Transfer mockup via Oran
Transfer mockup via Oran

A week ago, Publicola’s Darren Davis invited his readers to submit “impassioned, prosy comments” on the Seattle Department of Transportation’s fare change proposal for the one, soon to be two, streetcar lines the department manages. Intrigued, I decided to take Darren up on his idea, and drill into the details of SDOT’s proposal, to see if there were any devils worth writing about. It turned out there were.

SDOT’s fare proposal has four central components:

  1. Harmonizing the streetcar fare with Link Light Rail, by reducing the adult fare by a quarter, and raising the youth/senior fare by a quarter.
  2. Implementing the ORCA LIFT program, a regional reduced fare for low-income adults.
  3. Implementing a new, streetcar-only day pass, available from streetcar ticket machines.
  4. Ceasing the acceptance of the paper transfers issued on King County Metro buses. Transfer credit will be available only when using ORCA.

(Currently, streetcar-only day passes exist, but are sold only in advance, to bulk purchasers. The existing day pass is pretty obscure: I didn’t even know that fare media existed despite regularly using and writing about transit for the 4.5 years I’ve lived here. This is the first time Seattle will be selling streetcar day passes from ticket machines on the street, and for all practical purposes, this will be the first time the public will be exposed to them.)

Parts (1) and (2) of SDOT’s proposal, harmonizing single-ride fares, are grand ideas, and I support their implementation wholeheartedly. They achieve the stated purpose of the streetcar fare change, which is to enhance regional integration of transit, and give transit riders a more predictable, comprehensible experience.

More after the jump.

Parts (3) and (4) are problematic: they will work against the goals of integration. Transit riders in Seattle already contend with a fare system that’s Balkanized around unfortunate, rider-hostile divisions of mode or agency, and the Seattle proposal adds to the chaos. Regular riders can avoid most headaches with the purchase of an ORCA card, but until the region gets its act together and implements a day pass (one that, unlike Metro’s pilot project, has a competitive price structure), occasional riders are in purgatory.

A couple of obvious failure modes come to mind:

  • Suburban riders who pay cash to ride Metro into town for events a will now have to pay again to ride the streetcar (or, more likely, get tired of dealing with this crap, and drive their cars).
  • Tourists in Chinatown or near Westlake will be able to buy themselves a transit day pass, which, alas, will turn out to do them very little good, because it won’t be valid on the buses or the subway that they’d also need to use, in order to get beyond the tiny, disjoint slivers of Seattle served by streetcars.

Just as I recall the doomed, pre-2012 conversations of Metro drivers with blank-faced tourists, trying to explain that, yes, in our special corner of the world, you sometimes pay when you get off the bus, not when you get on it, so too I can foresee the bus drivers of 2015 trying to explain that, no, neither the Sound Transit pass, nor the Seattle Streetcar pass you have purchased can get you from Seattle Center to Broadway in time for your dinner reservation. I suspect that in future, as often happened in the past, bus drivers and riders alike will mutually give up in frustration, and King County won’t get paid — and I can’t say I shall blame either the drivers or the riders.

I should be clear that I am not a fan of the paper transfer slips issued on Metro, and I would very much like them to go away. Likewise, I am a huge fan of day passes (when priced right!), as the best way to structure fares for occasional riders. It is a source of great annoyance to me that King County has, in the transition from tissue paper to smart fareboxes, been lapped by nearby agencies, small (Bellingham), medium (Spokane), and large (Vancouver). I support efforts to move more customers to ORCA, and the idea of disposable ORCA cards. But in the most recent data I can find (Q3 2014), 37% of King County Metro riders still pay cash and use transfers, and those riders’ experience matters.

(I discussed this subject with Ethan Melone, head of Seattle’s streetcar program. He pointed out that in a recent survey of South Lake Union streetcar riders, only 2% used Metro transfers. I can believe that for the SLU line — SLU ridership is dominated by high-income commuters, virtually all of whom are given free ORCA cards through work — but that is most unlikely to be true for other lines, rather it seems likely to be closer to King County’s numbers.)

If there is a single, overarching premise to the Seattle streetcar project, it is that premium-quality transit is worth paying a (potentially great!) premium for. Fare payment is the doorway to the transit system, so if Seattle is to deliver on the promise of that premium experience, the rider must have a good experience at the door. And if there is a headline, repeatedly stated, to Mayor Murray’s transportation plans, and Executive Constantine’s agency integration plans, it is that all modes and agencies should integrate seamlessly.

SDOT’s proposal, as it relates to the day pass and bus transfers, operates against the goals of the city, county and region; and against the notion of a seamless, comprehensible, user-focused transit system. SDOT, or the Mayor’s office, should rework this proposal, with a goal of removing from, not adding to, the barriers between agencies and modes. That means, while our transit agencies work towards a regional or countywide day pass, that Seattle should continue to accept Metro transfers, and not add a streetcar-only day-pass to the salad of incompatible transit tickets in this city.

85 Replies to “Seattle’s Streetcar Fare Proposal is a Step Backwards”

      1. #4 (not accepting Metro paper transfers) is very much in line with #1 (harmonizing with Link). Nobody, outside of Metro buses, accepts Metro paper transfers.

  1. Tourists seem to be targeted for price gouging by transit agencies, since they can’t vote (same problem for rental car and hotel taxes). Hence we see lots of anti-visitor fare schemes.

    Overpriced 1-day passes ($12 in Boston, for example) are dumb, but easily avoided if you do the math. However, I really hate the punitive airport surcharges like Chicago’s newly levied extra fare leaving O’Hare. Until recently, New Jersey Transit priced train tickets to Newark Airport higher than those to following stations, even after counting the AirTrain surcharge. Nothing more than a naked money grab.

