ST Express Proposed Changes
Proposed changes to ST Express bus fare.

We were just informed that the Sound Transit board will discuss a “fare simplification/coordination and rate change” proposal at this Thursday’s board meeting Operations and Administration Committe. The initial draft of the fare proposal can be found here. Information about the meeting can be found here.

From my cursory skimming of the proposal the biggest news is not the fare changes themselves; as ST’s fare have only increased once since 1999 compared to four times with CT, Metro and PT. Rather the big news is the structural changes underlying them. ST Express bus service would see the largest structural changes, shifting from a Sound Transit subarea basis to a county basis.

The image above outlines the proposed changes to fare structure as well as price. I’m under the impression that this structural change is an effort to bring ST’s fare structure more in line with the county operated transit operators. In coordination with county agencies this could possibly leading to a harmonized although not necessarily unified fare structure.

The other change is to increase Link’s base fare by $0.25 cents and eliminating the distance-based portion of the fare for youth and senior/disabled. This will cut the number of possible link fares in half from 12 to 6 and bring youth and senior fares in line with Metro’s bus fares next year.

The Seattle Times will have a story with interviews tomorrow and I’m sure Martin will contribute more analysis in the coming days, especially since he wrote about fares here just a few days ago.

I’ll just leave you with a few thoughts. To me there are three competing objectives when designing fare structures; equity, ease of use, and system efficiency. Depending on the historical precedence and context of the transit system these competing objectives lead to different fare structures. Flat fares are easy to use but create large winners and losers and don’t manage demand well. Zone based systems are harder to understand, make the system more fair and more efficient. Distance based fares are complex, more fair and more or less lead to efficient use of the transit supply. In Seattle’s context equity and ease of use will be the two competing objectives that will shape any fare structure change. Stay tuned for more details in the coming days.

55 Replies to “Sound Transit: Looking at Changing Fare Structure”

  1. Correction: While the proposal would lower the Youth fare for Link, it would not bring it in line with Metro’s youth fare, which is 75c.

      1. I should have been more specific. The youth fare on Metro is 75-cents today. Do we really know what it will be next year or the year after?

  2. Wow. This is great news from a driver stand point. As a Metro driver, we would only have one fare for all ST routes we operate. Only PT and First Transit operate routes that cross county lines. Hope this actually happens.

  3. Looks good. Now they just need to be rid of the distance based fares for regular Adult LINK riders, and implement the Magic Carpet aka RFA in the tunnel for LINK. For all practicality, they dont seem to enforce the fares in the tunnel, and it makes it inconvient for those who want to travel one or two stops to have to think about what is coming next or what they are going to ride to either tag on or just hop down to the platform…

    Once the buses are out of the tunnel, Metro should convert to PAYE (Pay as you Enter) for all buses in downtown seattle, and really eliminate a lot of the fraud (and fare inconsistinces) in the system.

    1. There’s so many buses downtown that removing the RFA without having an offboard-fare-payment option at all major bus stops would create a ton of congestion and slow things down for all riders. I think that they should have Link and Metro fares be the same for everyone, then put in turnstiles in the tunnel and just have everyone getting on in the tunnel buy a Link ticket. On the surface, it should still be PAYG/RFA until they can put ticket machines at all bus stops on 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Ave, along with all of the Streets that have a significant number of buses on them.

      1. charge double the cash fare as orca and see these load problems disappear. it’s the only way to move people over

      2. There was a question on the driver’s fare evasion survey about implementing a proof of payment system. If they did that, they could put ORCA readers at all major stops (downtown, busy park & rides, major transfer points, etc). The ORCA reader would still be available on the bus. Cash fares could be simplified to the highest rate to encourage ORCA use and customers given either a transfer or a new POP receipt assuming transfers go away.

