Sound Transit Fare Zones

The last fare thread had a lot of complaining about differential fares between agencies.  And although ORCA is intended to smooth over that complexity, in ideal world similar service would cost the same on each agency.

Judging from the comments, people seem to think this is really important.  An interesting way to judge the actual priority people are willing to give an issue is to trade it off against other priorities.  As it so happens, people hate fare increases, and given widespread budget crises there’s no way agencies are cutting fares.  So here’s a thought experiment that gives everyone the fare parity they value so highly, while also raising some cash for transit:

  1. Everyone adopts the Sound Transit fare zone map, with a new fare zone created for Snohomish County outside the ST district.  Other outlying areas can be absorbed into the adjacent fare zones.
  2. The unified fare system adopts the highest fares at each level.  For adults at peak times, that’s $2.25 1-zone, $3.50 2-zone, and $4.50 3-zone.  Off-peak, it’s $2.00/$2.50/$3.00.
  3. If you like, raise Link fares 80 cents and .5 cents a mile to match Sounder.  Use the same structure for the SLUT and Tacoma Link.
  4. Form a regional fare board to approve all future fare changes.

Longtime readers know that I don’t wring my hands much over fare increases to plug the budget gap, because a large part of the burden is actually borne by employers and the federal government.  What reservations I do have would be swept away by a more systematic way to get reduced fare passes in the hands of people who need them.  On the other hand, I’m not convinced the reduced complexity would really be worth the ridership declines you’d create.

78 Replies to “A Modest Fare Proposal”

  1. Low Fare: The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) has a Disabled Persons with Low Income “No Fare” ID ( – scroll to the bottom of the page for a description)

    I’m starting to think there should be one regional fare structure (I like your 4 proposals*)

    * Since they’re so short, not so sure about the Tacoma LINK or the 98 SLUT having distance-based fares until they’re extended

    1. 1. Fares on Tacoma LINK and SLUT don’t need to be different from local bus- remember, idea is to simplify.

      2. Putting ORCA cards in EVERYBODY’s hands takes priority. If you’re going to make ORCA cards mandatory for transfering systemwide, you owe it to people to make them available.

      “Available” doesn’t mean only LINK stations and a few other locations. When the “No Transfers” signs went up, passengers should have been able to get cards from bus drivers- and every corner Bartell store and news-stand.

      A card you have to send away for, and doesn’t activate for 24 hours, doesn’t “get it” either.

      The opening of the ORCA program- which I support- was spoiled by the punitive way it was implemented- “all stick, no carrot”, as somebody put it. If it wasn’t a sneaky fare-increase targeted on the poor, it felt like one.

      3. What loses ridership isn’t a few cents’ fare increase- gas prices are headed above three dollars a gallon again. Now that our system is really getting usable, transit at above fares will still be a bargain over car travel.

      What loses ridership is a complication backed by uniformed enforcement- for which information operators apologize in tears because they can’t explain it. And surly treatment from drivers ticked because they have to implement a policy nobody can explain to them.

      Requirement: if you can’t explain any policy, fare or otherwise, to a high school dropout with limited English- re-work it ’til you can. If it takes a Masters’ to ride transit without being made to feel like a criminal, while a dropout can buy a car- do the grade-school math on ridership.

      Mark Dublin

      Mark Dublin

      1. I don’t think the ORCA roll out was all that bad. In the city all you really need ORCA for is if you transfer between Link and Metro all the time, because Metro still issues paper transfers. If you ride Link regularly you’ve had since July to get a free ORCA card from a station TVM, and ST and Metro did have people at the Link stations handing out free ORCA cards with $5 pre-loaded at the beginning of the year. Most Sound Transit and Community Transit bus users are commuters who already have passes, so it didn’t really affect them because their passes were automatically switched over to ORCA.

      2. The ORCA rollout was brilliant and smooth compared to the total abortion of the TAP card in Los Angeles!

      3. I’m lucky. I get downtown a lot, and make it a point to ride LINK as often as possible. Too bad LINK is only one line, and a lot of people don’t regularly go to the Seattle CBD- especially a lot of poor working people. In the weeks after the change, espcially south of the Airport, I watched many of them get treated like the transfer they’d always used was now fare evasion.

        Just for good will, it would have been better if the system had started issuing systemwide transfers, maybe for a quarter more. And/or systemwide all-day passes every day, maybe six dollars. At least until the ORCA cards became available everywhere.

        Fourteen years into Sound Transit, passengers should not have to put up with any inconvienience at all using any transit service in the region. in 1996 voters were promised a “seamless” integrated system. That’s more than enough time.

        Mark Dublin

      4. Mark,

        Darn right! Why should someone have to think about if its going to cost 25-75 cents more to ride ‘this’ bus over ‘that’ bus. How can we expect the casual or new rider(or even a tourist!) to know the difference? A fully integrated pricing service is the only way to make it easy and relatively stress-free for everyone.

  2. Sorry, but only a honeycomb zonal system like Hollands is equitable. Why should one be able to travel from Sumner to DuPont for the same fare as you propose for a Fred Hutch to Westlake trip on 98 SLUT?

    The entire Netherlands is divided into zones. Here is the area around The Hague:

    Not hard to do.

      1. Inter-agency fares should be harmonized, but beyond that I agree with Erik G. that additional zones should be added to

        (1. Incentivize short trips on transit by rendering them competitive with the cost of gas, and
        (2. Removing the extra subsidy we give to cross-suburban travel.