    I think the only people who care about tourists are fellow travelers, but of course we don’t get to benefit from the pro-tourist policies in our own city. Some states/cities/transit agencies seem to enjoy making it difficult for visitors. Without any hope for binding reciprocity, we’re stuck with the stupid policies in other cities.

    1. That 1-day T pass is even more easily avoided by the presence of a 7-day pass (only $20) immediately next to it on the touch screen.

      Every transit agency needs to be regularly challenged to simplify its fare messaging and to eradicate vestigially pointless or counterproductive artifacts. It should be unacceptable to add new layers of willful, unworkable confusion.

      1. So, should the streetcar adopt the willful confusion of distance-based fares on a system that is not long enough to charge a second notch, and will only have one notch of upcharge once the Connector is up and running? Or just, ya know, align with Metro’s fares, and accept the same amount from all riders (most of whom will have Passport ORCAs that cover the Metro fare levels) that was going to be charged for the longest streetcar ride? Is there really any point to distance-basing the streetcar fare?

    2. Oh man, that New Jersey Transit fare from EWR to Penn Station felt like extortion, considering it was slower and much creakier than Link. Wasn’t it like $18.00? I remember thinking how a $2.50 ST fare bought a much better (and convenient) experience.

      1. I want to say it was $15 before they reduced it a few years back but I’ve been flying to JFK and, unfortunately, LGA more recently. You can still save $0.25 by buying a ticket to North Elizabeth ($6.75) and then AirTrain ($5.50) vs. a $12.50 direct ticket. I’m not sure why they haven’t killed the surcharge entirely.

    3. What is the problem with charging tourists more at the farebox? When total costs are factored in, they still come out ahead. Considering the cabs charge a minimum of $40 (plus fees) from the airport to DT, adding a few dollars to tickets purchased for that trip is still a heck of a deal.

      1. If the competing option is Lyft, Uber, or friend doing private pick-up and drop-off, and multiple people are traveling together, the price of transit fare certainly does matter.

      2. I agree. Visitors I have met are amazed how inexpensive the fare is from Sea-Tac to downtown Seattle. It could easily be set at $5 and still be a bargain. Airport workers and others going to airport frequently would have their ORCA cards and not be affected.
        Also available should be a day-pass (and multi-day) that covers ALL modes, Metro, ST, streetcars, and Monorail. It would also be helpful to have platform-located ticket vending machines in the tunnel instead of mezzanine.

      3. Because I object to the notion that “outsiders” must pay extra, follow different rules, or be subject to arbitrary regulations that “insiders” are not. Visitors are already paying a lot of sales taxes on their hotel rooms, rental cars, and restaurant meals for the few days they visit. And, if you’re pricing transit fares solely on the basis of available motorized alternatives, even a local bus ride should be ~$5.

        I mean, we could make a lot of money charging tolls on every road into Washington. Let’s say just $5/car, but Washington residents could buy a special yearly pass for $30 that also acts as their car registration. It is a bad idea, perhaps unconstitutional, but it would make those darn visitors pay their “fair share.” Or maybe create 24/7/365 zoned parking throughout Seattle, available only to city residents. That would effectively guarantee revenues to the city; outsiders driving into Seattle would have to either get a parking ticket, park at a street meter, or park at a highly-taxed private lot. I can imagine the Legislature would be upset.

        Other states and cities would inevitably retalliate against visitors with more and more punitive taxes and surcharges. It is a race to the bottom, where the losers are all travelers, the entire travel industry, and ultimately, some amount of freedom.

      4. Traveling as a family of five, taking multiple trips during a day as a tourist, many cities’ transit fares make it much less expensive to rent a car.

      5. Actually, one way to bring ORCA adoption would be to charge a $5 penalty fare at SeaTac Airport, with a free ORCA card provided.

  2. I have no objection to getting rid of paper transfers. We need to get more folks on orca to speed up the boarding process.

    The day pass for the street car only is a little silly, I agree. If they really want to integrate with link, the day pass should work on both link and the streetcar. While we’re at it, add the monorail too…

  3. I was totally unaware that the streetcar accepts paper transfers (and therefore that eliminating such acceptance was part of the proposal). But it makes sense, in the historical context of SLU’s acceptance of empty ORCA cards as a flash pass. I guess it makes sense, out of fairness to different classes of riders, to let anyone with an undead paper transfer to ride for free as well. I have a couple deactivated ORCA cards (which I bought for guests, but are deactivated, by rule, after a long period of non-use) that I could sell on the street for $4 to a couple of streetcar riders, and recoup some of my investment in those cards.

    As to when the streetcar starts checking fares, for reals, I don’t think either should be accepted any more. No empty ORCAs. No paper transfers. If you don’t want to pay $5, then that’s what the ticket machines are for. (Yes, the ticket machines are yet another expensive work-around caused by charging $5 — by far the most expensive bus smart card in the country — for an ORCA card. They really want everyone to get one. Really!)

    Having the streetcar accept Metro paper transfers (once it actually starts charging to ride), would be a rogue feature, that would only increase the confusion. That would be the only paper fare medium accepted outside the agency that prints it. I’ll take a little confusion and charging multiple times for tourists over confusing everyday riders. (Indeed, if double-charging tourists is a major problem, the place to start fixing it is with Sound Transit and its ticket machines at the airport. By the time they have to pay twice to ride the streetcar and the bus, they will be aware of the tourist trap.)

    If Metro wants the streetcar to accept paper transfers and tickets, Metro should be prepared to accept streetcar tickets as valid transfers. At least the streetcar tickets have a date on them. If Metro were to accept streetcar tickets and zombie paper transfers, then why not streetcar day passes?

