The Sound Transit Board meeting on June 27 covered several important issues:

1. Presentation of a report analyzing a potential fare on Tacoma Link.

The policy report looked at fares up to $2.00, and determined a $0.75 fee would generate more than enough revenue to cover collection costs. Unprofitable fare collection is one of the ST criteria for free service that Tacoma Link no longer meets.

Screenshot 2013-07-05 at 8.56.59 PM

The report estimated ridership would drop 19%, from 83,000 to 67,000 per month with the recommended fare of 75 cents. After subtracting operating costs of collection, Sound Transit would net $12,000 per month. It’d take approximately 58 months for that revenue to also cover the costs of installing fare collection methods and means, which were estimated at $709,000.

The higher fee structures outlined in the table above would take less time, but also impact rider volume. Judging by the overall reaction during the meeting, the Sound Transit board will wait to deliver a final verdict until the next few steps in the process, which consist of pricing model refinements, with special attention to low-income populations, and community outreach.

Marilyn Strickland, Tacoma mayor, stated this process will integrate with Tacoma’s reevaluation of fares and parking, while Joni Earl, chief executive officer of Sound Transit, added that outreach to stakeholders would begin right away given the board’s response. So overall it appears the final verdict is yet to come.

2. Closeout of a total of 19 small projects worth $294m, all delivered a total of $11.5m under budget. Also the Lakewood Layover is transitioning to operations, a total of approximately $3.5m under budget.

3. A staff report and resolution that would “amend the Adopted 2013 Lifetime Budget for the Sounder ST2 Fleet Expansion project from $16,296,000 to $49,530,000” as well as “the Adopted 2013 Annual Budget for the project from $4,196,000 to $15,196,000 to provide funding to purchase nine Sounder passenger vehicles.”

According to the report, the extra vehicles are necessary for additional trips due to service expansion and rider growth. The report does not explain what exactly deviates from the ST2 plan; I have an email in to Sound Transit about this question.

Another interesting note in the fiscal information section of the staff report hints that the extra strain on the Pierce subarea financial capacity (where the extra $20.9m necessary in bonds will come from) may require revision of other current plans as well:

“In addition, the issuance of $20.9 million of additional bonds will reduce the agency’s net debt service coverage, which is already forecast to be below the board’s 1.5 x coverage policy minimum. Through the program realignment, staff is monitoring agency costs and revenues, and reporting quarterly to the Board…To offset the $20.9 million of additional costs, staff will present options to the Board by the end of the first quarter of 2014 for capital and operating costs savings within the Pierce subarea, including options for reducing the scope of the ST2 Sounder maintenance base project.”

However, perhaps it’ll be worth it. The 9 coaches will expand the 14 locomotives, 40 coaches, and 18 cab cars that currently compose the Sounder fleet. Purchased from Bombardier, the coaches would be fully compatible with the current trains, and serve on the South Sounder line. This build-out of the Sound Move program, on the Sounder South and North Lines, allows for another one peak direction trip in September on the South line. 2016 and 2017 will see 3 more trips eventually added.

40 Replies to “Sound Transit Board Meeting: Tacoma Fares, Budget Tweaking”

  1. Or just cancel the Sounder North service and move the trains to where people will actually ride them. They could save bags-O-ca$h everyday for each rider moved onto a bus. This begins to build ridership for Lynnwood Link, when even those routes will be truncated at an I-5 transit center near you.
    Or, just keep digging the hole deeper and backfilling with worthless paper money.

    1. I’m so glad that Sounder North is underperforming – it gives the anti’s something to incessantly whine about. Meanwhile, ST makes quiet progress on all fronts. Overall I’m very optimistic about the progress that ST is making.

      And having all these projects come in under budget is great news.

      Now if we can just keep the anti’s in the State Legislature from tying ST3 to yet another doomed roads package.

      1. What a idiotic statement that is. ST is spending 3, 4, maybe even 5 times as much to move a body from Edmonds/Mukilteo to Seattle than they could move the same person on an express coach. Ridership is FLAT and only 1/3 of original projections. Many of the riders aren’t even in the ST taxing district, coming in by ferry. If suggesting that is whining, then good luck trying to make a buck in business or sitting on a Board, or any other activity [ad hom] prioritize limited cash.
        In your little world of cheerleading anything transit, and rail in particular, all bus trips are converted to rail, and huge ass printing presses would be installed to crank out the greenbacks needed to keep your Titanic afloat for maybe another few years.
        It’s mindless dribble like this that gets transit into trouble eventually. PT and CT are in the shitter. Metro is nearly there, and ST is facing huge operating costs in the future, sustainable only by keeping the construction taxes in place to pay for operating costs.

