it is on the trains, but this might be too confusing to work.

      1. if you charge 2x as much for cash as the Orca then I think boarding speed will not be a factor. In London it hardly slows anyone down…

  15. One of Sound Transit’s charges and expectations when it was formed was to develop an integrated fare system between the region’s transit agencies. Unfortunately what we’re seeing is not that – we’re seeing Sound Transit follow the pattern, setting its own fare policy regardless of the other agencies. I can see the internal logic in the decisions they’re making if you look at the Sound Transit world as its own universe, but from a customer’s point of view, this is a lost opportunity to set a new path rather than to layer one more inconsistent fare system on top of the others. Most of us couldn’t care less which agency is carrying us – we want the transit system to work together.

  16. Why did they abandon the old two zone system with pay as you enter on the way into town and pay as you leave on the way out of town. That was way back when I was in college and yes, it was so simple even us cavemen could understand it.

    1. The difference is that the ride-free area used to be 24 hours and now it ends at 7pm. I never had a problem remembering the “pay at the non-downtown end” rule because it was easy to visualize. But now even after several years I regularly walk on or off and the driver asks “Do you have a pass?” because my brain works by memory rather than by thinking about the current time. It’s one thing to remember, “Is this rush hour? I have to pay more then.” It’s another thing to remember, “Is this daytime or evening? I have to pay on the opposite end in the evening.”

      1. 24 hour Ride Free, I’ve never seen that, I have seen tunnel hours moved around but best I can tell Ride Free has always ended at 7pm. After that, they are all pay upon boarding, we’ve always done that.

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