        ORCA makes system and fare complexity much more user-friendly, and once people are comfortable with e-purses and TVMs are everywhere, why not add zones? Maybe a 10-zone system, in $.50 increments, for a fare range of $1.00 (for local CBD travel in Seattle) to $5.50 (say, Everett to Tacoma)?

      2. Zach,

        The system you describe(10-zone in increments) is similar to what Singapore has. You tap your card when you enter the bus(or MRT station) and then tap your card again when you exit. The computer calculates how far you traveled and deducts it from your account. They charge extra for the rare person who actually pays in cash/coins, but in my times there, I have never seen anyone pay cash. Since everyone knows how to use the system, it is very easy and convenient. For those who don’t know how to do it, there are signs in practically every bus/station stop. Going with that system is more fair AND EASY overall than what we currently have.

      3. Erik,
        It would be interesting to see a map of what you think it should look like (don’t forget to include Kitsap County as they are part of the ORCA system).

  3. Speaking of transfers, I have a quick question – are Link Light Rail tickets usable as bus transfers? I have a tourist friend coming over soon, and I’m not sure if I should invest in an ORCA card just yet, since I still have U-Pass eligibility.

    1. Invest in the ORCA card. Link tickets are not valid on any other bus or rail service.

      1. They just stopped being able to be used on buses on January 1, so maybe you used them as transfers before then. If not, the bus drivers were just being nice, although sometimes I wish the drivers would be even nicer and let people know when they’re doing something wrong.

  4. I’m having a hard time seeing the problems with this. Someone feel free to explain it to me.

    1. You’d make transit far less cost competitive with driving, for one thing, and increase congestion. You’d also knock middle income folks off transit. If we did this and stopped dumping money into highways, didn’t fight upzoning so people could live in the city, and greatly expanded passes for low income, it could work. But we aren’t going to do those things, so we can’t.

  5. Call either ST or Metro information and ask them to explain current fare policy to you. Unless they’ve improved massively since I last tried- you’ll see the problem.

    Mark Dublin

  6. Creating a unified fare system which applies to all agencies and services for a given trip is a worthwhile goal – to make the system more comprehensible, more equitable, and more efficient. It probably doesn’t matter as much to montly pass riders, who typically take 40 consistent trips per month that fully pay for their pass, and everything extra is a bonus. But cash/ePurse customers, who pay by the ride, are more likely to take different trips, are more likely to be spending their own money, and are more likely discretionary riders. For them the current system is confusing and not fair.

    Fares should be consistent between point A and B. Take the next service that comes along that will get you where you are going, with or without transfer. Fares should be fair. We’re all taxpayers. Comparable trips should have comparable fares. We should either have a flat fare or distance-based fare – and the region is big enough we should have a distance based fare. The best way to do that is to have zones – but more zones than in the map above. It’s not equitable that Bellevue or Mercer Island to Seattle (5-8 miles) costs the same as Everett to Seattle. Nor should you be able to travel from Dupont to Everett for that same fare (by transferring in Federal Way and Seattle).

    Martin’s test isn’t quite fair since it incorporates signficant fare increases. Of course those fare increases will depress ridership. But how would a consistent zone fare structure perform that is revenue neutral?

    I think the fare system should have following principles:

    Fares are consistent from one zone to another across all modes (buses from all agencies, Link, SLUT, Sounder) and include all transfers within the zone – if you need a bus or trolley to complete a trip within a zone, it’s free. If it takes you to the next zone, you pay for the zone. This can all be computed with tap-in/tap-out plus GPS.

    There should be an implicit day pass, also zone-based, at somewhere between 2 and 2.5x the one-way fare. If 1 zone fare is $2.00, and you stay within that zone, you can tap in and out all day and you will max out at $4-5. If the 2-zone fare is $3.00, you can travel all day within those two zones for $6-7.50. If 3-zones fare is $4.00, you can travel all day within those three zones for $8-10. It happens automatically.
    Distance-based fares are subsumed within zones. Auburn is in a farther zone than Tukwila. Tukwila is farther than Mt. Baker.

    I don’t think the complexity of peak/off-peak is worth it. Day passes could be cheaper on weekends than weekdays.

    1. “…to make the system more comprehensible, more equitable, and more efficient.”

      in most situations those objectives are conflicting. The most comprehensible systems are flat fair systems but in many ways flat fare systems are not fair or efficent. Likewise efficient systems like distance based fares are complex and can either be equitable or not depending on the context. What I’m trying to say is that any system that meets all of the objectives will be some kind of hybrid. If you see systems that are very pure to one objective that indicates that a certain objective was considered most important.

      1. Adam, I agree with you, and we need to make a balanced trade-off.

        I think the system becomes more comprehensible if all operators charge the same amounts for the same trip, and use the same underlying philosophy for determining fares. Then it can be predictable and comprehensible.

        If we could have a flat fare throughout our system, and raise enough revenue, and keep the fare levels affordable, that would be desirable. In some ways, a rider “pays more” to go a further distance due to the time required to go further. But this only works if we can afford to keep the fare at a level that is reasonable also for a short trip. NYC subway/bus fares are just under $2.00 with a Metrocard (nominally $2.25 but you get a 15% bonus.)

