The Sound Transit Board of Directors took action last Thursday on the staff proposals for fare changes on ST Express, but the outcome wasn’t as planned.

Last spring, a Regional Fare Forum called for the end of zone resets, a feature on ORCA readers that allows riders to request a one-zone fare on a route that crosses into another zone, but requires the operator to push a series of buttons to allow the one-zone charge, and then another series of buttons to reset the default to two zones. The main reason the forum sought to end zone resets was to reduce programming costs for Next Generation ORCA. Getting rid of zone resets will also save some dwell time on buses by making boarding a little faster.

The King County Council voted to eliminate zone resets on King County Metro by implementing a flat regular fare of $2.75, while leaving reduced fares as are.

Community Transit is getting ready to raise each of its local fares 25 cents, while implementing flat commuter fares.

Sound Transit’s staff proposal played off a $3.25 flat fare proposal for ST Express regular fares against a straw Option 2 that would have charged $2.75 on all intra-county routes and $3.75 on all inter-county routes. Option 2 would have produced weird results like charging $2.75 on route 577 and $3.75 on route 578, even though the overwhelming majority of riders on those routes travel between Seattle and Federal Way. Other more intuitive options, like a premium $3.75 fare for routes that run express over a certain distance, were not considered. In the end, the flat fare proposal won out over the straw Option 2 by just 59%-41% in the survey responses.

Sound Transit Board Member
Claudia Balducci

Board Member Claudia Balducci, a King County Councilmember who participated in last year’s Regional Fare Forum, sponsored an amendment to delay the change in the adult fares. She said the reason the simplification to a flat fare was being made was for simplifying programming for NextGeneration ORCA, pointing out that it was disconcerting that NextGen ORCA would need such a programming simplification.

Disconcertingly, nobody mentioned the time delays caused by zone resets while boarding. In an email from Balducci’s office, she said that ST staff had told her only 7% of riders would be impacted by the elimination of zone resets, and that bus speed was not one of the elements being studied in the fare options.

Clearly, since there were no options that would have kept zone resets, there was no need to study that aspect. But that 7% figure for the percent of riders using zone resets indicates that most riders on 2-county routes’ travel time is actually being impacted.

Balducci said that over half of ST Express riders would see a fare increase, but clarified in the email “Riders fares will be increasing regardless of who is paying, admittedly this is not a penny for penny account when it comes to employer-purchased monthly passes.” I got a chance to talk to some staffers back in February, and they said street teams talking to ST Express riders were encountering little concern about the actual fares, as most of them had Business Passport ORCA accounts paid for by their employers.

The board voted 7-6 for Balducci’s amendment, largely along lines of whose constituents would see a fare decrease and whose constituents would see an increase under staff’s preferred Option 1. The amendment left Option 1 in place, but not to take effect until July 1, 2020.

The part of the proposal that will flatten Regional Reduced Fare Permit fares (for seniors 65+ and riders with qualifying disabilities) to $1.00 on all rides on all routes, and will flatten the youth and low-income “LIFT” fares to $1.50 on all rides on all routes, was left untouched, and passed. This change will at least eliminate zone resets for all reduced-fare riders. It will also expand the list of services on which LIFT cardholders can ride for $1.50 or less (or a $54 monthly pass) to all ST Express bus routes, Link Light Rail, King County Metro buses, Seattle Streetcars, Kitsap Transit buses, Kitsap local ferries, and eastbound on the Kitsap Fast Ferry.

All the ST Express flat reduced fares go into effect July 1, 2018, the same day King County Metro’s $2.75 regular flat fare goes into effect.

As a result of the delay, zone resets for regular-fare riders will continue to be a “feature” on ST Express multi-county buses through the first 9 months of the Convention Center construction “period of maximum constraint”. Directly negatively-impacted bus routes include routes 510, 511, 512, 513, 578, 590, 592, 593, 594 serving downtown; and routes 532, 535, 574, and 586 that do not. Other routes using the same paths through downtown, including several Community Transit and Metro buses, are likely to see a small additional travel time on these paths due to being queued behind these buses.

Besides adding some travel time on ST Express buses until July 2020, the delay will require a second round of signage changes, and another round of advertising, costing roughly $100,000. It will also likely reduce fare recovery on ST Express over what it would have been under Option 1 over those two years.

Ironically, Balducci was also one of the loudest advocates for keeping ST Express 545 in downtown Seattle, compounding the spate of One Center City mobility improvement project delays on the period of maximum constraint. She would not commit to discontinuing route 545 after Redmond Link opens, but said she expected East Link to at least replace route 550, and wants more feeder service.

The Board vote could still be overridden by another vote to move up the elimination of zone resets by a year or more, but the deadline to do so for the July 1, 2018 changeover has passed. Some money could still be saved, though, if the Board votes within the next couple months to move up implementation of the adult fare change to the same day that Community Transit is planning to implement its new flat fares, October 1, 2018 (pending final action by the CT Board, scheduled for Thursday afternoon). However, Balducci said she would stick by both the July 1, 2020 fare change she heavily criticized, and the delay.

In a separate action, the ST Board approved $10 million for ST’s contribution to One Center City projects, primarily to improve transit speed, reliability, and layover improvements; supportive capital for bus service changes; hub area improvements; management strategies; and pedestrian and public space improvements. The improvements will help maintain transit speeds on 4th Avenue, the primary northbound street used by ST Express routes serving Pierce County, Snohomish County, and East and South King County. Route 550, currently operating in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, is anticipated to operate on 4th Avenue when buses are removed from the DSTT in September 2019. ST has essentially abandoned its proposal to re-route route 545 to UW Station, so it is expected to remain on 4th Avenue.