    The more serious effect of the streetcar continuing to accept transfers once the streetcar starts fare-checking is the signal the City sends to the County regarding the decision point later this year or next year, when the County decides whether to discontinue the paper transfer program. I want that program gone ASAP. I want every agency outside of Metro to take every opportunity to signal their displeasure with the existence of Metro’s paper transfer program. By discontinuing acceptance of the zombie paper transfers, SDoT will be doing the vast majority of Metro riders a big favor.

    So, regarding the stealth feature 4: Where is that BIG PHAT LIKE button? Can I keep pressing it and register a thousand votes in favor of ceasing to accept paper transfers on the streetcar?

    1. “Metro should be prepared to accept streetcar tickets as valid transfers.”

      That’s a thing I’d like to see too, I should have called it out in the piece.

  4. For the good of public transit itself, our ridiculous fare system has to come to an end “toot sweet”, like they say places where justified aggression isn’t passive. Personal breaking point came trying to explain to two senior out-of-town Sounder passengers inbound from Tacoma how to pay for DSTT service to Westlake.

    Starting with fact that you can’t transfer within the same agency! LINK trains are blue and white. So are ST Express Buses. So are Sounder trains. And between IDS and Westlake, for an eight minute ride, ST and Metro use the same tunnel. What in the Hell do any of the separations gain out of this?

    I personally watched two passengers take a cab from King Street Station. With some awful PR to tell prospective visitors. So for the good of every divisive division involved, might be time for a large coordinated number of passengers, on a crush-load day, to carry paid-for passes and tickets (like from LINK to Tunnel buses, and ST express) and politely tell inspectors-and wear buttons: “IAP!” For “I’ve Already Paid!”

    Organizers should be able to arrange volunteer counsel. Though l doubt that either SPD or Sheriff’s department won’t be too busy to bother on game day. Enough pre-arranged TV- like paying some professional actors to be in a cage only wearing an endangered animal bikini at Westlake-and transit’s worst self-inflicted embarrassment will end at next morning’s special meeting.

    Mark Dublin

    1. How many problems would be solved if ORCA were free, and all the paper fare media created to work around its $5 cost were to go away?

      1. I agree completely. There should also be vending machines where you can get them, or add money to them. You could charge a very small amount (a quarter) for the card, just to prevent kids from getting them and throwing them at each other.

        But if you did that, the agency in charge would probably come out ahead (to say nothing of the various transit agencies). I’m thinking of a typical tourist. You arrive and get your card. You load up with enough to pay the two way fare to downtown. But then you figure you might use it while you are in town, so you add a few more dollars to it. When you get back to the airport, you stick the card in your pocket, and hold it onto it like you would if you had Canadian coins. So what happens to all of the money in the system, that is just sitting there? The agency gets the interest. To say nothing of the guy who just throws away the card (only a buck left on it — why bother) or loses it. This is how gift card companies make their money. I know other agencies don’t charge for their transit card (making money in this way) so I have no idea why we do.

      2. Other agencies (MARTA) use similar fare media and only charge $1 for it. The cards in the quantities ordered by Sound Transit cost pennies apiece.

        That leads to a further rant about the lack of rolling passes in lengths of time between 1 day and 1 year. Every other city manages to sell fare smart cards with various pass lengths based on the date of purchase and not the calendar month.

      3. How many problems would be solved if ORCA were free

        How many problems would be avoided in the first place by having a sensible fare and transfer policy, so people didn’t have to have an ORCA card to move from one system to another, and not know until they ran out of money how much each trip segment cost?

      4. If you ever intend to scale into a big city with big-city transit usage, you would be well advised to radically minimize instances of paying cash on board heavy-demand core services. That means fare legibility, but it also means electronic fare media rather than more opportunities to get by without it.

      5. You mentioned “heavy-demand core services” on a post talking about the streetcar?

        “Heavy-demand core services” are best done with completely off-board payment. This is why I suggest moving to ticket machines in downtown
        since the “Heavy-demand core services” in Seattle are mostly bus routes.

        However, it is exceptionally difficult to have ticket machines that dispense tickets for a cobbled together tangle of fares that don’t have a consistent fare structure. Right now, you would have to have different ticket machines in the tunnel for Link as well as several different bus agencies and the streetcar.

      6. As you too often do, Glenn, you pointed to a borderline-okay-for-a-mid-sized-city-like-Portland practice such as TriMet’s, and presumed it should be replicated in actual big cities aiming to make transit a serious option for large numbers of people.

        You are never going to get universal off-board payment on every bus route that intends to be a heavy-lifter in city as large but as comprehensively not-dense as Seattle. Perhaps you can get all payment off-board downtown, but you won’t be able to do so everywhere.

        And so if you want your buses to be able to get people across the city in a non-laborious way, at passenger volumes that will eventually be an order of magnitude beyond what a TriMet core route like the 15-Belmont will ever see, you have to get the overwhelming majority of the public to dump the 20-second payment method in favor of the the 2-second one. As New York/Chicago/Boston/Vancouver and anywhere else that scalability matters have long since done.

      7. (And yes, I know that Vancouver’s smartcard is years delayed. Which is why it was smart of Translink to have made significantly-discounted ticket books ubiquitous years ago. That’s the 2-second payment method, analog style.)

      8. Of course TVMs can’t be everywhere. Everywhere isn’t where the problem lies.

        If anything, this streetcar fare policy makes things worse as those that purchase a streetcar ticket with cash at a TVM will then have to pay cash again on a bus.

        Extending the Balkanization is hardly a solution to cash reduction.