        Our region is pretty large, and so if we need to raise more revenue from longer-distance travelers, then a zone system makes sense. Zone systems essentially are a hybrid of a flat fare within a zone and a distance-based fare when you travel between zones. Thee are some things that can be done in order not to penalize people who start or end their journey near a zone boundary. One concept is to keep the zones relatively small (or granular) and the base fare covers 2 or 3 zones and only goes up as you go further. The other is to have border regions that are in two zones.

        But a basic principle is that the fare is the same across all operators and modes, and is based on origin and destination of the trip, irrespective of transfers required. With widespread use of GPS this is easy to do automatically with ORCA.

        Making the fare the same across operators and modes helps to make it efficient, because you can eliminate redundant service, you can have high volume trunk service and expect people to use it. And you eliminate weird situations where Sound Transit (operared by CT) is much cheaper than Community Transit commuter, ST 1-zone is cheaper than MT 1-zone, but ST 2-zone is higher than MT 2-zone but only off-peak… And just put people on the most efficient service.

        There are a lot of examples of such fare systems in Europe – in Scandinavia, Benelux, France, Germany, Switzerland, etc. Hmmm in most of non-English speaking Europe. What is it about English as a primary language that forces us to have Balkanized inconsistent systems? (I don’t know anything about Australia).

  7. Sound Transit is blameless in the fare confusion. Other agencies decided to each have their own phase-out period, and create their own mish-mash of continuing transfers. That is the source of the confusion.

    Death to paper transfers! Long live ORCA!

    1. Well, Sound Transit has gotten rid of paper transfers.

      But they superimposed a different fare structure on top of existing Metro fares within King County – as opposed to getting agreement on a regional fare system. They were the new kid on the block.

      1. They were the new kid on the block, but their zones make more sense. Shoreline has been penalized for decades for being a small finger of county-zone between Seattle and Snohomish County. Likewise you could (when the 340 was all one route) travel from Shoreline P&R to Bellevue to Burien for one zone, but if you live in White Center it’s two zones to Seattle unless you walk to the border stop (15th & Roxbury).

  8. I like the idea in general, and have always been a proponent of trying to make the system more user freindly. Simple zones, throughout the Sound accomplishes this. I like the influx of cash this would pump into the struggling transit systems.
    But with any system, there are winners and losers. Someone taking the bus from Mercer Island to South Center would pay a 3 zone fare, $4.50, while someone else could travel from Shoreline to N. Renton for half that amount (1 zone), at twice the distance.

  9. I’d like to see Sounder and Link cost no more than commuter express bus routes from the same neighborhoods. Encouraging people to ride express buses to reduce their fare creates substantial additional costs for Metro/CT/PT/and/or ST. Indeed, I’d charge a higher fare on all south King County express bus routes to downtown Seattle than for the rest of the system, as they have another option, and one in which costs have already been sunk.

      1. Kent riders could transfer to Sounder, during the hours when express buses run.

        In New York the Express buses costs $5.50 while the subway is $2.25

      2. PS: In NY many of the areas where the express buses originate don’t have good subway service, but they have local buses with a free transfer to the subway.

        In most cities with developed transit systems in Europe, they would not offer express buses, they would have local buses connecting with trunk rail lines, which is what Kent has during peak hours.

      3. I might agree if the trains were as cheap or cheaper to operate as the express bus service you want to cancel.
        Sounder service subsidizes every rider to the tune of $13.36 each trip, whereas Metro bus, averages only $2.72 per rider. (ST & Metro financials)
        Unless empty seats are available on existing Sounder trains, then it would be foolish to increase overall system cost. If anything, a good case can be made to put all Sounder riders back on buses, and save the difference.

      4. Mike, you are completely misunderstanding the economics. I have no idea where you pulled the $13 figure from, but it almost certainly includes all kinds of capital costs and maybe amortization and depreciation.

        The marginal cost of adding a rider to any given Sounder train is essentially zero. I think each train can hold 1800 passengers. There are only 3 or 4 operating employees on each train.

        Every 50-70 passengers on a bus need another bus and another driver. The bus needs more maintenance and repair work per passenger mile than a rail car or locomotive. While the rail cars are expensive to acquire, they have a lifetime of 50 years and they hold 200 passengers. The buses are not cheap, either, and they are replaced every 12 years. The buses operate on roads and highways for which they are not charged for construction and maintenance, but all the taxpayers pay for anyway, and buses and trucks cause more weight-related damage.

        There is no way that replacing Sounder with buses says money. Further if we have Sounder running already, the more people we put on the trains, the more value we get for the capital costs. Right now our fare policies do not encourage this – the marginal operating costs to run an express bus from Kent to Seattle are far higher than the marginal operating costs of putting that rider onto Sounder. And instead of running a dozen buses empty to Kent to pick up riders and take them to Seattle, and then empty back to the base (and the inverse in the afternoon), you can run three buses to pick up riders in Kent residential areas and bring them to the Kent Sounder station, with less deadhead time, and more total frequencies.

      5. Carl, look before you leap. The $13.36 number is from ST’s 2010 budget (pg25) and DOES NOT INCLUDE ammortization of capital or debt repayment of $19,138,354 per year. Had I included that, the net subsidy per rider would have increased to $20.83 per boarding, or about $40 per daily rider (to/from work).
        Unless all those bus riders can be accomodated on existing trains, you have to add service, then your costs go up.
        Right now, bus is cheaper than rail. Period!

      6. Mike, I will look. But I find it hard to believe, especially for the Tacoma line, which has very high ridership. I expect Everett is much worse.