    2. Bad Idea! Do you know how long it takes at each stop downtown when it is pay as you enter. Early evenings, just as 7pm can be pretty bad and would be horrible during peak times. I have a had a few trips like this as regualr work the past. Last summer I was the first NB 5 leaving downtown after 7pm, after the RFA. I takes forever, especially at 3rd/Pine. Also on Sunday evenings a had a 72 leaving the tunnel just after 7pm too. You would be sitting in Westlaske station for atleast 2 minutes, loading a full bus with everone paying.

      I know there issues that would be resolved by getting rid of the RFA, but it really needs to stay in place to keep buses rolling in downtown and in the tunnel. It slows down traffic in the tunnel and it keep buses in the zones on the surface too long. You need those buses to open both doors, load quickly and clear the zone for the next buses.

      1. Dwell times around 7pm could be reduced by allowing riders to exit through the rear doors instead of effectively going to front-doors only for both boarding and exiting passengers.

      2. If Seattle needs an RFA to avoid bus gridlock, why don’t other cities have the same problem?

      3. Thank you Mike, easily the best question to pose about the RFA. Name a major city that needs this in order to handle rush hour? I was just in Phillie, they run way more busses, easily double the frequency at rush hour and still each one is packed, no RFA, no confusion, you pay or you walk.

        Metro seems happy to ignore how much the PAYL slows down heavily loaded busses at each outbound stop. Time saved on 3rd is promptly lost at every outbound stop while people force their way back up the aisle dropping their change on the way.

  4. I’m of two minds on Link fares. On the one hand for the short term I’d like to see Link have an RFA in the tunnel and use the lower of either ST’s one zone fare or the Metro off-peak fare. The idea would be to lower the price and fare complexity to boost ridership. At some point though the system is going to be much larger and have portions that need demand management. Switching to a distance based structure later is going to be hard to do later. So keeping the current structure makes some sense. Also going with a flat fare for youth/seniors/disabled addresses some of the equity issues.

    1. That option was considered by the Board, but it would have meant a higher fare for Link ($2.00 to $2.75) instead of the $2.50 maximum fare. They chose the lower fare.

      1. The distance based fares dont work terrably well for LINK since the line is too short and stations are too close together. Also the way ST has the fare “zones” presented makes it even more confusing by displaying a large table. If they had groups of stations displayed it would simpify it a whole lot more (aka LINK zone 1, 2, 3, etc.)

        I also have a difficult time beiliving that they really would loose that much revenue by having the LINK participate in the RFA. It makes it much more difficult to use downtown becuase you can’t just board the next coming vehicle (bus or train) but have to plan ahead somewhat and either buy fare or tag in, or wait for the bus… And since they dont accept paper transfers, and Metro dosent accept link tickets….

      2. Indeed, things are really confusing now. You don’t know whether to tap on or not for tunnel trips because you don’t know if the first thing that will show up will be a bus (free) or train (pay).

        Maybe the RFA should actually be limited to the tunnel, but applied to trains as well? Seattle could arrange to pay Sound Transit and Metro a renegotiated annual payment based on the split of available seats provided on Link vs. tunnel buses.

      3. LINK is not BART. BART goes a much longer distance, so you’re getting more for your money to justify a distance-based fare.

      4. If Central Link ever extends between Everett and Tacoma, the longest trip would be well over 60 miles. And since ST policy demands a higher fare recovery ratio for Link than ST Express, distance based fares would be very likely, like what Sounder is currently using.

      5. Just took BART from SFO to downtown last week. $8.10 one-way, and it’s only 13 miles. Definitely did not get more for my money. :-0

      6. Yikes! It was only $5 or so last time I was there. Looking at the BART calculator (, SFO has a huge surcharge. Montgomery to Millbrae (a slightly longer distance) is $4.25. Millbrae to Berkeley or Fremont is $6.70. Millbrae to Coliseum (Oakland airport) is $4.95, but SFO to Coliseum is $8.80.

        But the point is that you could go to Pittsburg every 15 minutes and it would take only an hour or so. That’s the added value you get. Whereas if you want to take Link to Tacoma, forget it.

