As Bruce wrote yesterday Metro will be holding its first public meeting related to elimination of the Ride Free Area (RFA) this Thursday from 4:00 -6:30 at Union Station.
Operational Problems of the DSTT
We have written fairly extensively on this operational impacts of this change. A study done by Metro shows that the operations in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT) would see significant and unacceptable negative speed and reliability impacts from elimination of the RFA. The report concluded that none of the operational improvements suggested can fully close the gap between the current peak usage and the reduced peak capacity.
Additional, travel time data I obtained from Metro shows that travel time speed and reliability in the tunnel has progressively deteriorated since it reopened for joint operation with Link in 2007. This trend has been most prevalent in PM peak hours, which will also be the most negatively impacted by a pay-as-you-enter fare policy. My purely personal experience indicates that speed and reliability have further deteriorated since this data was collected in Spring 2010.
The existing speed and reliability in the DSTT, in my opinion, is already too poor, and further deterioration is completely unacceptable for riders and is a waste of Metro and Sound Transit resources.
Why a Proof-Of-Payment System
The core of the problem with elimination of RFA for DSTT operations is fare payment and multi-door boarding. Elimination of the RFA and replacement with a pay-as-you-board fare system, the presumptive system Metro is switching to, will introduce additional boarding delays caused by payment of fares with the driver. Additionally, since riders will pay when boarding, they will only be able to board at the front door, compounding delays. Unlike surface routes, DSTT routes are not through routed, so enforcing a boarding through the front door, leave through the rear door system will have minimal time savings since most buses are either filling or emptying, not a mixture of both.
In my opinion the only way to maintain these two key operational benefits of the RFA is through the extensions of the Proof-of-Payment (POP) system already used on Link to DSTT buses as well. Outside the DSTT bus routes would use a standard pay-as-you-enter fare system. A more ambitious system could extend the POP zone to corridors where DSTT buses run frequently like I-90, University Way, Northgate TC, SODO Busway, or SR-520, much in the way RapidRide uses POP.
For inbound trips towards the DSTT riders would pay with the driver as they do now, except they would be required to keep proof of payment if they intent to ride into the tunnel. For outbound trips, riders would either need to purchases a ticket at a ticket vending machine on a DSTT mezzanine or tap their ORCA card before proceeding to the station platform. Anywhere on the platform, leaving the platform or on buses or trains in the tunnel, riders would be required to show proof-of-payment to fare inspectors if asked.
Difficulties and Possible Solutions
However this change doesn’t come free. There are some capital and labor costs, as well as policy and technical implication that would need to be overcome. I don’t believe any of these difficulties are fatal flaws.
Metro would need to purchase a number of ticket vending machines (TVMs) and hire fare inspectors. As Oran wrote previously, Community Transit used repurposed parking meter TVMs at a cost of $9,000-$13,000 each for Swift. My back of the envelope estimate is that Metro would need at least 25 TVMs or $200,000 – $325,000 dollars using same unit cost assumptions. Some of the additional labor cost could possibility be offset by switching some or all of the DSTT security personnel, who currently just stand around the station platform, into fare inspectors as well as security personnel. Some scale of efficiency might also be possible by combining fare inspection operations for Link with buses.
Another problem is that Metro currently has an off peak fare level and two different peak period fare levels in the DSTT, $2.25 base fare, $2.50 for buses that don’t leave Seattle, and $3.00 for buses that do. Sound Transit charges $2.50 for the 550 at all times. DSTT bus fares would need to be harmonized if they are to be effectively enforced. If they are not it complicates ORCA payments and makes it hard to enforce the higher fare, which could only be effectively enforced while on the bus. Because Link fares are enforced outside of the DSTT, they are still enforceable. I would note however that this is part of a boarder issue of fare unification that I think most people agree needs to be more systematically addressed, so perhaps it’s good to have this discussion now.
The final problem is how the ORCA system should work. How does Metro and Sound Transit know how to divide revenue? How does ORCA correctly charge riders? A technical solution might be to install ORCA card readers on the back door of buses and require riders to tap as they exit, or pay the maximum tunnel fare of $3.00.
A less technical solution that could could also address the fare unification issue mentioned above is to simply charge a uniform fare or all DSTT transit service of $2.75. This is the maximum fare value of a trip on Link, $.25 cents more that Sound Transit’s 550 current fare, between Metro’s two peak period fare rates of $2.50 and $3.00, and $0.50 cents above Metro’s base off-peak fare. If a riders only travels within the DSTT they would be charged a DSTT only fare, possibly Link’s current $2.00 dollar minimum or perhaps even less. Fare distribution between Metro and ST could then be handled through use of ridership data.