      9. Everywhere isn’t where the problem lies.

        Again, that’s small-town talk.

        Big cities have bus lines with passenger volumes such that 2 seconds versus 20 will make a huge aggregate difference, block-by-block, for the entire length of the route.

        The solution to cash reduction is the adoption of a common and quick fare medium. To whatever extent you fail to incentivize that, you are part of the problem.

      10. So, until TriMet got rid of traditional transfers, the transfers had a date code on them. I suppose having an actual date on the transfer is another way of discouraging cash use that somehow works here but is impossible in Seattle? Because of all the hills I suppose?

        2 seconds vs 20 seconds is a problem anywhere. It is one of the reasons why Island Transit route 1 would be difficult to operate under the current timetable if fares were charged period. They *have* to hit the half hourly ferry at the south end.

        The delays caused by cash fumblers have been well discussed on this web site so it’s not worth going into that.

        However, this new streetcar policy doesn’t seem to me to actually discourage cash fumbling. Instead, all it will due is decrease ridership on the streetcar by driving those that use cash and transfers to the parallel bus routes, keeping their crowding the same as now and not really accomplishing much of anything in terms of improving transit.

        If your goal is to decrease cash handling on the buses the way to do that is to encourage as much off-board payment as possible. That means fare integration and organization so that people who start near a ticket printer can use that ticket elsewhere. Eg, if you start on the streetcar and print a ticket there, you can use that on the buses too. That way, no one has to deal with another cash transaction for that trip.

      11. Harder-to-abuse transfers cut down on transfer abuse. In what possible universe would they cut down on cash fumbling?

        They certainly never reduced fumbling in Portland, which is probably one of the reasons TriMet decided to take a significant fare hit by setting the day pass at only 2x the base fare, so that for the time being it sits at a less fumble-prone round number. (Not a solution that can remain in place forever.)

        Again, off-board payment will never be everywhere. Therefore, the way to cut down on cash fumbling is to move people away from paying with cash by default on the first vehicle they use. Therefore, new opportunities to receive preferential treatment by using cash — universal transfer privileges, and likely far longer than 2 hours — are inherently counterproductive.

      12. The entire segment of the population that has bags of old Metro transfers they cycle through would no longer be able to use those if there were date codes of some sort on them. So, apparently the Universe known as Puget Sound would benefit from this.

        The availability of smart phone ticketing does seem to have significantly reduced the number of cash transactions here. I doubt Metro or anyone else up that way is going to head that direction with ORCA having been the advanced ticket method of choice.

        Sure, it would be great to move everyone to ORCA. I got one back when they were mailing them out free of charge. However, despite significant benefits to having a card that already exist and the cards being available for some years, there are an awful lot of people that don’t use them. All this new policy does is make them choose already crowded parallel bus lines where the transfers are accepted.

        Considering all that you really think creating yet another fare category will somehow make the population that doesn’t have ORCA suddenly want to get a card?

      13. 1. Again with the baffling confusion of transfer fraud with boarding delays. Those who collect and abuse transfers tend to have the right one in hand by the time they board — that’s the way their scheme works best. Their harms are real, but delays are rarely among them. You could reduce fraud with better-printed transfers, but since Metro openly refuses to enforce fare-dodging anyway, those willing to flash an expired transfer will still get away with it. There’s a reason the complete eradication of paper has become the gold standard for non-abusable fare media, so why advocate going only halfway?

        2. Smartphone ticketing is an awesome option. Fully endorse. Though I’m curious how TriMet has dealt with those who won’t activate the ticket until they see a fare inspector boarding.

        3. The honest truth is that those who presently refuse to ORCA-ize, and who are not obsessive rule-followers, will probably continue to act as if their Metro transfer is good on the streetcar, and will not in any way shift their likelihood of using or not using the streetcar on the basis of a rule change of which they are probably unaware. And since they will probably never encounter a fare inspector on the streetcar in their lifetimes, no (further) harm will be done.

        But eliminate paper entirely, and add a modest cash-fare surcharge, and these people will ORCA-ize the very next day!

      14. Cash used to work well back in the days when fares were extremely round numbers (10 cents, 25 cents, 1 dollar). But transit agencies can’t rely on the government to produce new coins to match their ever-changing fare structures.

    2. Mark,
      Community Transit and Everett Transit must drive you really crazy, since one has to pay cash every time one steps on a bus. Not only is it the same company, it’s the same mode!

      1. Years-long monthly pass habit, predating ORCA, spares me from a lot of this crap. Don’t use Everett very much, but some other things bother me about CT- ST transfers.

        Seems like drivers on both systems are proud of the fact that passengers miss connections because they won’t even signal each other. Probably a competition to see which agency does this most.

        Worst fury for me? KC Metro’s insistence that every passenger board by the front and pass the fare box even if not using it to pay, and also ask the driver questions with one foot still on the platform.

        Or argue about the fare, with driver eagerly participating. Especially at Westlake northbound at rush hour. 41 and 71-series both heaviest and worst.

        Any guesses as to what political trade King County Council members would accept in return for fixing above? Like by making every Tunnel platform Proof Of Payment and just inspecting? Whoever sees one of them first, tell them I told you to ask, use my name, and for your own safety, say I threatened you if you didn’t do it.

        Mark Dublin

  5. Yeah, I’m with Brent on this one. I really don’t see much harm. The streetcar reminds me a bit of the monorail. One is an outdated, nostalgia inducing form of transit and the other is a monorail.

    Seriously, though, they both have similar users. One group are hard core transit users who know all the various systems (and what they charge). Those users should use ORCA cards. I don’t see why either system should accept transfers (or give them). Or are you suggesting that the monorail folks accept paper transfers, too?

