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.
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.