        Why did you compare the Sounder figure with a Metro bus figure? What’s the comparable ST bus figure?

        I expect that the Metro bus figure is a system-wide average which includes the effect of high ridership short routes like 7, 10, etc. so that you are comparing the cost per rider for 3 miles bus rides with 25 mile train rides.

      7. I used that comparision because you brought it up. I didn’t plan to get this deep in the woods, but just because rail is running between A and B doesn’t automatically make it cheaper than buses. It depends on a lot of factors.
        Your 1800 number per train assumes 140 seated per car on the b-level coaches, with the rest ( up to 360 per car) filled with standees. That’s a pretty ugly thought, having standees replace one seat riders from Kent to Seattle. I’m sure they will love you for the change. (BTW, that’s proposed for 2011, so it’s a real debate coming up)
        My original post was “Why pick on Kent?”, just to fill up very expensive trains to Seattle to make the marginal cost come down.
        And Yes, the Metro number is system wide. I’d have to go through the route performance report to allocate system wide cost to a single route, don’t have the inclination to go there. Have at it!

      8. Right now, bus is cheaper than rail. Period!

        I’d agree but some of the numbers are a bit skewed. I believe you are lumping North and South Sounder together. North is a looser and will be for the foreseeable future. The only station that’s in a reasonable place is Everett. South does better but is also penalized by running more trains than would be economically sensible. One big issue is that almost all the trains are one way. This basically doubles the capital costs. That’s a hard one to fix. Part of it is too many trains. Maybe one early train could make the trip from Lakewood all the way to Everett and back. Extending the line for some of the lines might help. Of course that might cut into Amtrak.

        Also you’re not counting the full price of the bus service. They don’t pay fuel tax meaning they are putting considerable wear and tear on the roads without covering the cost. There’s also capital costs in building and maintaining flyer stops and P&R lots not counted in the operating costs. And of course buses don’t last as long so the capital costs aren’t that much different over the long term.

      9. ALL the numbers are ‘skewed’ in some fashion, but that’s what the agencies report to the public, so that’s what I used. As far as counting the full cost of roads and fuel for buses, again, Metro doesn’t have to pay it, so how could I possibly put a real dollar figure on that, without somebody saying “There you go again, just making up numbers to make your point”.

      10. Why is Sounder so expensive to operate? Is it the BNSF charge? Diesel fuel? I already think it’s ridiculous how much more the EVR to SEA Sounder costs to ride, not to mention that it’s significantly slower. We should really look into fixing up the service or eliminating it completely. on paper it looks like a money pit…

      11. Mostly because BNSF owns the line, and when negotiations took place in ’97, freight business was booming, so ST had to pay through the nose to get trackage compared to what they were charging elsewhere around the country.
        Looking at today’s operating costs(no depreciation) there are some really big cost compared to the total riders (2.7 mil/yr). Here’s just a few:

        Security = 2.8 mil/yr or $1.00 per boarding
        Agency Admin service = 2.7 mil/yr or $1.00 per boarding
        Vehicle Maintenance = 10.6 mil/yr or $4.00 per boarding
        It all adds up rather quickley.

        Good Question though.

      12. Mike, I found the ST 2010 Budget.

        ST Bus service has a budget of $97.2 million for 13.7 million riders, for a cost per bus rider of $7.10. The cost per platform hour for a 50-70 passenger bus is $137.88

        Sounder has a budget of $36.1 million for 2.7 million riders, for a cost per rider of $13.37. The cost per revenue vehicle hour is $932. While not explicitly defined, I believe this is per 200 passenger coach.

        The average trip length is not defined. However, the 13.7 million bus riders will generate $19.1 million in farebox revenue, or $1.39 per rider, while the 2.7 million Sounder riders will generate $8.5 million in farebox revenue, or $3.15 per rider. The Sounder rider is likely traveling a much greater distance than the bus rider.

        All Sounder trips are rush-hour only, and most trains only make a single trip. That drives up Sounder’s costs. Bus service is a mixture of all-day service and peak period service. If Sounder were to be replaced by peak-period only ST express bus service, each bus making just a single peak trip of equivalent length, the cost of replacement bus service would exceed that of Sounder service.

        Further as you have pointed out, Sounder is not at capacity, and virtually all Sounder costs do not vary by the number of riders. Thus, any express peak hour bus trips that can be diverted to existing Sounder trains will result in operating cost savings (whether the diversion is from ST, MT, PT or CT).

      13. I’m not sure if Sounder or Express Bus is cheaper to operate. We both seem to agree that having fuller trains helps the bottom line. This was supposed to be a discussion on fares, which digressed into a debate on costs, which are just numbers.
        My biggest concern is HOW Kent riders are treated IF their service is truncated at the Kent Sounder Station.
        They currently have a one seat ride to most anywhere in Seattle CBD core for a 2 zone peak fare price, and most have a monthly pass.
        The equivelant service on Sounder would be a transfer and 5 minute wait for the train in Kent, then another transfer and wait for bus/LRT to finish the trip to most CBD destinations, with a fare that is higher than bus.
        Time savings, maybe,
        Predictability of trip, better,
        Cost, more
        AND if most seats were taken by the time the trains reach Kent, then they have to stand up for the balance of the trip.
        I can only see TOTAL TRANSIT RIDERSHIP (Metro/ST) falling off, not gaining under this scenerio.
        How do you see this playing out?

