Paper sign on TVM pointing to 3 other TVMs at SeaTac/Airport
Paper sign on Link TVM

I find the signage pointing people to Link’s ticket vending machines to be non-existant or poor, especially in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel. Over the last few weeks I met a few people at Link stations who did not know where to purchase a ticket to ride Link, notably at Westlake and International District, or were confused between ORCA and paper tickets. I also saw people at the Airport station lining up for ticket machines although there were three open ones on the north side. My guess is that most people who buy paper tickets are likely infrequent riders and visitors, who are not familiar with the system on a daily basis. Obviously, many people have no trouble finding and figuring out how and where to pay their fare but the issues below make the system less user-friendly and accessible for all.

Details after the jump.

Inadequate and Outdated Signage

Although the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel stations have fairly detailed station maps, they have not been updated since the tunnel reopened in 2007 to include the locations of ticket vending machines and ORCA readers. The Metro Customer Stop had to put up a hand-drawn sign telling people to buy tickets from the TVMs. The overhead signage is absent of any pointers to Link tickets. At SeaTac/Airport, they had to put up a hand-drawn paper sign pointing to three more ticket machines, though admittedly the station map does show those machines.

Location of ORCA Readers

For regular users, the ORCA card readers in downtown stations are sometimes placed in the most awkward of locations. For example, at Pioneer Square’s north mezzanine, the readers are placed out of the path to the trains for most people. One has to walk to the south by the elevator, tap their card, and walk to the far north to the stairs. People riding within downtown with ORCA cards, cannot readily tap their card to board a Link train that happened to come first. They may board anyway without tapping, meaning lost revenue to Sound Transit with a sizeable chunk of intra-DSTT trips. Passengers transferring to/from a bus have to know that only International District and southbound Westlake have platform-level readers. That soon will no longer be an issue as all downtown tunnel platforms will be equipped with ORCA card readers by the end of this year, according to ST spokesperson Bruce Gray.


On the broader issue of accessibility, most Link stations have a tactile braid guiding people with disabilities from the entrance to the platform, to information panels and to ticket machines. While the downtown stations have them on the platform, they are notably absent from the mezzanine level. For some reason, Metro or Sound Transit decided not to install them. I suppose the walls are sufficient to guide the blind since nearly everything is located by the walls (University Street and International District are exceptions).

55 Replies to “Where Do I Pay My Link Fare?”

  1. I’ve often wondered how successful our public transit systems would be if everything they did was aimed at the occasional user (tourist, broke down road warriors, KF’s)
    Fares would be universally simple. Flat rate (we don’t care who you ride with, what kind of vehicle your on, where you’re going, what time of day it is, or how many times you transfered).
    Fare payment would be just as simple. Have a pass or buy a ticket.
    Passes would be daily, monthly, or yearly. Same rules – ride anywhere, anytime.
    Tickets would be a flat rate, say 2 bucks for 2 hours – same rules – anywhere, any provider, any time. Just keep your ticket as proof you bought one.
    Dispensing tickets could be equally universal. TVM’s, on-board, or even the damn parking meter TVM’s with an additional button.
    That system would generate X riders and Y revenue. IF total Puget Sound fare revenue is more than is currently being collected, then it’s a success.
    Now the fun part. Let the transit agencies sort out who gets how much of the big pie, based on their own ridership counts that determine the ‘division of revenue’. It’s all done behind the scenes, with….. wait for it….. computers. Hooray.
    One machine takes the place of 200,000,000 annual riders brains trying to cope with all the fare system mutations.
    Too simplistic you say. Yeah, too much money is sunk in the current system. Ain’t gonna happen.

    1. We really need a way of doing a 3-day or weekly ticket. When I visit New York, I can pay 20-something bucks for a week pass, and I’m on my way. No tourist is going to want to buy a 1 month pass.

      1. When you visit Boston, you can insert $15 into any CharlieTicket machine — they’re everywhere, including the airport — and have in your possession a pass good for exactly 7 days from the moment you bought it on all subways, all buses, all commuter trains within about a 5-mile radius of downtown, and the inner-harbor ferries.

        [Metro’s friggin’ overpriced, y’all!]

    2. We already have a simplistic system catering to infrequent transit users. They’re called freeways. And they aren’t cheap.