    The other group is tourists. People want to take the streetcar because it is a streetcar. It is similar to the “Ride the Ducks” amphibious boat. It doesn’t really get you where you want to go any faster or more frequently than a regular bus (quite the opposite), but it is a fun ride while you are on it. For these people, a daily pass makes a lot of sense.

    The bottom line is that if you want to take advantage of all of the various transit systems around here (streetcar, bus, monorail, train, ferry) than you should get an ORCA card. If not, then expect to pay more, and to pay cash, wherever you go.

    1. “If not, then expect to pay more, and to pay cash, wherever you go.”

      Or don’t bother riding transit.

      1. So you are saying that because the streetcar doesn’t take a transfer, that people will not ride transit? Are you serious?

        First off, the ridership on the streetcar is pathetic. It is much smaller than a decent bus route (even though it has much higher capacity). It doesn’t run very often. I think you could cancel the streetcar tomorrow and not see an increase in driving. Folks would just say “Oh, OK, where is the bus — hold on — there it is, cool”.

        But wait, these mythical people, who transfer from bus to streetcar also refuse to get an ORCA pass (because, you know it is too much a hassle, or it is too expensive). You have got to be kidding.

        The streetcar doesn’t travel often enough to be a key line, nor does it travel any faster than a bus. It will be a “why not” bus. Someone waiting for, and expecting to ride a bus, will of course hop on the thing. If they have a transfer, they will be disappointed. Big deal. They go back to plan A, which is to ride the (faster) bus. But for folks with an ORCA card, they will ride it and hopefully they won’t see the bus they would have caught leaf frog it.

      2. I’m saying that stupid fare policies depress ridership, and we should avoid being stupid, wherever possible.

    2. … or people looking for a last-mile connection between the regional transit node (KSS, IDS, various surface bus stops) and the ID and southern tip of First Hill — or, in the future, between CHS and the First Hill hospitals. They’re not all “hard core” just because they commute on transit.

      1. Right, but none of those people will depend on the streetcar, because it doesn’t (and won’t) go often enough, or fast enough, or travel a unique enough route to gather dependence. It will become, like most similar streetcars, a “why not” route. If you are waiting, and expecting to catch a bus and see this, you will say “why not” and hop it. Great. For the sorry few (and we are talking very few) that have transfers, they will be disappointed. Big deal. They will probably see their bus right behind the streetcar (ready to pass it). Others will think “Hmmm, riding that streetcar might actually be fun — I think I saw someone cute on there — I should get an ORCA card”. Yes, you should. But not just to ride the streetcar.

      2. I’m just goin’ off the fact that this is when people actually use the SLUSC, and there actually aren’t that many places you can wait for it and the bus at the same time. As someone that doesn’t use it much myself, I’m not sure why, exactly, but I might guess. The 26, 28, 40, and 70 do somewhat similar things, but only combine for better frequency than the streetcar at 3rd/Pine. And the streetcar may keep more even headways than the bus routes, particularly the 40 (which gets randomized by Northgate, Ballard, Fremont, and Mercer before getting to the major SLU office towers) and 26 (which gets randomized by narrow streets up north and a long through-route down south).

        I am far from a streetcar enthusiast, but I do think the long milk-runs break down for the periphery of downtown for the same reasons they break down farther out… an ideal solution would integrate better with existing routes, require less construction, and be prioritized according to need rather than whim.

        I guess all the daily riders ought to have ORCA, but I don’t think that excuses a separate day-pass/transfer system. The stuff that needs to be kicked out of the Grand Universal Day Pass, (or to a different category of day-pass, to keep the price reasonable isn’t streetcars, but CT/PT expresses and Sounder.

    3. Question, Ross: Is it wrong to start building the first ten miles of a state highway until you can build the whole thing?

      Probably best intended route is to continue SLU line along Westlake to Fremont, across the bridge, and into Ballard via Leary. Doubt very many Route 40 riders would need Ferguson Missouri police or their Army artillery to disperse.

      The Monorail makes an excellent horizontal elevator between Westlake and Seattle Centers. Both facilities, including Dale Chihuly’s museum, should pay for it as business expense to bring in customers- and to assure no pilot from McChord goes in low and supersonic over the museum ’cause he’s ticked about fare structure.

      Like if he recently took Sounder in from Lakewood and tried to get to the glass museum via Sounder, DSTT, and the Monorail. Not a court martial in the world….

      But main difference between extending the streetcar and same for the Monorail is that streetcar engineers don’t believe that structural engineering is only expensive because of conspiracy that started when steel wheels replaced wood.


      1. >> Is it wrong to start building the first ten miles of a state highway until you can build the whole thing?

        No, but it is wrong to build a new highway out of gravel, right next to an old one.

        Maybe I didn’t make myself clear. The streetcar is stupid. It would be stupid if it went on the route you mentioned. It will be stupid when it is extended. It is stupid right now. There are very few places in the world where they make sense, and Seattle isn’t one of them. The buses won’t turn around on the edges of downtown, so that everyone will hop on the streetcar to get to the other side of downtown. It won’t happen, and they aren’t even trying to make it happen. They won’t run often enough to provide much in the way of consistent service. They will simply be a “why not” ride. Someone expecting to take the bus a few blocks will simply say “why not” and hop on the silly thing. We would be way better off if we simply put the money into more bus service or built something that is actually faster than a bus — like a gondola.