      14. From the viewpoint of fares: right now a rider from Kent would pay a 2-zone fare to ride the bus from Kent to Seattle ($2.50 via ST or $2.00-2.75 on MT). If the same rider transferred to Sounder, the rider would be charged $3.50 instead. Monthly pass prices are proportional, so a montly pass might be as much as $36 higher.

        So the fare structure incentivizes the rider to stay on the bus, and the disparate fares may also create a political reason to offer overlapping bus service.

        It ought to be more economical for our region, if we are running the trains and they have capacity, to move those riders from direct peak period express buses onto the trains. (By the way, I think the South Sounder trains have 9 cars each with 140 seats/car, or 1260 seats. I think there are empty seats on every car, so people can count on a seat.)

        If the fares are equal, how will it affect ridership? I don’t know for sure. The trade-off would be more frequent service (most of the expresses only have 3-5 runs/day), greater reliability and comfort on the train vs. additional transfers. But if it resulted in lower operating costs or better neighboorhood connecting service, that would be a benefit. A key would be time connecting local bus service to the neighborhoods served by the Express buses. If the bulk of the riders on buses are boarding at P&Rs, then there is no reason to run those buses.

        Most of these express routes only have 4-5 runs/day, so Sounder should give them more options. The connection from King St Station to International District is reasonably good and gets them to the four other tunnel stops quickly. If connecting buses are timed to serve each Sounder arrival at Kent station,

      15. I mean no reason to run express buses to downtown from P&Rs along the Sounder Route.

        Also, those last 3 lines were supposed to be deleted.

      16. Good discussion Carl, thanks for hanging in there with me. We mostly agree on everything and my main concern is for the riders, not who’s bottom line looks better. In theory, bus/rail is cheaper to operate, and the quality of service overall is better. Sounders numbers make it dificult to keep chanting Rah-Rah.
        On to other subjects :) Mike

      17. Thanks, Mike. Some of the Sounder cost numbers do seem very high. You wonder what’s included in the Agency Admin, since operation is contracted out to BNSF (I think) and maintenance to Amtrak (I think). And is $1 million in security needed? Is that P&R security? Etc.

        If the ridership goes up, it will help, since most costs should stay constant.

  10. Good idea, on comment.

    If you want to simplify, than you should integrate Link and Sounder into the same fare system and buses, don’t have it different.

  11. Simplifying the fare system encourages transit use. A traditional 2-hour ‘time-based’ fare system with a transfer slip is simplest. A 45-min Link trip, say between Seattle and Seatac, could offer transit users a return trip on the same ticket.

    The Bay Area BART system computes a ‘distance-based’ fare for each station. And you’re nickle’d and dime’d to death to reboard if you decide the next station is closer to your destination. All these complicated fare systems do is discourage transit use for all but the grunt commuter hamstrung to habitual routine transit trips. Seattle transit agencies have an agenda of actually discouraging transit use, much the same way WSDOT and SDOT erect obstacles to transit use. No doubt the Seattle Chamber of Commerce business interests approve if not literally pull strings to make it happen.

    Freedom, thy name is Jeep.

  12. If parking was cheaper, I would drive. Gas is still really cheap, and that is the only other major varaible cost to driving (yes, there are repairs/service, but that is relatively infrequent on modern cars). At 20 miles/gallon, you could go pretty far for the cost of 2 peak-hour bus fares, and a lot faster.

  13. I’m going to have to take HUGE exception over your statement about not wringing hands over fare increases because of the portion borne by employers.

    It’s my opinion — borne of one two many conversations with defenders of Metro who turn out to only be peak-hour users AND be receiving free passes from their employers — that this is a major factor in the inertia of true Metro operations reform. The transit stakeholders from politically-influential demographics are the most complacent about fares (it’s free!), about service quality (hey, it’s free!), and especially about non-peak service (many don’t even know it’s bad).

    Let’s compare to the situation in my prior hometown of Boston:

    When the ORCA-esque CharlieCard was introduced, the MBTA subway fare rose from $1.25 w/no free bus transfer to $1.70 w/free bus transfers. (That’s right, Seattleites, $1.70 will get you anywhere served by subway lines and non-express buses, on a system with service frequencies that would be unimaginable in Seattle.)

    When the same recession-induced budget crisis that is now crushing Metro hit the MBTA, further fare increases were discussed only briefly. Not only was the potential burden on the poor widely acknowledged as a counter-argument to a fare increase (rather than being seen as a “minority interest”), but the consensus was that it would be both politically unfeasible and FUNDAMENTALLY UNFAIR to raise fares any further without the ability to provide concurrent service improvements.

    At the very same time, King County Metro was bumping us into $2.25 territory, cutting service significantly, and looking nowhere else for cost savings or improved efficiency. It’s telling that so few in Seattle seem to have a problem with this.

    1. What would you suggest? I hate it when everyone makes it sound like with “cost savings” and “improved efficiency” we can avoid cutting service and raising fares/taxes. Politicians are constantly going on about this during campaigns (not just for transit) but it’s almost completely untrue. Metro is trying to save a little money by cutting the amount of time of layovers and other things like that, but after a certain point, there is nothing more you can do. You have to raise fares and/or taxes, and you have to cut service. Metro has decided to largely avoid cutting service, and so raising fares was their only option. It sounds like MBTA has incurred a massive amount of debt, so at some point it will have to raise fares and cut service.

      1. I want to be very clear that I’m not one of those curmudgeonly right-wing lunatics who yell about eliminating the free-ride zone and cracking down on fare scofflaws as if that would fix Metro’s budget. I know that these frequently-cited examples are a minuscule percentage.