      2. Biggest supporter of transit and rail, but come on, that North Line is quite hard to justify. The stations are absurd, the ridership is poor (905 daily riders on all 4 trains in 10 years), the trains are unreliable (making them reliable will cost a fortune), the flexibility doesn’t exist (first train home at 4:05p, last at 5:35p), the operating costs are high ($32.38 per boarding), and nobody is taking more stations (Ballard!!!, Broad St) or increases in service. Today, the 3-car trains aren’t even coming close to being filled while the 7-car trains to the south are standing room only. Now, on the bus side of the equation, the parallel 510/511/512 are packed to the gills, offer significantly more flexibility and frequency, offers superior regional transit connectivity at nearly all of its stops, the overall ridership keeps growing in that corridor that will soon be converted to light rail, and it’s doing all this at a significantly lower cost. (And as a person living in Wallingford, those buses even benefit me!) It’s hard to argue against those results and say we’re simply “whining”; the numbers are quite damming. And there is nothing wrong in being responsible with the limited resources we have, especially with Olympia’s new games.

        That aside, ST does seem to be plowing ahead quite excellently. South trains are bursting at the seams, Link ridership keeps growing, ULink is looking great in all aspects, NLink is under engineers est so far, ELink is FINALLY moving, the Angle Lake extension is under construction, the buses are packed, reliability is in the high 90’s, and ST3 is just around the corner. Not all is doom and gloom.

      3. “… and ST is facing huge operating costs in the future, sustainable only by keeping the construction taxes in place to pay for operating costs.”

        Do you have numbers to back this up? From my perspective, operational costs per boarding have been steadily going down but perhaps I’m looking at it the wrong way…

      4. The real part of Sound Transit hasn’t even started. The line from downtown to SeaTac (and beyond) is just a test run. We proved that we can build trains and dig tunnels. Good. Now, how about we have a train connecting “the three largest urban centers in the state of Washington – downtown Seattle, Capitol Hill and the University District.” Yes, that would be nice. Maybe we should have started with that (and added a stop for First Hill) but better late than never.

        (the part in quotes is from Sound Transit’s website.)

      5. If mic is saying ST would be doomed if ST’s sales tax went away after the capital improvement projects are all done, then, yes, he is correct. Obviously, fares don’t cover the full operating cost.

        I don’t think he is trying to imply that operating costs will rise to eat up the full sales tax currently being collected. RIght?

      6. “…the buses are packed…”

        Really? Yes, many are packed, and some are nearly empty (e.g. 560 west, still, and probably the 592). Those packed routes could use some relief, which I’m afraid has to come from somewhere…

      7. My reply disappeared, so here’s the short version.
        Once capital spending for ST2 is finished it’s an easy decision for the board to just suck up poorly performing services and pass that along as ‘the cost of doing business’. It’s an easy vote, when cash is abundant. Sure, the taxes could be rolled back, but it’s not likely given more phases will be added (the higher hanging fruit on the tree BTW) and 30 year bonds will still need to be paid back plus interest.
        That’s good that ST is expanding, but as we can see by the results so far, there is no outcry to become a ‘lean, mean, transit machine’.

      8. Lay off the 560 west, it’s only a month old and no one knows what it is yet.

      9. @mic

        Actually, the first thing any ST board member would know is that fundamentally ST is NOT a business, and that therefore the approach to take regarding what to do with Sounder North is much more complicated than the simplistic business profitability criteria you allude to.

        But I know ST is aware of these additional factors, and I trust them to arrive and a measured response.

      10. Like it or not, transit is in direct competition for people wanting to go from A to B. Thier market share has been below 10% of all trips for a very, very long time now. Cars are about 80% and everyone else in the other 10% – give or take.
        Iignoring basic business sense is nonsense. You want more people to switch from cars to buses, then offer a better product. Cheaper fares, faster buses and trains that run more more often and longer hours would change the equation.
        ST calls their three services ‘lines of business’ for a reason, so staff think in terms of making good business decisions.
        If you treat transit as just another government entitlement and handout, then sure, your attitude will keep the cars running and the buses starving for the next tax and fare increase.