        That is what really blows my mind when it comes to all the streetcar fans (i. e. the city council). The number one complaint about transit in Seattle (by far) is that it takes too long. But this is actually slower than a bus, because if something happens (e. g. some car is stuck in the lane, making a turn) the streetcar is stuck as well. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was free, but it isn’t (not the ride — the ride is absolutely free if you have an ORCA card, and the ridership is still pathetic — I mean that the cost to build it isn’t free). If it was an experimental bus route, it would have been cancelled a long time ago. But folks like it because, well, it reminds them of Portland (and for some reason we have this bizarre desire to be Portland, even though everyone who can read knows that Vancouver BC kicks Portland’s ass as well as ours when it comes to transit). But it also reminds them of Europe, or Toronto, or some other part of the world that is so fundamentally different than us that it is crazy to think that streetcars make a difference. Yeah, right — built a streetcar and we will be just like Toronto. While we are at it, drive on the other side of the road and we will be just like England. Makes about as much sense.

    4. There’s tourists on the streetcar? When exactly have there ever been tourists on the streetcar? I ride it almost every day and it’s 90% Amazon employees, 9% Fred Hutch employees and me.

  6. 1 & 2 make sense (modulo my usual concerns about any fare cut.) 3 is a stupid. What use case does it address? 4 is a huge step in the right direction. Anything we do to get rid of paper transfers is a good thing. It’s by far the most important and best of the the 4 proposals.

    1. Totally agree with you, William. Hopefully the city’s planned policy will encourage Metro to ditch the paper transfers soon.

  7. Paper transfers are a relic like horse-drawn arranges. Perhaps this will push Metro further towards eliminating them. Of course, that can’t happen without making low cost (under $2) or free ORCA cards available to possible riders.

  8. The $5 fee for ORCA _is_ too high. I agree. I’m not going to spend any time trying to defend the indefensible. That said, I think there’s a tendency here to exaggerate its effect. The real problem is not the cost but the difficulty of finding places to buy the things, and the disincentives to using one. If like most Seattleites, useful transit trips are either direct, or requires Metro to Metro transfer, paying with cash is a better deal. There’s no cash surcharge, and your transfers (in practice) are not time limited. On the other hand, if you’re an Eastside resident, your useful transit probably requires an interagency transfer. Now there’s a huge incentive to use ORCA: you don’t get gouged for two fares. I believe this disparity is reflected in the ORCA uptake.

    I recognize that there is a small segment of the population for whom the five dollar charge is a genuine burden. Most of them, I believe, are probably eligible for the low income ORCA, which isn’t saddled with this surcharge.

    I also agree that sensibly priced day passes are a genuine problem: 3 times the single fare is 7.50 — not much more than the cost of the medium. Unfortunately, this is arguably by design: the claimed purposes of the fee are to recover costs, and to avoid people treating the cards as disposable.

    1. The difficulty of acquiring transit smart cards is not limited to Seattle. It was hard to get a WMATA SmarTrip card back in the day, although it seems to be easier now. Boston’s Charlie Cards are only sold at certain T stations (Airport is not one of them). And, of course, the NYC MTA doesn’t even have a true smartcard system at all while Chicago already scrapped its initial implementation for a new one.

      Maybe the difficulty of acquisition is intended to be another deterrent to treating the cards as disposable. $5 is easily affordable for me, but spending an hour or two hunting down a replacement ORCA would be really frustrating.

      1. It’s a strange week to be defending the MBTA, where many of the specific heads guaranteed to roll in the aftermath have needed to roll for a while. But your suggestion that CharlieCards are even remotely as hard to come by as ORCAs is quite absurdly inaccurate.

        Because Boston’s TVMs predate the models that can easily dispense thick cards, every single non-driving T employee carries a stack of cards on their person. This includes the “customer service agents” (i.e. former token-booth occupants) hovering near the TVMs through in every subway station in the system and at major bus terminals, 20 hours per day and 7 days per week.

        The cards are free. They do not expire for 10 full years.

        There’s a reason that CharlieCard adoption is on the order of 95% within the 1.5-million-strong urbanized parts of the metropolitan area.

        If you came in from the airport, that means you either took the Silver Line — a free trip, courtesy of a port authority that actually does wish to discourage auto/taxi congestion at its facility — or you shuttled to the Blue Line, where you could have had a free CharlieCard in hand half a second after asking about it.

        That’s quite the opposite of Seattle’s all-customer-pain, no-customer-gain approach to digitized fare media.

      2. The difficulty of acquiring transit smart cards is not limited to Seattle.

        OK, so how about stupid cards? or semi-stupid cards?

        Skagit Transit dispenses magnetic paper cards instead of transfers. It knows how much value is on the card and the farebox prints the value on the back of the card as you use the card so you always know how much is left. You don’t have to fumble over exact change if you are paying cash.

      3. Yeah d.p., I was standing at the machines in the subway figuring out how to get a card. An MBTA agent walked up to me and asked if I needed any help. I asked him where I could get a CharlieCard. He pulled one out of his pocket and gave it to me.

      4. If you look at the list of ORCA outlets it is nowhere near the number of places you could buy a Puget Pass. While the need for special equipment to load the cards is partially responsible with the current calendar month pass system there is no reason the cards couldn’t be pre-loaded.

        Really every transit center, park & ride lot, or bus stop with significant traffic should have an ORCA TVM. The TVMs for SWIFT, Rapid Ride, and the Streetcars should be capable of at least reloading ORCA cards if not dispensing them.

      5. Totally agree that Charlie Cards are relatively easier to get than ORCAs. But they could be even easier.

        Since these employees carry around Charlie Cards to sell, MBTA should be clearly marketing that sales channel given that the TVMs can’t sell them. I can’t find information to that effect on the website, the TVMs don’t say “go buy a card from the station attendant walking around” and there aren’t even signs in the station mezzanines saying to buy them from actual people. So it seems like a bizarre secret sales strategy.