        But if you think that Metro operations — the design of the system, the administrative playbook, or the daily on-the-street functioning — are efficient in any way, then you have never utilized another transit system ANYWHERE.

        In a lower-nested reply I wrote earlier today, I mentioned:
        – interior vehicle design (large seats, tiny aisles, standing discouraged)
        – lift/chair-belt operations (world’s slowest; fold-up seats shouldn’t be there in the first place)
        – trolley wire convolution
        – “don’t argue the fare”
        – the stupid one-door-only policy

        Just off the top of my head, I would add:
        – bus stops placed so that TWO empty lanes are necessary to pull out
        – routes that partially duplicate one another but aren’t staggered/reliable enough to serve as high-frequency trunk routes
        – routes that make 45 sharp-angle detours to save people 2 blocks walk (instead of just zooming down the arterials)
        – obsessive “one-seat-ride” mentality
        – LONG layovers on the premise that 30-minute intervals are somehow “easier” for customers than 25-minute ones (more frequent is ALWAYS easier)
        – express buses that return empty to downtown (marked “terminal”) for another express run, when they COULD be offering a counter-commute express run

        I would also add a couple of potentially inflammatory ones:
        – drivers who suck at driving (stopping at yellow lights, waiting at green lights because another bus is temporarily occupying the stop after the light, driving below the speed limit for no reason at all, and — my personal pet peeve — sitting in the right lane for FOUR LIGHT CYCLES stuck behind right-turning cars while the center lane zips through the intersection! (<– if you've ever taken the 44 at rush hour, you know what I'm talking about)
        – offering use of the wheelchair lift to the fat and lazy (by law, a driver can't question someone who requests the lift about the nature of his or her disability; but don't offer it to the fat-ass — make them ask for it)
        – lastly, while fare enforcement alone won't plug the holes in Metro's budget, it would help to reduce Metro's use as a rolling homeless shelter. There's a huge difference between the need for the poor to have a reliable and inexpensive (remember that I was arguing AGAINST fare increases) and the belief that "a wino on every bus" is endemic to public transit! (Again, ride anywhere else. San Francisco, with a MUCH higher transient populations than Seattle, doesn't have nearly the transient pervasiveness on its MUNI.

        In addition to the above litany of examples of inefficiency, my objection to the recent fare-increase-then-service-cut one-two punch is that it was executed pretty dishonestly. The January increase (the 2nd in less than a year) was specifically spoken of as a preventative measure against service cuts; the announcement of cuts came immediately after the new fares had taken effect, laying bare the lie.

        Even the specific "service revisions" were cloaked in dishonesty. One of the Ballard routes (#17) had announced Sunday cuts. They made a point of saying that only Sunday would be affected. February came and, lo and behold, some early-evening inbound trips were missing from the other 6 days. And since they had announced that Mon-Sat would be unchanged, I only discovered the missing buses when I showed up AT THE STOP to catch a bus that magically no longer existed. EVEN WORSE, they formerly inbound-to-base trips still come TO Ballard before returning to base out-of-service — which means they've technically saved "bus hours" on the cuts but have saved $0 in gas/maintenance and no more than 5-10 minutes of driver salary!! Alex, THAT is the kind of inefficiency that leaves me fuming!

        (As for the MBTA's debt — it actually has little to do with operating costs. It mostly results from capital projects that were mandated as part of a Big Dig lawsuit. The legislature then stuck the T with the tab, and a mountain of debt ensued. The only way it will be fixed is through legislative action, which is fine since the legislature is basically at fault for it.)

    2. d.p. I agree with you that we need to keep cash/ePurse fares at reasonable levels, and that approaching the fare issue only from the viewpoint of subsidized or free monthly passholders creates a distorted picture. I also creates a 2-class system, where those riders ride for free and don’t care about fares, and others who don’t have access to a subsidized pass are essentially priced out of the market.

      Martin’s proposed $3.50 2-zone fare would price a round trip for 2 adults from Bellevue or Kirkland to Seattle at $14.00. That covers a lot of gas and parking, and even a toll. And $14 is real money to most of us.

      Transit fares need to remain accessible to cash/ePurse per-trip riders. If it becomes too expensive, it will erode the political support – why will taxpayers fund a system only usable by elite passholders?

      If we need more revenue, we need to find other sources. And while I agree that there is only so much you can do with “efficiency” if our operating costs are out of line with other regions, we do need to address that.

    3. d.p.

      The big difference between Boston and here is that they have an extensive rail system with the main capital costs long paid off. That’s a whole lot more cost-efficient then running buses to serve high-density corridors.

      1. Boston does have a lot more rail than Seattle – and six car Red Line and Orange Line trains can easily hold more riders than 12 buses.

        Even Green Line trains can hold 4 busloads.

        What has been surprising is how little Boston has invested in expanding its light rail. The Silver Line was built as BRT and is underwhelming. It is referred to locally as the Silver Lie.

        The Watertown branch of the Green Line was abandoned, the Forest Hills branch was shortened, and they have been talking about extending the Green Line to Somerville and Medford for 25 years and haven’t built anything.

        And, even though the per rider costs are much higher, they charge a lower fare for buses. That makes no sense.

      2. I want to reply individually to each response my comment got, but I don’t have time right at this moment. But this can be explained QUICKLY.

