We’ve come a long way since the 38 fare zones of 1973, but our current fare systems are generally an overlapping mess. In the context of Sound Transit 2 and 3, potential bus restructures for One Center City, as well as its own Long Range Plan, Metro is looking at a potential overhaul of its fare structures, and through the end of March they are conducting a survey of riders’ fare priorities. This is a sort of meta survey; it doesn’t ask you to respond to any proposals, but instead will inform what they will propose in April. After that, another round of feedback begins. This project has a relatively short timeline, with Executive Constantine hoping to submit a proposal to the King County Council in June.
The background materials presented to the Advisory Committee convened for this project show that Metro is primarily focused on two goals: in the short term, potential elimination of zone and peak surcharges, and in the longer term, moving gingerly toward cashlessness and/or universal off-board payment. Please take the survey, and we’ll keep you updated with additional feedback opportunities as the project progresses. You may also email comments to Metro’s DeAnna Martin.
Fare policy is complicated. Two worthy goals, fairness and simplicity, directly contradict each other. In systems with large geographic areas such as King County, fairness would match fares proportionally with the cost of providing service, leading to high peak suburban bus fares and low fares for short urban trips. The resulting zones or distance-based fares would typically be difficult to understand or remember. BART and DC Metro are two prominent examples of this.
Simplicity, on the other hand, usually trades fairness for legibility, underpricing suburban trips and overpricing urban trips. Portland’s TriMet charges a flat $2.50 for all single trips, no matter whether you travel all 33 miles of the Blue Line or travel 1/4 mile in the Lloyd District. San Francisco’s Muni and Chicago’s CTA also generally operate this way.
Here in Central Puget Sound, we have generally taken an “all of the above” approach, creating an unfair system that is also very complex. We have one type of service that uses zones based on city limits (Metro buses during peak hours), one that bases zones on county lines (Sound Transit buses), two that operate on a distance-based system (Link and Sounder), and four types of service with flat fares (Metro buses during off-peak hours, King County Water Taxi, Washington State Ferries, Seattle Streetcar, and the cash-only Monorail).
This complexity is multiplied by the ad hoc growth in various fare media options. We have proof-of-payment policies for Link, Sounder, and RapidRide, but pay-as-you-board for everyone else. Metro alone issues and accepts paper transfers. Day passes are available on ORCA, but only for services that cost up to $3.50 (sorry, Sounder or Vashon Water Taxi riders). You can buy a full Link or Sounder day pass on your mobile phone, or you can only buy a single Metro ticket on your phone, but you will not be able to transfer between agencies.
These overlapping structures, each rational on their own, create absurdities for travelers just looking to get where they’re going. Consider a few examples:
- RapidRide E is unique in crossing a fare zone boundary and accepting proof-of-payment, requiring those traveling between Seattle and Shoreline to pay onboard and actively request the driver to charge them more for a northbound trip. Those traveling southbound within Shoreline have to ask the driver to charge them less, since the RapidRide fare is pre-set to 2 zones during peak hours.
- A trip from Lakewood to Everett on Sound Transit costs just $3.75, or roughly $.05/mile. If I ride Route 49 from my apartment at Broadway/Roy to get a beer in Pike/Pine at 5pm, I pay $2.75, or $2.29 per mile. The urban trip would cost me 45 times more.
- If you travel to downtown from Federal Way or SR 520, for example, during peak hours Sound Transit buses are $.50 cheaper than Metro’s, but off-peak Metro buses are $.25 cheaper than Sound Transit. So if you’re standing at Montlake or Evergreen Point, the cost conscious should look for a white bus during rush hour and a green bus at all other times.
- A trip from White Center to Westwood Village (half a mile!) costs $3.25 during peak hours, but Renton to Black Diamond at noon (20 miles) costs just $2.50.
- For trips within the urban core, Link Light Rail is $.25 cheaper than Metro’s lowest fare. If you pay with ORCA E-purse and are traveling anywhere between Westlake and International District, you should avoid buses entirely in the tunnel and wait for the train instead.
Fare policies have real impacts to an agency’s bottom line. Metro estimates that moving from 65% ORCA use to 95% could save the agency $9-17 million per year. Our unique series of discounts – ORCA Lift and human services tickets on top of the federally required discounts for seniors and those with disabilities – cost the agency $27 million per year. The nation’s highest card fee ($5) surely presents a psychological hurdle to infrequent riders.
The current system will become increasingly untenable as Link expands, providing additional urgency to these conversations. As just one example, compare Federal Way and Lynnwood. For future trips from Federal Way to Westlake, under the current structure Link would be $3.50, slower and more expensive than current Sound Transit express. Conversely, a trip from Lynnwood to Westlake on Link would be just $3.00, $.75 cheaper than today’s buses and also considerably faster.
As the nature of winners and losers changes and more people transfer between agencies, fare alignment will become more and more imperative. We can choose simplicity or fairness, but we shouldn’t settle for neither. What would you like to see?