        Transit smart cards must be one of the most difficult yet inexpensive products to buy. Primarily because transit agencies are terrible at sales, marketing, and distribution.

      6. You keep using the word “sell”.

        What part of free and practically growing on trees makes you think CharlieCards need a “sales” strategy?

        The truth is that most visitors will see the greatest advantage in a 7-day pass, which is such a ridiculously good value that it can pay for itself in 2-3 days, even in comparison to the CharlieCard-discounted pay-per-ride fare.

        Though it can be done, it is somewhat difficult to get a 7-day added to a CharlieCard. On the other hand, magnetic-stripe 7-days are sold from the TVMs (and are actually better, allowing urban-zone commuter rail use and integrating inner-harbor ferries as well). CharlieCards are thus the ubiquitous fare media among locals; 7-day magnetic-stripe passes are the ubiquitous media for visitors.

        It is therefore not terribly problematic for visitors to be pointed in that direction. And if they really, really want permanent pay-per-ride card, all they need to do is ask.

        The MBTA has many bureaucratic foibles; this is not one of them.

    2. There’s no cash surcharge, and your transfers (in practice) are not time limited.

      This perverse incentive can’t be emphasized enough. This is a much bigger deal than the $5 fare; when I know I’ll be catching another bus in approximately 2 hours–which is hardly uncommon, as I use metro for there-and-back errand trips with some frequency–I’ll often leave my ORCA in my pocket and become, for that one journey, what I hate the most*, because METRO has incentivized me to do so.

      *In fairness to me, I always have my cash fare ready in advance and I never cheat the transfer; if it says 2:45 and it’s now 2:50 I will pay again. But I still get an average of around 30-40 minutes of extra transfer time.

      1. That’s a very good point. The transfers provide a lot of incentive for folks to use them (over and above an ORCA card) and that is for folks following the rules. For those who want to stretch the time limit, they are really nice. If I was short of money, I would pay cash every time. It is simply a better deal — and that doesn’t count the times I’ve been mischarged on an ORCA card (riding in a single zone but charged for two).

  9. A streetcar-only pass is a big waste of effort. These aren’t cable cars so they aren’t “destinations”. Neither line serves the types of destinations that would make such a pass a reasonable choice. The frequencies are not high enough to work like a hop-on shuttle. I will be surprised if they sell more than 50 of these a day. That might change if they get connected, but that connection is years away.

    1. Streetcars are magic! They can transform neighborhoods! Of course a tourist want to ride them — they are so cute. Seriously, though, tourists actually do want to ride them, because they have seen pictures, and think they look interesting. Besides, if they sell 50 of them a day, that will be a significant ridership increase.

    2. There is no effort involved in adding the day pass option. It is just one more option to print on the exact same ticket paper.

      Likewise, Metro could have a paper day pass by adding a few more lines in the software for its machine.

      The various agencies could agree to honor each others’ day passes. Their ticket machines could also be programmed to print day passes of lesser value, so someone could have a pass covering $2.25 to ride the streetcar, and another $0.75 to ride Link to the airport. Allow a passenger to add multiple passes together to handle higher-fare trips.

      The software, the user interface, and the enforcement are all trivial. The only non-trivial element is revenue allocation. But I think letting the agency whose ticket machine was used to print each day pass get the revenue is a reasonably fair approach.

  10. I have to disagree with you Bruce, strongly. “A step backward” may be a brilliant piece of hyperbole, but it’s utterly wrong given how ridiculous the streetcar’s current fare structure is. Charging the equivalent of Metro’s peak 1-zone fare for a system makes no sense given what the system offers potential riders – paper transfers (which wouldn’t work for most of the day, anyhow, since Metro doesn’t hand out Peak transfers off-peak) or not.

    Switching the streetcar to charge Link’s base fare is far more sensible. The day pass is puzzling, I’d agree – but it will also get almost no use by anyone thanks to its limited utility and obscurity.

    Complaining that SDOT hasn’t fixed the balkanization of our regional transit system is pedantic. Being that SDOT isn’t the State Legislature (or Kevin Desmond) means they can’t, and that’s hardly their fault. Likewise, whining that the streetcar will no longer honor Metro’s paper transfers makes no sense: the fact they were accepted was very poorly advertised, and somewhat confusing from a customer standpoint since it was an exception to the “Metro transfers only accepted by Metro” rule. More importantly, while ending paper transfers SDOT has made the massively smart decision to invest in ORCA, which unlike Metro’s paper transfers actually let you transfer between transit agencies and speed up boarding in the process. SDOT’s move also lets them support ORCA Lift, meaning that one of the largest population’s still using those paper transfers now can get a less expensive ride *and* transfer to another service with a free ORCA card.

    That’s not a step backward: It’s a rational decision based in reality. Regardless of how much you hate the streetcar, such moves should be encouraged if only because it might mean we get to see more of them.

    1. You seem to have read only half the post. I explicitly call out the base fare change as positive, and at no point do I blame SDOT for the existing mess. I am asking SDOT not to add to the mess.

    2. Will, can’t you see the logic of treating every single piece of transit between Marysville and Lakewood as part of the same system? Any real-time satellite map will show our real service area very clearly.

      Some buildings may charge people for visiting special events, as does the Seattle Art Museum. But it’s been awhile since anybody charged fares on elevators and escalators at all- let alone different fares for different “modes.”


  11. Sigh, I really wish the various transit agencies around here would get their shit together on fare integration.

    Compare Seattle to Portland, where any TVM will dispense fare media good on MAX, the streetcar, or buses. Portland even lets you use your phone rather than a stored value card or pass.