        The MBTA is an arcane, entrenched bureaucracy that HATES its own customers and treats them as pests and burdens more often then not. This has certainly led to long-term decision-making that has not been in the best interests of riders. The way they treated their Night Owl experiment (cancellation was a foregone conclusion) is an even better example that yours above (although I’d like to come back and address those later).

        But IN TERMS OF DAILY OPERATIONS, the sheer volume, density, and pan-demographic inclusiveness of transit usage in Boston demands that even a spiteful agency run a relatively tight ship. Decisions that impact speed, efficiency, and system usability NEED to be made in favor of those attributes. And so you have a system that runs pretty well in spite of the malignant disposition of the transit authority.

        By contrast, KC Metro means well. Honestly! But every time it makes any decision that could affect speed, efficiency, and system usability, it CHOOSES POORLY! From routing/scheduling/timing/layover issues to “don’t argue the fare” to huge, grimy seats that leave no standing room and no passing room in the aisles to trolley wire-splits located precisely where they will make the bus miss the light to the slowests wheelchair procedures in the world to the one-door-only idiocy (and that’s just the tip of the iceberg), Metro seems to do everything it can to UNINTENTIONALLY ensure a slow, laborious, unreliable, system that is repellent to those with other options.

        In short, I’ll take the MBTA’s malicious efficacy over Metro’s BENIGN INCOMPETENCE any day!

        (Of course, complaining about the T remains Boston’s favorite civic sport; if only they knew what we had to deal with here.)

      3. Last reply before I let this thread die.

        Carl, the Green Line abandonments were products of 1970s attitudes about public transit, and the Silver Line was the offspring of every possible stupid trend to plague American transit planning in the 1990s.

        But I most want to address your last statement, wondering why “even though the per rider costs are much higher, they charge a lower fare for buses.” It’s not always about operational cost, people! If one service is significantly slower than another, it SHOULD be cheaper until it improves or is replaced.

        ESPECIALLY given the sordid history of environmental classism/racism that have left poorer/minority communities with some of the lowest-quality service in cities like Boston. (In Seattle, where it was presumed that anyone who could afford to drive would, environmental discrimination took the form of shitty and underfunded public tranit IN GENERAL.)

        You might be surprised to know that many bus routes in Boston run at 5-8 minute intervals (super-high quality by Seattle standards). But compared to the subways, they’re extremely prone to delays and bunching. There are, however, rush hour express buses that provide a premium service. Those cost a justifiable $2.80 (compared to $1.25 for the local buses and $1.70 for the subway).

        Seattle analogues:

        Express outbound rush-hour bus that gets from the CBD to Ballard/Greenwood/West Seattle/wherever in a stunning 12-15 minutes = $2.25

        Counter-commute rush-hour bus that covers the same distance in an excruciating 40-50 minutes = the same $2.25 (yeah, that’s justifiable!)

        Off-peak express bus that gets from the CBD to the middle of nowhere faster than going 3 miles within the city = $2.00 flat (how is that fair?)

  14. We need to do something.

    I am a lifelong transit geek. At one time in my youth, I could claim that I had rode every mile of every route in the Seattle Metro area, at one time or another. I have an two college degrees, including one in accounting.

    That being said, and after living in Oregon for a dozen years now, I would be hard pressed to answer to someone how much it costs to ride the bus in Seattle. As much as I look at the websites, it is simply too difficult to figure out how much it costs to get between two points in the system.

    The simplified zone system makes perfect sense. Maybe there should be a Sounder premium, maybe not. But it is necessary for the whole region to have a consistent fare structure. Even if it means using the peak fares.

    Consistency will get more riders on the transit system.

    1. If you use the trip planner, it tells you what the fare will be. If you’re a regular rider, you’ll know what the fare will be.

      1. Use Community Transit’s trip planner. It shows you the fare with cash and compares it to the fare with an ORCA card.

  15. I have a questions about group transfers. If use my orca card for a group fare what is the transfer policy for the group? Assuming the drivers know how to do a group fare will my card be tagged for every person I am going with, so that when I pay for the group on another bus it will recognize it as a group transfer.

  16. I’ve been using the epurse rather than a monthly pass for the past month and a half. I have two big complaints about the epurse vs. either using a pass or the old paper transfer system.

    1. Drivers aren’t resetting the card readers properly at the end of peak hour. I’ve been charged the peak fare on a number of occasions after the end of peak hour. I’m too lazy to go through the hassle of trying to get a refund for such a small amount, but it is annoying. Can’t the readers be put on some sort of automatic timer to clear the peak hour setting?

    2. I didn’t realize how much I was saving in the past when paying cash by drivers being generous with how long they cut transfers and how loose they were about accepting expired transfers. The strict two-hour transfer policy has had me pay as many as 4 fares in a single day with ORCA. It also doesn’t help that ORCA has no concept of an OWL transfer.

    The transit agencies really need to implement some form of maximum daily fare for E-purse users with ORCA. Say 2X the largest fare you pay in a 24 hour period plus 25%. This would put the cost the same as the Metro all-day pass on the weekend.

    I know in the future I’ll be buying at least a $2 monthly pass if there is any chance I might spend more than $60 or so on transit fares in a month.

    1. Chris,
      That would be $12.00 ($9.50 maximum round trip fare + 25% is $11.88 rounded to the nearest quarter).

      1. I hope if you only traveled in 2 ST/MT zones, it would be more like $6.25 or maybe $7.00 (2 x $2.50 * 1.25). ORCA can figure out your most expensive trip.