        If Link is extended to Tacoma and Everett, it would be similar to BART and a distance-based fare would be more justifiable. But that’s not even on the construction schedule yet.

      7. Wow, it looks like about a $4 surcharge for SFO, that’s higher than the YVR surcharge on the Canada Line. Guess they’re trying to recover the billion-and-a-half they spent bringing BART to SFO.

      8. Actually, I just looked, as I have to take the Canada Line from the airport next month, and it was $5.

      9. “Guess they’re trying to recover the billion-and-a-half they spent bringing BART to SFO.”

        Possibly, or they’re just trying to gouge plane travellers. Everything south of Colma was part of the same extension but only SFO pays the surcharge. I wonder if airport workers get a price break?

        There are similar gougings at other airports. Trains from Manhattan to Newark are $4, but to Newark Airport are $15. JFK Air Train is $5 for a mile or so, while the subway is $2.25 for what, 30 miles to downtown? Plus they get more from the “visitor confusion tax”. The Air Train cards at the TVMs sound like they’re Metrocards good on both the subway and Air Train, but when I got a multi-ride card I found it was good only on the Air Train and the agent wouldn’t give me a refund. I ended up using the card on two extra trips (because the airline lost my luggage), and gave the rest of the card to somebody else, but I was still mad about it.

        Denver has a $13 hour bus ride to the airport. However, the trip is 13 miles on a freeway through emptiness — there’s nothing around the airport — so part of the cost may be justified.

      10. I think we just found a faster way to pay for ST2: $10 airport fee! (those that miss the 194 will love that one)

      11. Matt,
        How would the ticket vending machine know you came from the airport, or from the neighborhood around the station?

      12. The same way those other system do it: they just charge everyone the airport fee.

      13. “How would the ticket vending machine know you came from the airport, or from the neighborhood around the station?”

        Tentatively, I’d say that the stations with airport surcharges are isolated. There is no surrounding neighborhood, the only buses dead-end at the airport, and there are fare gates to enforce payment. I don’t know these areas well since I just get on the train and leave. I think SFO station just has airport parking around it? And Newark is similar? (Note the $2 bus to Newark Penn Station for cheapskates.) Only a few NJT stations have fare gates, and Newark Airport happens to be one of them. At JFK, the surcharge is on the Airtrain which goes only from the subway to the airport with no other stops.

  5. I hate to be a grammar Nazi, but you spelled bring “being” and leave “live”.

    1. No worries. Both grammar and spelling have never been my strong suit and in my defense it was 2:30 in the morning here in Stockholm when I was writing it. No one else could write about it and I didn’t want the Times to be the one to break the news.

  6. I feel that fare simplification is a good thing. I think it helps entice new riders onto busses, and that is something that needs to happen. I can’t count the number of times my mother has driven instead of taking the 545 into downtown because it was to much of a pain to pay. Good idea, ST!

  7. Removing distance-based fares adds incentive for sprawl. Making 2-zone the same as 1-zone removes incentive to live close to your work. Plus you’re removing some of the incentive for people that live close to their work to vote for transit taxes, since they’re subsidizing those out in the suburbs.

    We had a post around here about long-term planning a few days back. If we want dense cities that are easy to get around in we should be building affordable systems for those inside the cities – not making it as expensive for a 10-minute ride as a 60 minute ride. The easier and cheaper we make it to live out in the suburbs, the more people will continue to do so.[/rant]

    1. I see your point, but i have my doubts that the public transportation fares have a large impact on where people choose to live.

      1. I’ll give you that it probably isn’t a “large impact”.

        Another factor to consider is that this definately will affect whether people in the city drive their cars more (driving 2 miles and parking is already cheaper for a couple and is much faster than taking the bus). This isn’t a huge deal in the short term (what’s a mile or two of driving to the environment?), but sets us up for poor long-term growth (with the need for garages, more people owning cars, adding resistance to converting lanes to bike paths or transit, etc.).