      11. Actually when you look at percent of total trips in King County it’s less than 1%. Of course virtually 99% of transit trips on the eastside are during peak commute which is the only time transit actually has a prayer or competing with more pavement.

      12. Thanks Bernie. Here’s a link to PSRC mode share through 2007 with transit well below 10% as you suggest.
        And here’s a more recent set of data showing all of transit through 2012 with NO net increase in total trips because of reduced services.
        So after all the PR puffery, sabre rattling, and cherry picking of numbers – transit is still re-arranging deck chairs, and not making any headway in the basic problem of moving more bodies from A to B.
        I’m losing hope anyone is in the wheel house that knows what the fuck their doing.

      13. Perhaps this has escaped your notice, but the vast majority of our capital expense is going into projects that haven’t opened yet. Unsurprisingly, these projects haven’t boosted ridership.

      14. Also, it’s not like ST didn’t notice that going to the U-District would have the greatest ridership and benefit. It intended to do that, but then the engineering studies found the Ship Canal crossing near the University Bridge too risky, and it didn’t want to risk major cost overruns that might scuttle the whole project. That’s good, right? The UW was also complaining about the line going near its sensitive seismic equiment (as was reported in another city recently). So ST decided to do the less risky south part first. Later it found another Ship Canal crossing that was less risky.

        And if you’re going to go back in 1996 and say ST promised a line from 45th to SeaTac opening in 2006 for $X, that’s old history. The unrealistic estimates were weeded out, the board has changed, and its current schedules are realistic.

      15. I’m not in the mood for a pissing contest with you Martin, but perhaps all that money going into holes in the ground and not into service to move people is part of the problem.
        I will genuinely be ‘tickled pink’ when U-link opens and mode share climbs upwards.
        Alternately, I will shrug and say we had our chance to get this right in the ’90’s and blew it again if we just move some bodies around with little net increase in the number of transit riders region wide.
        You can spare me the “Oh Yeah, just wait until Lynnwood and Overlake open” speech to kick the reality can down the road another decade.

      16. U-Link is in actual fact the core service. Probably followed in importantce by South Sounder, and then East Link, in that order. The twisted political history which has led to U-Link opening quite late and East Link opening even later, well, that’s water under the bridge. A few years after U-Link has opened it will be possible to get a reasonable estimate of the state of ridership.

        That said, North Sounder seems to have serious problems which are not solvable in the near future. The poor timing of the allowed slots, the missing “infill” stations, the tendency towards mudslides, etc., it’s all bad. The route itself needs to be maintained and improved for Amtrak anyway, since nobody is seriously considering an inland route (sigh), so I wouldn’t abandon the passenger train slots purchased at such great expense from BNSF. But a serious rethink should be done about the operational usage of those slots. Different schedules, running trips through onto South Sounder, leasing slots to Amtrak/WSDOT for improved Cascades service, any of this might make better use of the slots than the existing North Sounder service does.

  2. If Tacoma Link is going to be expanded beyond its current alignment it makes sense to charge a standard bus fare for the service. For riders that are transferring to/from Sounder trains, the ride on T-Link would be a free transfer if they are using ORCA cards.

    Sounder needs 9 more coaches? Aren’t the 4 northline roundtrips are using 12 coaches and 4 locomotives and costing how much for the operating? How about reducing the north line to 2 daily roundtrips and make one of those trips an AmtrakCascades trip to/from Bellingham using Talgo equipment with ST contributing to the operating subsidy while Amtrak operates the train? The north line service would be one daily roundtrip between Seattle and Everett using a Bombardier trainset and one daily roundtrip Seattle/Bellingham using Talgo equipment. Would ST save money on operating cost and avoid the cost of purchasing new equipment?

    1. Those Amtrak Cascade-type trips already exist, but their times are well outside of peak commuting hours. Amtrak’s schedules are based off Northwest regional time, not Puget Sound time, so rescheduling them to meet the Sea-Eve commutes might screw up the regional train network.

      Too bad Sound Transit can’t get some DMU’s to run on the north end. That would significantly lower operating costs. Running locomotive/coach trainsets are quite expensive.

      1. Even with DMUs it’s going to be ridiculously expensive to operate it.

        Even I think it’s probably time to throw the towel in on Sounder North. It’s going to take massive capital investments to ever make it reliable — and I can’t see BNSF ponying up the money any time soon. The station locations are horrible. there’s very little flexibility to make the schedule more passenger friendly.