      2. Yea, I was thinking along the same lines as Carl. The maximum fare should be 2x + (.25x) where x is the most expensive trip someone takes in a 24 hour period. So someone who takes a $2.25 ride, a $2 ride, and another $2 ride would pay $5.

        The idea would be that the cost would be the same for someone who currently buys a Metro all-day pass on the weekends.

      3. Maximum daily fares aren’t a bad idea.

        Los Angeles has no transfers whatsoever. If your round-trip requires four buses (two each way), or two buses + two subway trips, your fare will be $1.25 x 4 = $5. They also offer an all-day pass for $5 — unlimited rides for the price of most round trips. (Commuter rail tickets, likewise, are also good as an all-day subway/bus pass.)

        Doing this sort of thing with ORCA would also encourage ORCA usage and vastly improve efficiency.

    2. I agree that ORCA represents a big increase for former cash fare payers who are running an errand or short trip downtown. You used to get a transfer that was often cut for 3 hours. The transfer said on it that the return trip had to begin before the expiration of the transfer. Operators gave you great leeway. It was easy to shop for a couple of hours or have a meeting or go to lunch and return on the transfer.

      Now, if the two ORCA scans are more than 2 hours apart, it is 2 fares. And if you have a 30 minute bus ride each way, that leaves only an hour downtown, less wait time for the bus and walking time.

      So for me, as a non-transferring former cash payer, who has moved to ORCA, it represents a doubling of my typical trip downtown.

      1. I find these discussions interesting… because I found the whole idea of a timed transfer odd when I first moved to Seattle.

        When I grew up in Orange County, California the bus transfers were directional. As long as you were moving across the system towards your destination, you could transfer between buses.

        Once you changed direction, you paid a new fare; so it didn’t matter how long the trip took. And you couldn’t just do a short trip on one fare. You paid a round-trip fare. Period.

        I still think it’s odd that folks here want to ride Downtown, buy something at a store or go to an appointment, and then return home on the same fare. You can’t do that on a train or an airplane.

      2. That was always one of the advantages about Seattle: they weren’t fussy about transfers. In other places the transfers were one-direction, in Canada they claim it’s a crime to give somebody else your transfer, and many transfers were cut for three hours or all night. I had just enough time to ride from Bellevue to Seattle, return a library book, and go back. Why shouldn’t somebody be able to make a round trip if they’re riding the same number of miles as somebody going in one direction? It costs the system the same.

    3. Chris,

      I buy an off-peak monthly pass, and since I think it’s already too much to pay for Metro’s current level of service, I find it loathsome to pay that extra quarter (e-purse) when I use the bus at rush hour. (Even more so because I’m usually heading inbound at that hour, so the higher-priced service is actually worse than other times of day.)

      Even worse is paying the extra quarter twice in the same peak period or getting the quarter deducted on what was supposed to be an off-peak trip (I’ve learned to always read the ORCA display before swiping, and I WILL call the driver on it if it’s set wrong).

      On the other hand, why should someone be entitled to an entire round-trip, or 3 or 4 hours usage, for a single fare? This “soft fare evasion” punches a far bigger whole in Metro’s budget than “hard fare evasion,” and most likely contributes to our inflated fares. Thus, those who pay by the rules are effectively subsidizing those who overextend their transfer privileges.

      Again, the root of the problem is that Metro provides a very slow, very inconvenient, very laborious service with very poorly timed transfers. Part of the reason Seattle has become accustomed to 2-hour(+) transfer validity is that it’s quite possible for a simple trip to take 2(+) hours. Force Metro to fix its disastrous service/efficiency and its high fares and shorter transfer windows wouldn’t seem unjustified!

  17. As an exurbian commuter, I’m not a fan of zones.

    For example, $2.25 1-zone, $3.50 2-zone.

    That’s a 33 percent premium both ways. I mean, if I extend 2 miles into Zone 2, does it really cost 33 percent more to transport me?

    As long as there are empty seats or spaces, I’m contributing even if I’m paying $2.25.

    Also, I think the point of a transit system should be to allow people to live further out from centralized destinations and eventually “level the load”, providing multiple points of concentration so we don’t have everyone emptying their neighborhoods and cramming into one location every day.

  18. Everett transit fares are only 75 cents. This is an increase from 50 cents last year. Most passengers’ trip lengths are probably 5 miles or less. My commute is about 3 miles each way and I would definitely drive my van 6 miles round trip if the bus fare was increased to $2.00 or $2.50. I love transit but not enough to quadruple my commute costs when compared to driving. High fares are less competitive with driving outside of Seattle and Bellevue where parking is usually plentiful and free.

    Carl’s cost analysis for a two person trip mirrors my thought process. Current fares from Everett to Seattle for two offer little incentive besides “being green” over driving.

    I pay for the Orca e-purse version of the card and don’t find different fares confusing at all. The card makes it easy.

    I agree that Orca cards should be more readily available. To keep costs down, there shouldn’t be a separate card for Orca. I hate having a different card for every purpose anyway. Frequent shopper, Costco membership, Library, and Orca info should be uploadable to a single card – maybe onto a chip embedded into an all purpose card.

    1. If anything, we should charge a premium for those paying cash at all times. Why? Because between the fumbling for money and the issuing of transfers, THEY SLOW THE BUS DOWN and thus contribute to higher operations costs more than those paying ORCA.

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