      2. agree, I would take the bus for short distance trips but it just costs way more then the bus, since I have to have a car anyways…

  8. Sounds great. It was always confusing on the 560 where the zones started and ended.

  9. The politics here is transparent. They are raising fares for urbanites and not for suburban commuters. The urbanites will whine less about it. Path of least resistance.

    Oh, well. I just don’t want Link to cost more than a bus ride between the same two points.

    1. Well it’s bad for people who currently only take ST buses within a single subarea, but good for those that take it between two king county subareas. As a regional agency I think you can make a strong argument that this move is justified because I would guess that a good percent of trips on ST already cross at least one subarea boundary.

      1. Most ST trips cross a subarea boundary. This eliminates the “I got on at _____” excuse for people, too.

      2. Most of the ST routes I drive are frequented by 2 zone customers. The one big exception is the 522 where there are a significant number of one-zone passengers who will be affected by this fare increase.

        Not sure about the 56x routes out of South since I’ve never driven any of those.

      3. Yeah I was going to say that the 522 is the only route that will be significantly affected. Maybe it would be better to change it into a rapidride line.

      4. Next year Metro one-zone off peak goes to $2.25 and $2.50. Since ST is supposed to be longer distance service, ST doesn’t want to undercut MT fares and fvvor taking on the short riders. Consistent fares between MT & ST would solve that problem.

    2. Its the same thing with Metro fares. I remember when when Metro 1 zone peak was 1.50 and 2 zone peak was $2.00 which is a 25 percent difference now its 2.25 and 2.75 which is less then a 20 percent difference.

      1. Yeah, I think this is an issue and fails to address the problem that the long haul busses have much lower boardings per mile (cutting into fare revenue) but also end up with a lot of deadhead or reverse direction low ridership miles. Any fare increases should try and bring the fare recovery ratio more in line. I think this will do the opposite.

        Right now the only decent connections from Totem Lake Flyer Stop to Bellevue Transit Center are the ST 532 and 535. Given these buses on the reverse commute run anywhere from 10-20 minutes (or more) behind schedule I can still live with the $1.50 fare but $2.50 ($5 a day) on the days I don’t want to ride or want to go to DT Bellevue after work I’ll just drive. I’m willing to bet there are a lot of other short eastside connections like this that suffer. I guess overall ST won’t lose much revenue with a decline of short hop riders but system wide it really sucks to see the capcity going to waste because the fare structure is skewed to favor long haul routes.

        I know it would make the fare system even more convoluted but with ORCA it seems like it wouldn’t be that hard to make fares demand based (i.e. the routes that are running full charge more and the routes that are essentially “deadheading” make it cheap). That’s the way airlines, and most commercial transit would operate; demand and supply. Instead, ST has no Peak Fare policy at all.

  10. I must say, after experiencing the before and after of Portland’s Fareless Square conversion, I say Seattle can easily kill off the RFA and won’t notice much of a delay.

    TriMet has done a wonderful job with the transition.

    1. What did they do that is special? Anytime I’m in the tunnel after 7 the buses are painfully slow, so slow it screws with link.

  11. A new thought on the RFA and Pay As You Leave. There is a way to preserve (limited) free service downtown and have all buses Pay As You Enter. That would be to restrict the free rides to buses which *terminate* in the RFA. The farebox would simply be covered when the bus enters the RFA boundary. Buses beginning in or passing through downtown would not participate in the RFA. Something similar goes into effect on the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis tomorrow. Route 18 Northbound and Routes 10 and 59 Southbound will be free if you board on the Nicollet Mall. These routes all terminate downtown. The regular “Downtown Zone” fare of 50 cents will apply in the opposite direction, but I’m guessing this is an experiment towards making all Downtown fares only apply on terminating routes with or without elimination of the 50 cent fare.

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