      1. In all of my world travels I have only rented a car twice – one was to travel through Tuscany and the other was to travel through a similar rural setting in Croatia. Car travel can be a huge drag on time and money when travelling.

      2. Freeways cost a lot less than the $160 million per mile that Central Link light rail cost. And they carry a lot more people per lane than Link light rail.

      3. $4 billion divided by less than two miles comes up somewhere over $160 million. $4 billion divided by ten miles of SR 520 doesn’t come out very well, either.

        If you are talking about the cost of building light rail from Seattle to Chicago, then I expect the per-mile cost of light rail would come way down.

    3. “Now the fun part. Let the transit agencies sort out who gets how much of the big pie, based on their own ridership counts that determine the ‘division of revenue’. It’s all done behind the scenes, with….. wait for it….. computers.”

      They’re already doing it with ORCA. That’s the whole point of it. Before ORCA, Sound Transit had to do costly manual surveys to figure out how many people transfer between agencies. You can’t have computers figure anything out if you don’t have any input data, whether it be from surveys or actual card use. If the actual pass revenue was not enough to cover the cost of the rides provided (calculated from average fare per boarding), then Sound Transit had to pay out the lost revenue to the agencies. ST is never going to go back to the old system.

      “Ain’t gonna happen.”

      Not until all seven transit agencies are combined into one. Or some kind of transit federation is set up.

      1. We know it’s never going to happen, right? So the question was rhetorical, but intended to make a point that getting people out of cars and onto transit is a good thing. If simple systems do that, and generate more riders and more revenue, then that’s good too.
        Dividing the pie isn’t rocket science. Everyone has automatic passenger counters for the total riders. Now were just concerned about linked trips between agencies. That doesn’t change a lot over time, except when services are changed, but travel patterns are predictable, and so is the percent of transfers. Sure, you have to do some on-board surveys once in a while to recalibrate the percent, but that is minuscule compared to the cost of deploying and maintaining the ORCA system.
        So back to the question. Would a really simple system of fares be more people friendly, generate more riders, and in the process generate more revenue?
        If the answer is yes, then all this mumbo jumbo bean counting to the last nickel is pointless.

    4. This is basically how Leipzig’s transit system is set up. They do have zones, but 99% of riders only stay in the main zone. A one-hour ticket cost 2EUR. You can buy a 4-ride ticket, a 3-day ticket, or a weekly ticket (which is not a week from the day you buy it, but Monday-Monday).

    5. Convenience plus consistency equals ridership. You nailed it on the head.

      I think the signage of the Link/Tunnel is horrible. I spend 3 months a year in the Tube/Paris Metro/NYC Subway and I’ve never had a problem figuring out where to get on a train or how to buy tickets even when I don’t speak the language. I recently took family downtown Seattle and we spent 20 minutes trying to figure out how to get on the train. Silly I know but for someone who doesn’t use the Westlake station it’s NOT very clear. To make things worse there’s only ONE direction you can go! I think we need to hire a bunch of tourists that have and have not ridden transit before and let them flounder and see where they get stuck. Step one, buy ticket/ORCA, step two find the correct train etc..

      In Paris you have a ticket machine on the wall. You walk up, roll giant cylinder and select language, then select single ticket, pack of 10 or weekly pass, then insert credit card. Next insert ticket into turnstyle and go through. Next step follow everyone else until you have a branch in the tunnel, look at the list of stops on the wall and choose your path. The Paris or London metros are 20x more complex than our one train but ultimately easier to figure out short of a few stations (Les Halle is notoriously bad.).

      It shouldn’t be too hard to have a step by step instruction board on the wall and having proper signs to tell you where to go. Heck, go to an airport and look. I have no problems finding the exit door, my gate or baggage claim in any airport in the world.

  2. Yes please, better signage in the tunnel! And not just for ticket machines.

    Every time I go to Westlake Station, there are mystified tourists on the mezzanine, trying to get out. They can figure it out of course, but it should be clearer. Better yet, we need maps in the mezzanine to show how the exits relate to a city map, preferably one with hotels marked. These should be at the east and west “intersections” of the mezzanine, as well as in the center near the elevator.

  3. The first thing I noticed about the downtown bus tunnel when I moved to Seattle was that I couldn’t find it, unless I was already in it and went back in the same way I came out.