        As others have pointed out, there are alternative ways to spend this money that would make people’s lives better today.

      2. A new Amtrak train (partially subsidized by ST) that leaves Bellingham at 530am would arrive in Seattle about 740am. The northbound train could leave Seattle about 500pm and arrive in Bellingham about 710pm. ST could schedule one roundtrip with a 3 car Bombardier to supplement the Talgo trips. There are plenty of available Talgos until 2017 (and beyond if the idle WI trains are available) and this plan would free up 9 additional passenger cars and 2 or 3 locomotives for ST to use on the south line while maintaining a more appropriate level of service on the north line.

      3. I hope we can throw in the towel on Sounder North when North Link opens. Seems to be a political impossibility at least until then.

        That Sounder North money could buy a lot of feeder service for North Link.

      4. Perhaps Community Transit would also be willing to chip in some money for this trip if the use of Stanwood Station would justify getting rid of the ridiculously expensive Stanwood->Seattle express buses.

      5. There’s 9 years until the Lynnwood Extension opens; that’s lots of time for people’s attitudes to change. If it’s not politically feasable to eliminate Sounder North now, maybe it will be in five years or seven years.

  3. What is the purpose of fares on Tacoma Link? It can’t be to produce net revenue, at least not in the near future, since it will barely cover the cost of the collection system.

    Is it to manage ridership? Are the streetcars actually full?

    Or is it to keep the riff-raff and joyriders off?

    Or is it to show the politicians in Olympia that ST is not handing out freebees?

    Does the report offer a cost for Title VI mitigation for those who will no longer be riding because of the fare?

  4. I have huge doubts about the price/ridership modeling for Tacoma Link, but let’s go with it.

    ST can get ca. $150,000 net revenue a year while losing 240,000 rides, at a fare of 75 cents. (Looking at it another way, the marginal cost of holding onto these rides would be 61 cents per ride, which is bargain compared to any other ST service.)
    ST can get ca. $770,000 net revenue, over 5 times as much, losing an additional 75,000 rides per year, at a $2 fare.
    I’m not sure why anyone would recommend a 75-cent fare given these numbers.

    A few obvious questions linger…
    Where do those lost rides go? Do they cause the local and express bus routes to fill up through downtown with intra-downtown riders?
    What does ST have in mind for Title VI mitigation? How much will that cost? Will the fare collection infrastructure accept the free-ride tickets that are given out through human service agencies?

    1. The Title VI mitigation for a 75-cent fare could be giving out 240,000 more free tickets to human service agencies. The mitigation for a $2 fare could be giving out 315,000 more free tickets to human service agencies. The administrative cost of distribution would tend to compound the net revenue multiplier, I suspect.

      Still, with ORCA machinery not set up to accept free tickets, it could be the no-income ridership that ends up flooding the surviving PT buses just to get back and forth downtown. Or does PT not have a substantial population of unemployed/underemployed currently riding Tacoma Link?

      1. If a fare is charged for Tacoma Link it should be integrated with the Pierce Transit fare system. Period.

  5. WA could take some money it would normally set aside for building more highways to accommodate a substantial amount of those 240,000 riders that will suddenly drive, and pay for the Tacoma Link to continue to be free.

    The Economist is exactly right on this point.

    1. The main argument against making transit free is that there isn’t enough supply. Most transit systems are built to accommodate a certain level of ridership; when calculating that expected ridership level, the formula makes assumptions about people’s willingness to pay. If you remove fares on a popular route, then you risk increasing ridership by so much that you can’t run enough buses to keep up with the demand.

      But Tacoma Link was designed as a free service from the beginning. It doesn’t have any capacity problems today (that I’m aware of). It doesn’t make sense to charge riders of Tacoma Link any more than it makes sense to charge people to park at the Alderwood Mall.

      I think it would be great if ST (and Metro, for that matter) had the flexibility to use prices as part of demand control. Services with ample capacity, like Link, would be cheaper; overcrowded services, like the peak-hour 550 and 41, would be more expensive. Some of the suburban milk runs might be completely free, because the inherent demand is just too low to justify fare collection.

