Note: when we recorded this last week, I-976 had just been upheld by a local court; the upper court has since temporarily sided with Sound Transit.

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21 Replies to “Podcast #89: Stay on Sound Transit”

  1. Frank, I’m with you on “More monthly passes in the hands of more people.” If fares are necessary, ORCA system couldn’t be more beautifully simple.

    Just added my February monthly pass to my card a couple days ago at Tacoma Dome Station. But every card, and posted notice, should carry this understanding added in bold-face:

    “As a favor to the system, pass-holders are encouraged to ‘tap’ their cards upon both boarding and leaving the train.

    However, in gratitude for your steady patronage, Fare Inspectors will consider possession of this pass to be absolute Proof of Payment.”

    Anonymously if necessary, would appreciate hearing from somebody in Fare Inspection whether I’m right that you routinely issue warnings instead of citations where justice warrants.

    Mark Dublin

  2. I’m glad that you opined that an elected board is not enough to direct the ST management. You also stated that the agency isn’t making riders important enough and acting more like a builder. It’s a structural problem that requires deliberate actions to change.

    My solution is to have both a rider’s committee and a technical coordinating committee. The rider’s committee would be comprised of riders who have unique perspectives on the experience, and have empathy on the diversity of riders in the system. The technical coordinating committee would have department heads from other operators and cities as well as the Ports and WSDOT.

    It’s really maddening that ST has embraced and thus subjected themselves to this bizarre “controlled lobbying” process that favors those who whine and have power over more objective factors. Their objective should include doing what’s objectively productive in the public interest.

    For those that think that there is too many committees or meetings, I’d suggest that it’s not the quantity of meetings but the quality of the discourse that should be of the greatest concern. Without more objective steps, we are doomed to continue a public life of public screaming matches and backroom pressuring and deals.

    1. Al S., what can you tell me about the Transit Riders’ Union? Sounds like it should be a lobby. Is it? Because as every political force you and I don’t like has long since proved, this is how Us The People truly persuade our elected officials to vote for our idea of The Common Good.

      Can somebody from TRU weigh in here? Issue of an unconscionable fare policy isn’t my only one. But seems to me something that could have necessary “resonance” across a wide spectrum of voters. Especially those who are also Fare Inspectors. And be achievable literally with a single call from ST CEO’s smart-phone.

      Must be at lease one passenger with law-writing experience looking in here. Am I close?

      Mark Dublin

    2. The Transut Riders Union is a another transit advocacy group in Seattle. They have face-to-face meetings and focus moistly on issues affecting working;-class and poor riders. I’ve been to one of their meetings. I think they’ve published one or two guest articles on STB, and there have been occasional joint STB-TRU campaigns to persuade officials on some important transit decisions. But the two are mostly independent and I think only a few people participate in both. It’s been said that the TRU is the voice of poor riders, and STB is the voice of middle-class choice riders and transit nerds. This seems mostly accurate.

  3. Remember that screenshot that circulated of the Sound Transit terminal showing the “200” code for Angle Lake Station, instrumental in getting ST to reconsider the Union Street/Symphony station name… Did anybody else notice that this is just a screenshot from the latest Connect 2020 video Sound Transit posted on The Platform? Amazing self-own.

    1. I did. Actually I saw the video only in the past week, and when that image of the stations came on the screen I had a “wait a minute, I think I’ve seen that before” moment.

      I think it mainly shows the lack of internal communication within the organization. Obviously not every person is going to know about everything. But when the team responsible for getting the station name changed was told about the cost of changing the station code, the person who told them that should have absolutely known that it doesn’t need to be exact acronym of the station name. The fact that it had to work its way by extreme luck from a published video to studious observers to a post on Twitter in order for Sound Transit to tell Sound Transit that the acronym doesn’t need to match the station name is ludicrous.

      The actual identifiers themselves are kind of fascinating. Tukwila Intl Blvd Station is TWIB and not TIBS? And it seems weird that the Pine Street stub tunnel still has an entry.

  4. You say there’s no magic bullet except for removing fares altogether (26:58). Let’s stop accepting fares as a foregone conclusion. We can, and must, become a place where transit is free to use for everyone.

    1. I don’t see why we “must” make transit free. I would prefer to avoid service cuts, and in the presence of new revenue, take a strong look at adding service instead.

      1. Martin, I’m pretty sure we’re both on the same page as to what it means to make transit “free”. It means that we’re paying for it through a channel that doesn’t involve dealing with money aboard the vehicles themselves, such as a tax.

        Would like to see a calculation of the financial cost incurred by a transit vehicle standing still when it should be moving. Especially in circumstances where one stopped vehicle denies mobility to several dozen more- thinking the old 41 northbound held at Westlake at the height of every pm rush.