    True Portland only has two agencies to deal with (Tri-Met and the City of Portland) rather than 7 or 8 (depending on how you count the water taxi).

    That said, I hope to see Metro eliminate paper transfers as they currently exist. Get more people using ORCA, speed boarding, cut down on fare disputes, and eliminate the cost of printing a distributing transfer books.

  12. I’m confused. Is a monthly Orca pass good on the streetcar, or does Orca use with the streetcar require a fare be deducted every time.

    1. Yes, a monthly pass is valid on the Streetcar (as long as it’s the 2.50 value). Additionally, using e-Purse is valid too, subtracting the appropriate amount when tapping the card.

  13. Always remember — Decisions like these are made by people who never ride transit as a system. Maybe a single ride here and there for a photo-op, but never transit as a system, like the 6 different rides I took today on two separate systems. Our public decision-makers have no experience with anything like that. None. Nada. Thus the screwed up fare system.

  14. Perhaps once, maybe twice a year ORCA could have a “sale” and be had for nothing, say for a week in spring and a week in autumn. Then go back to being sold for a price. It might get some interest, some publicity, shake things up–and get more to use ORCA, which is a long-term goal.

    1. I totally agree.

      But such an idea is innovative. Unfortunately, King County lacks innovation thinking.

      1. There have been a few ORCA giveaway events, obviously targeted at increasing adoption in places where it’s low.

        I don’t think that sales really address the way people make decisions about ORCA. It takes a change in permanent conditions. Cost and availability of the card, whether it offers anything cash doesn’t. In Snohomish County, after ST and then CT eliminated paper transfers ORCA use increased.

    2. It doesn’t have to be a limited-time event. Several agencies advertise their smart card as free for the time being. And then the time that it ceases being free never seems to arive.

  15. #3 is ridiculous. I agree with you, Bruce, that the day pass goes against the goal of regional integration.

    However, I must say that the city’s policy against paper transfers is a legitimate one. Currently, no other agency accepts them. If the Streetcar continues to accept them as the network grows, I feel it would perpetuate Metro’s excuse for keep them around.

    Perhaps, the city is being ahead of the curve on this one or even is anticipating the eventual discontinuation of paper transfers.

    1. Paper day passes are far from ridiculous. It is having them on some modes and not others, and having them randomly accepted on some modes, and not others, that causes confusion. The agencies could all get together to agree to accept each others’ day passes of sufficient value. (But the price of the day passes offered on Link, Sounder, and the streetcars would probably have to be increased.)

      I do pray SDOT reads more than the hyperbolic headline of this article. Point #2 needs to be ready to roll out on March 1, or we may never catch up with the urban legend that the streetcar is only for the rich. The portion of Point #4 about not accepting paper transfers should happen simultaneously too, as a tradeoff for point #2. If it isn’t done as a trade-off, it may become politically impossible to ever do.

      I’m fine with delaying the streetcar ceasing to accept Metro tickets. But the ORCA pod needs to talk to each other about a universal standard for either accepting or not accepting each others’ paper day passes. If they want to go with the no-cross-agency-day-pass option, they should be prepared to make ORCA cards free (or no more than $1) until further notice, with the purchase of a pass or some minimum e-purse amount.

  16. Open Letters Dept:
    Dear First Hillers;
    In exchange for a stop on LINK, we are giving you a ‘just as good-almost’ streetcar connection. Unfortunately, you’ll have to make two different payments to ride the machine.
    The Management.
    Dear Puget Sounders;
    Thanks for your tax dollars to build this Ginormous Shine New Train, to replace your smelly, crappy bus rides on selected routes.
    Unfortunately, you’ll have to make two different payments to ride the machine. We understand your frustration with the fare system, and want to assure you we have been working on the problem (20 years now).
    The Management

      1. Mic used to drive the bus.

        He might have stronger tax-averse leanings than many of us, but his criticism of poor policy-making and taxes-for-outright-crap is not necessarily about that.

      2. Sorry you missed my point. Our transit agencies are so desperate to create and maintain their own identity (branding), you have to drag them kicking and screaming to make riding transit a no brainer.
        Link trains, SDOT streetcars, Metro? Who cares who the backroom people work for. All modes must appear to be one system from the public perspective, not a Hodge pogde of colors, service, fare systems, rules, timetables, trip planners, etc. ORCA is great, but only deals with a small part of the problem.
        It’s time for all transit to work as a single team, and let the computers and bean counters divide the revenue by formula each month. It’s not that hard to set up, after getting over the envy thing.
        BTW, I do resent watching good tax dollars being flushed down a bottomless pit.

      3. The lack of interagency transfers other than ORCA isn’t really the various agencies being provincial. It is actually an agreement among the agencies to promote ORCA use that took effect January 1, 2010.

        I don’t fully understand why it has taken until now (now, being March 1) for that agreement to supercede the agreement between Metro and SDOT to operate the streetcar, which included honoring each others’ transfers. It was a rogue feature that caused confusion.

        Having any agency honor Metro’s paper transfers only adds to Metro’s operating cost, as more riders then pay with cash while boarding the bus.

        There is an argument to be had over whether the agencies should simply honor each others’ printed tickets (which doesn’t reward fumbling change while boarding the bus), but right now Metro has one ticket machine, which is still a pilot project that is failing to draw much use, while riders at that stop continue to fumble cash in droves because it is so much more convenient for the riders doing it, and the paper transfer ends up being honored for longer than the printed ticket.

        The next big saving for taxpayers and riders alike is when Metro decides it is time to join all the other agencies in the region in ditching paper transfers.*

        * Kitsap Transit still gives paper transfers, which are honored only at the time of transfer, at transfer points.

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