    More external signage would help people access transit for the first time. Perhaps the sidewalks could be painted with trains and arrows, since paint is cheap.

    If we are to move to universal ORCA use, we need that external signage so people can find the TVMs.

    1. I think the WaMu Tower entrance to U-Street station (with the weird scuplture outside), as well as the Yesler entrance to Pioneer Square station and the sole entrances to Convention Place and International District, are fairly prominent. Westlake station, on the other hand, seems to be actively trying to hide its existence (do ANY non-regulars know you can get there from within Westlake Center?). This is the downside to incorporating station entrances inside buildings…

  4. This is the reason why when I’m doing in-tunnel trips, I always use buses. No matter if I use my motor scooter or my manual wheelchair, it’s so much of a pain to go back up to the mezzanine, tap my ORCA, then miss the train only to see a free bus come along.

    Put readers on the platform level! It really would help us in wheelchairs. I’m not going to risk a fine (It’s $124 I think, someone correct me if I’m wrong) when I’m carrying an RRFP ORCA loaded with a $2.25 pass (easily enough to pay for in-tunnel Link trips; I use the $2.25 pass for all the Sounder trips to Dad in Pierce County)

    1. Many accessibility features that benefit a particular demographic also have positive side effects for the general public. Not having to run upstairs when transferring from a bus to a train is one of those.

      What ST may be saving in the cost of maintaining one extra ORCA reader is lost in extra elevator and escalator maintenance. Besides, why do we even need upstairs ORCA readers until the tunnel becomes bus only? All we need is four ORCA readers (two per platform, at each end of the loading space) per tunnel station. And put signs with arrows pointing to the TVMs on those readers.

      1. I think I recently saw an ORCA reader by the elevator on the lower platform – no? I certainly agree there should be more at the platform level.

    2. Westlake & Int’l Dist Station have platform ORCA card readers. Yes, I agree, they all should, but for now, atleast those two have them. When I am driving tunnel routes and I enter the tunnel, I usually make an announcement for ORCA card users and remind them, if they want to transfer to Link, to do so at Westlake or IDS, because of the platform card readers.

    3. Honestly, Jessica, for purely in-tunnel trip, you should really feel free to use the train without tapping.

      They literally never do fare checks in the tunnel. And in the very unlikely chance that they were to start, you have a perfectly reasonable and verifiable reason not to have tapped in (as long as you’re clear that you boarded at University St or Pioneer Sq or I.D. northbound), and it will be clear you were only doing an in-tunnel trip since you will likely be getting on or off at the same station as the enforcement agents.

      The train being infinitely more accessible than the bus — truly barrier-free — it’s a shame not to go ahead and use it when you have the option.

      1. (Apparently, I suddenly can’t remember if it’s Westlake or I.D. that has platform readers southbound but not northbound. In my previous comment, I implied that northbound I.D. was missing them, but now I’m thinking it’s Westlake. Don’t a ton of people transfer at Westlake from the train to the 71-73? It is really ridiculously lame if there have been no readers there this whole time?)

      2. While I hope the Ride Free Area can go away in the not-too-distant future (once there is a plan to work out the bugs), in the meantime, I think it would speed up tunnel throughput a bit if the train were considered part of the RFA from ID Station to Westlake Station. For people jumping on and off, doing so on the train slows the train down much less than jumping on a bus lows the bus down. After that, I hope Link fare for intra-tunnel trips stays at or lower than all 1-zone off-peak bus fares.

      3. I was one of those arguing for Link being a part of the RFA when it was debated for the very reason of in-tunnel trips being much easier for me if I take the train. I’d rather pay a higher Link fare in exchange for free in-Tunnel rides.

        And yes, I had my ORCA checked a couple of times in the tunnel, but those times I tapped in because I was taking Link beyond Downtown.

      4. Wow, they actually checked in the tunnel. Color me surprised! Was it in the daytime or the evening? (Enforcing the fares downtown seems like such a waste of resources during ride free hours when no one would really be trying to dodge the fare.)

        Do you take a lot of trips starting at the tunnel’s intermediate stations and only going a stop or two? My reaction is still “take the barrier-free option, tag in if there are platform-level readers at your starting point, and be armed with your legitimate explanation otherwise.”