Balducci concluded her email with a wish that more ideas had come forth for “Bus-only lanes, priority signalization, limiting other non-HCT modal trips first”, all of which are under the control of the City of Seattle.

11 Replies to “Balducci Delays Elimination of Zone Resets”

  1. Happy I’m a Claudia fan! This is good maneuvering in a tight spot. And we still get ze flat fares in two years

  2. I consider zone resets a feature. Someone traveling from Lakewood to Tacoma, Mercer Island to Seattle, or Auburn to Federal Way shouldn’t pay as much as someone traveling from DuPont to Seattle. Flat fares barely make sense within a county as large as King, let alone for a full region. How about we tap-on-tap-off instead of penalizing people taking short trips?

    1. Before I can support the expansion of classical distance-based tap-on/tap-off fares, ST has to start accepting active passes and valid ORCA transfers as “proof of payment”, which they clearly are.

      It would also have to be an off-board payment system with readers at *every* stop (which I believe the BRT routes will be), as the general ridership shouldn’t have to suffer from slower buses (due to tapping both when getting on and off) to meet someone’s arbitrary and complicated definition of “fairness”.

      This is why I’m not happy with Balducci’s last-minute hash-making. She put her personal definition of “fairness” ahead of the value of riders’ time. That’s a sin of hubris in the transit business.

      She should have either proposed an alternative fare system that still eliminated zone resets, or let Option 1 go forward on schedule.

      Now, with the reduced fare decreases rolling out two years before the regular fare increases, the fare change has become revenue-negative, and may force ST Express service cuts, on top of the lost opportunity to increase service frequency and capacity on route 545 via a UW Station truncation.

      1. Polite reminder Brent: Claudia takes the bus.

        I’m happy we got the flat fares. Perhaps the fact this issue got some understandable heat and some of the Boardmembers would be up for election this year or next might have been an unspoken reason for the delay.

        Also like Claudia, I am skeptical of this rush to simplify fares to appease ORCA Next Gen programmers. Frankly, ORCA Next Gen as a key tier of ST3 – as much as the light rail expansions and the Transit-Oriented Development – needs a lot more sunlight on it and a sense of urgency. A lot more of both, as I’m supportive of some of the end products we will be getting out of ORCA Next Gen like charging for parking.

      2. I already had reservations about Option 1 because ST Express covers a wider variety of trips than Metro does. The $3.25 flat fare would have added 50c to the 550 or 522. That’s a lot of money when some people only go from downtown to Bellevue or Lake City, or from Bellevue TC to south Bellevue, or the U-District to downtown. It would have either gouged those people or pushed them off ST Express. I could see an argument that ST Express is intended only for longer-distance trips, but that’s not how it has been positioned for the past twenty years, and this is a major service-level change with little notice or public discussion. It’s not “just” a fare change or consolidation. In contrast, Metro’s change is only 25c, and in all cases the maximum fare is $2.75. That puts a minor burden on short-distance trips, and gives an even more questionable windfall on long-distance peak trips, but at least the difference between the two is less: sixteen miles. In contrast, the difference with ST is thirty miles, a 50c surcharge on short-distance trips, and a short-distance fare of $3.25. So a pause to reconsider our options is not a bad idea.

        The fairest solution would be to split the routes into low-fare and high fare. The low-fare routes would be the 512, 522, 550, 554, and similar. The high-fare routes would be the 511, 512, 594, etc. Federal Way would need more work, so maybe we could truncate the 578 at Federal Way and reassign its northern segment to the 577. That would require a transfer between Auburn and Seattle, but that would impact only a small fraction of the total 577/578 riders, and it would be a reasonable burden to impose given the tradeoff constraints in the rest of the network. As a bonus to 578 riders, they might end up paying the low fare, since charging the high fare for a transfer sounds kind of dubious.

        The 512 would be low-fare because it’s a hybrid route for short and long-distance trips and makes all the stops.The 510 and 511 would be high-fare because they’re for long-distance trips. The 512 runs in reverse-peak direction, so that would give low-fare reverse-peak Everett-Seattle trips, but we can live with that, and it’s only temporary anyway, until 2023 when the routes are truncated at Lynnwood.

  3. Yeah Claudia!
    No reason to discriminate against ST riders inside King County like short distance riders on 550, 540, 541 542 etc
    And she did the right thing in keeping 545 going downtown. Far too many negative side effects of the UW rerouting. The 255 needs to stay downtown too

    1. Not to get too far afield, but I’m excited to see route 255 become the first all-day/all-evening connection between UW Station and Kirkland. UW students living in the north eastside have waited long enough for this connection.

      1. Well then maybe add a redmond to uw weekend route or run 542 instead of 545 on Saturdays

      2. Brent, when the 540 was started it was 7 days per week all day service. I think until 10pm. I think ST gave it more than 5 years before it started trimming it because it got almost no ridership outside weekday commuting hours

        Even today virtually all the 255 a 545 ridership evening and weekends is headed downtown. Forcing them to unnecessarily lengthen their travel time for a small minority of riders is not good policy and will come at the cost of losing ridership. Off peak the buses travel between Montlake and 5th/Pine faster than you can get to/ from the Link platform. To say nothing of bridge openings and UW events.

    2. “Even today virtually all the 255 a 545 ridership evening and weekends is headed downtown.”

      How do you know that their destination is west of 9th Avenue and between Stewart Street and Jackson? A lot of them in the evening are probably going to Capitol Hill, and others are going elsewhere, but the bus routes force them to transfer downtown. Truncating the routes at UW frees up hours to make them more frequent, and that benefits everyone who uses the routes.

  4. So how exactly would it work for when we have Rapidride, swift and brt at the same station with three different fares?
    Also I’d prefer that the fare get changed to 2.75 for ST flat and that they increase the minimum light rail fare from 2.25 to 2.75 to make up for it.

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