        But. Could be an age-and-experience thing, the comfort I get out of my prepaid fare card. Notice how the younger the passenger, they louder they demand to be the one that drops the change down the slot. Fact it’s a card-tap now, from the pre-school point of view, beside the point.

        For the high latitude dark of post-September Seattle, in trade school I designed a shiny reflective plastic pass-holder to hold up into the headlights of approaching transit. Now tragically un-wokenly canceled in the new Olympia fare regime.

        For me, a prepaid pass is evidence in my pocket that I’m actively helping support my transit system. I feel a shade less in control without it. Making me blood-enemies with any agency whose existence I’m willingly subsidizing, that dares to punish me exactly like a thief over a matter of internal fare apportionment.

        So much simplicity and flexibility in a universally-honored pre-paid card! Age, income, disability, employer, school-status…all taken care of at time and point of sale! Of which there can be no such thing as too many!

        If the Transit Riders’ Union isn’t a lobby- would somebody please make it one? Because I can’t think of a better kick-off for the permanent voting-passenger presence that could relegate a lot of expensive embarrassment to cautionary transit history.

        Mark Dublin

    2. My basic observation on this is that eliminating fares requires voters being willing to tax themselves to pay for 100% of service. This might happen in areas where transit has a high enough mode share, but I don’t think this would be politically viable in the suburbs.

      I could see Seattle voters doing this- my understanding is that a lot of Seattle Public School students are eligible for an Orca card with a free, unlimited monthly pass on it. We’re not near NYC in per-capita transit trips, but enough people in the city use it that making transit a tax-funded benefit of residence could be politically viable. If there was a referendum, Seattle voters could conceivably vote for monthly transit passes for all low-income residents, or possibly even all Seattle residents.

      It’s harder for me to see suburban King County being willing to pay for transit service solely out of tax revenue- it was only six years ago that county voters rejected a small tax increase to preserve Metro service hours.

      It would be very surprising if Snohomish County, let alone Pierce County would be willing to eliminate fares- the transit mode share is just too low there for most voters to see it as benefitting them.

      1. We also have to keep in mind that various agencies are prevented from actually raising taxes. The city of Seattle can’t just pass an income tax to make transit free. They are limited to how high they can raise sales taxes and are very close to the limit now. Without a change at the state level, free transit would likely mean less money for transit.

    3. There are multiple kinds of free transit. The unadorned expression implies”free for everybody”; i.e., no fare collection at all, but there’s also “free for residents” as PhillipG alluded to.

      Free for all is mostly used in small transit systems like Island Transit or college towns where the revenue barely covers the cost of collection, or Intercity Transit where the subsidy was already 90% so the difference is minimal.

      Free for residents exists in Tallinn, Estonia, where the city buys residents transit passes, while visitors and suburbanites still pay a fare.

      Another kind of low-cost transit is to encourage everybody to buy a monthly pass or day pass, or have an automatic cap so when you pay so much in e-purse the rest of your trips that day are free. That way the agency is counting on a more stable revenue source rather than trying to squeeze money out of every individual trip. In cities that emphasize day passes, the cost is often 2x a single fare, whereas in Pugetopolis if you ride a lot without a pass your cost can go over $12 a day. (This can be a deterrent to visitors, when a monthly pass doesn’t make sense if you’re only here for a few days or a week or you arrive in the middle of a month.)

      Seattle gives passes to all public school students. That was a priority of Durkan;s after Metro couldn’t fulfill all the extra service funded by the TBD because its bus bases are full. The argument is to make it affordable for poor families to go to school, give a break to cost-burdened middle-class families, give students access to activities outside school hours without their parents driving them, and hopefully encouraging them to become lifetime transit users. So one subset of residents has free fares. That plus the programs fro the poor means we’re chipping away at it. Like how the US doesn’t have single-payer healthcare but the VA is single-payer, seniors are on Medicare, and the poorest are on Medicaid and public-health clinics, and children have wellness programs and insurance in some cities, so half of Americans have de facto government healthcare of some sort.

    4. Once we define what kind of free transit we’re talking about, then we can evaluate its desirability. I think free-for-all or free-for-residents transit would be a good long-term goal, because transit is a basic part of a well-functioning city, so it benefits the city’s economy and every resident, not just the riders. And if we made it a priority to maximize transit user and minimize driving and all its externalities, then we’d want to make it as easy and inexpensive as possible to use transit.