      1. “you risk increasing ridership by so much that you can’t run enough buses to keep up with the demand”

        And I’d argue that’s a good problem to have. The cost of expanding and maintaining a road is very expensive compared to operating a bus. How many cars does each packed 550 replace? Shift money from road budgets to operation budgets and we’d solve a lot of problems.

        Of course, your idea is more politically feasible.

      2. Can’t speak for the 41, but I don’t think charging for P&Rs would meaningfully help the 550. Both South Bellvue and MI fill up well before the 550 stops being crush loaded.

        Now the 21x… perhaps.

      3. Assume a pass only system so that you avoid cash management and most delay costs [Which I’d argue are pretty minimal on underloaded milk runs anyway]. Then the marginal costs of collecting fares on these milk runs has to be awfully close to zero. I suspect that most of the Orca infrastructure needs to be built out anyway just to support busy busses.

        Under these assumptions, if a charging a fare can’t even cover the costs of collecting it, I think we have to think very hard about whether providing the bus is worthwhile.

      4. Under these assumptions, if a charging a fare can’t even cover the costs of collecting it, I think we have to think very hard about whether providing the bus is worthwhile.

        Some bus routes aim to maximize ridership. Other bus routes aim to maximize coverage.

        There are many routes in Metro’s network that will never attract a meaningful number of riders. But if we cancelled them, then a significant geographical portion of the county would lose service entirely.

        Think about who actually rides a bus like the 200. If you live in Issaquah, and you don’t have a car, then you’re either poor, or you’re a child, or you’re disabled, or you lost your license. A bus like the 200 is essentially a social service; it provides mobility to a population that would otherwise have none.

        Now, maybe you think that Metro should save all of its money for ridership-oriented services. That’s a reasonable and defensible opinion.

        But to the extent that Metro does provide services which are coverage-oriented, and to the extent that those services have a structurally low ridership, then I do think there’s something to be said for making those services free. You lose a trivial amount of revenue, and you do a better job of meeting your coverage goals (because you no longer need money to ride the bus).

      5. Charge for parking???? Yeah, we need more tax revenue because charging market rate just isn’t fair. Vote NO on any new transit revenue until Metro and the Seattle Communist Council gets the message; taxed enough already.

      6. “I think it would be great if ST (and Metro, for that matter) had the flexibility to use prices as part of demand control. Services with ample capacity, like Link, would be cheaper; overcrowded services, like the peak-hour 550 and 41, would be more expensive. Some of the suburban milk runs might be completely free, because the inherent demand is just too low to justify fare collection.”

        Sounder already charges more because it costs more to operate, and many of us have proposed premium fares for long-distance peak-express bus routes, which also cost an inordinate amount to operate. But charging per capacity misunderstands the problem and risks creating perverse incentives. The problem is that bus capacity isn’t where it’s needed. Is that passengers’ fault for making too many Bellevue-Seattle trips and not enough Redmond-Duvall trips? Or is it Metro/ST’s fault for not putting capacity where it’s needed? Or is it that Metro/ST can’t afford to add buses, and they think they’ve already cut coverage service as much as they can?

        The perverse incentives are, if ST makes the 550 more expensive than the other ST Express routes, it’ll sabotage the prebuilding of ridership for Link, make transit less useful and less popular, and contradict the dominant trip patterns in the region. if Metro makes low-ridership routes like the 222 and 25 free in order to increase ridership, it will… increase ridership. That will force Metro to keep running these high-expense routes forever, because even if ridership increases it’s not going to increase to the point of the B or 550 or 234/235.

      7. Mike,

        You make some good points. I wrote a long reply, and then I came up with counter-arguments to most of my arguments. So I’ll spare you :)

        My key realization was this:

        – Changing the capacity of a bus route is an order of magnitude (or, in some cases, infinitely) easier than changing the capacity of a physical entity.
        – Variable bus pricing makes it politically difficult to make appropriate capacity adjustments, because people will not be enthusiastic about switching from a familiar and free bus to an unfamiliar and expensive one.

        The City of Seattle has an interest in promoting efficient allocation of its on-street parking spaces. It’s not possible to change supply, so the appropriate response is to change prices.

        But if a Metro bus route is a poor performer, then the ideal situation for Metro is for the bus to be a *really* poor performer. That makes it politically and practically easier to cut/restructure.

        The worst case is for a bus to be really expensive to operate, but to have just enough riders to raise a stink if Metro tries to cut it. Unfortunately, my idea would have created dozens of such buses.

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