        I was returning from the airport with my (permanently disabled) ex, who had bought a paper ticket and then tossed it deep into the recesses of her backpack. When we got fare-checked and she had trouble finding it, the enforcement agent asked her what the face value of the ticket was. Because she answered without having to think twice (i.e. she obviously not lying about having bought one), he moved on. (10 seconds later, she found the ticket.) The point being: I think they’re fairly lenient when someone clearly is not intentionally dodging the fare, especially when that person is disabled.

        And I think you have every right to hop on the train without it becoming a massive multi-elevator ordeal.

      5. (FYI, my subject position within this blog tends to involve explosive objection to systemic anti-logic.)

  5. I’ve often wondered what the people were thinking when they decided to put the card readers on the mezzanine level instead of at platform level. If you arrive in a station on light rail and want to switch to a bus you need to exit the platform level and go to the mezzanine level and check out before you can get on a metro bus.

    1. This lack of foresight can be chalked up to Seattle having the only joint-use tunnel in the country.

      In time, the Federal Railroad Administration will hopefully loosen up other special requirements for the tunnel. For example, is there an engineering or safety reason to not allow buses to pull up behind Link at the platform? I’d sure love to shave off an extra minute or two of travel time through the tunnel, if it can be done safely.

      1. But the buses and Link follows rules set down by the FRA specifically for the downtown transit tunnel.

      2. At non-tunnel Link stations, there is a “beyond this point” point where you have to have a ticket or already be tagged in, and theoretically, they can do fare checks then and there. It looks like they tried to extend that logic to the tunnel, with… mixed success…

    2. I know that Westlake and ID both have platform-level card readers… do you use University St and Pioneer Square stations a lot?

  6. Slightly off-topic, but can we get more ORCA tappers in the tunnel stations on the vehicle level? Sometimes, I am going to the stadium or ID and just want to catch the first available option in that direction. With the tappers up top, once I tap it, I’m committed to the light rail, even if a bus comes first. If I don’t tap it, I’m committed to the bus, even if the light rail comes first. If there were one below, I would be able to use both options. I’ve seen one down below at Westlake station I believe, but nothing at University Station.

  7. Does ST/Metro tolerate this guerilla signage? I’d love to put a sign on the TVMs stating, “If you wish to purchase an ORCA card, you have come to the right place.”

    With Oran’s graphic skills, I bet he could put professional-looking signs on the machines, and the ST/Metro employees would never notice.

  8. One more thing I didn’t write in the post: how to tap your ORCA card. This weekend I told a couple how to tap their ORCA card. They were waving and swiping it across the reader. How is that even considered tapping? I don’t know. But the cards weren’t being read. I told them to hold it steady in front until it beeped and it worked.

  9. We’re doing better than LA Metro. They don’t (yet) have a rail station at the airport. The closest station to the airport only has one TVM.

    1. I consider that a relative statement. One visit to LAUPT and its a transportation hub rail-wise that makes Seattle look seriously second class. Plus, the ST Link station really never made it to the airport here, hard to believe that they couldn’t have designed this better. Seriously, that close? But not all the way?! Silly is more like it.

      1. How could it be closer, without dead-ending? There’s no room between the terminal and garage…you could do it technically, but at dramatically higher cost and huge disruption.

        Further, why should it be? The terminal is an easy walk away. And the station can serve airport row too. Airport row should grow into a good transit-oriented urban district over time, which is that the City wants.

        PS, the skybridge over International Boulevard gets good use. I was there yesterday, and theres seems to be a decent trickle of people who walk to hotels and apartments, including some flight crews.

      2. I suspect that the complaints that the Link station is too far from the airport terminals would evaporate overnight if the corridor between the station and the check-in area was
        a) climate controlled,
        b) had a moving walkway.

      3. Last I heard, the Port plans to extend the north end of the terminal out some day to get much closer to the station. Whether that means they will then have horizontal escalators along the terminal remains to be seen.

  10. Speaking of poor signage, I was in the Westlake station yesterday and always have the hardest time figuring out where the mall entrace is (I finally saw the gold letters on marble sign. It’s large, but the upper station is not well lit. And it doesn’t seem to be on the standard metro directional signage on the ceiling.

  11. I hope they do extend the terminal. I detest walking, and now with twenty-three screws and five rods in my leg, I like it even less. I LOVE those horizontal escalators though…..

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