      But that’s a long-term goal, and there are reasonable arguments over whether $1-2 transit with concessions for the poor is good enough or even more socially beneficial than free. Metro’s fareas are among the highest in the country. They’re almost as high as cities like New York where you get four times more value in transit options for your dollar. It didn’t used to be high; it was 40 cents in the 80s, $1-1.50 in the 90s, $1.50-2 up to 2008. That’s similar to peer systems, maybe a bit higher. But with the high price of oil in the mid 2000s and then the recession pummeling the revenue, the fare has gone up and up to compensate. That’s partly because of its sales-tax structure, which is sensitive to booms and busts in the economy, and King County’s fare-recovery window of around 20-30%, so whenever it approaches the floor the county raises the fare.

      The other issue, as Martin mentioned, is that unless you replace the lost revenue from a fare cut, you have to cut service or postpone expansions. Metro just went through a critical expansion between 2012 and 2016 that increased most of Seattle’s core routes from 30 minutes to 15 minutes, especially midday, evenings, and weekends. That’s critical because doubling the frequency brings more than twice as many riders and makes transit more than twice as much useful, We still need to expand it more to reach the level in San Francisco, Vancouver, and Chicago. And the suburbs have been left behind except the RapidRide lines and a few others (150), so they need an even bigger increase. More frequent service is arguably more urgent than free fares at this point, so unless you’re going to raise enough money for both comprehensive service and free fares, I’d rather increase the service first.

      One argument against free fares you hear is that homeless people will ride it all day, and be smelly and violent and deter other riders. But the solution to this is simple and is in the word homeless: give them homes and they won’t be spending all day on the bus keeping warm. Our society gets into such a rut of inefficiency and social tensions because we don’t solve problems the most direct way.

  5. I was once hassled by fare enforcement because I rode Link to see the Angle Lake station when it was new. I didn’t retap on my return trip, but I thought I was within the transfer window. I just got a warning, but it made me feel like a criminal. I’m a senior citizen so I only paid $1.00. It left me confused. Does the transfer window apply to the return light rail trip or not?

    1. The situation with U-turn trips has always been ambiguous. Yes, the transfer window applies, but the inspector apparently wanted you to tap out and back in at Angle Lake to do the transfer. However, you can’t tap out and in at the same station to start a new trips within 15 minutes, because when you tap in it says “CONTINUE TRIP” rather than starting a new trip. However, those taps will still show up in the ORCA history probably, which must have been what the inspector was looking for. This would also be a pain in stations like Capitol Hill where you have to go up two levels to find an ORCA readers.

      1. I did not know this!

        Does that mean that as long as you do a tap-off followed a few seconds later by a tap-on at your intermediate turn-around station that you pay just one fare for a round trip?

        If so, thanks for the tip!

      2. Thanks for the clarification. Since I pay just a dollar for every trip, there is little motivation to tap off, but I now try to be a good citizen and do it to help them with their statistics.

      3. Sometimes I drop-off or pick-up a friend at the airport via Link, tap off, walk to and from the terminal, and then tap back on for my return trip. I only get charged once for the round trip, even though my tap-off and tap-on are separated by up to 30 minutes. I think it’s possible that the 2-hour transfer window starts from the time you tap off, so you have quite a while to do whatever you need to do before returning.

        But you do need to tap off and back on to do U turn. I think the inspector saw that you tapped on at say, Westlake, but found you riding in the “wrong” direction” from Angle Lake and had to issue you a warning.

      4. I recall once tapping on at one of the downtown stations with the intention to get off at Columbia City. But I zoned out, and before I knew it, I was at Othello. So I got off, crossed the tracks, and boarded a northbound train, all without tapping on/off again. Now, there were no fare enforcement officers at this point, but if there had been, would I have gotten a warning? If so, that’s completely unexpected.

  6. Frank and Martin also discussed the difficulties in implementing the three large Murray-Kubly capital projects (e.g., CCC Streetcar, Madison, and Roosevelt). they have some issues in common: large heavily-leveraged budgets, longer walks for transfers to/from Link, uncertain FTA grants, and poor service design. But there is a good example, between 1998 and today, Shoreline, Metro, WSDOT, and SDOT have done a good job implementing the E Line and Route 358 before it. Ridership is way up; transit speed is faster and more reliable. other good inter agency examples are SR-522 BAT lanes, SR-520 tolling and service, and the center access projects hinted at in the discussion, though, most have not been used intensively enough (e.g., South 317th Street, NE 128th Street, Mountlake Terrace, 142nd Place SE, etc.).

    Martin asserted that the two streetcar projects got built, so that was good. but they were so wrong! In general, Nickels did a good job of getting the wrong things done. there were bike safety issues with both lines; both lines had difficult interaction with the electric trolley bus network; both lines are unreliable; both lines are much less frequent than trolley bus lines could have been if the capital funds have been spent differently. the mode choice for surface streetcar was the key mistake and that was from Nickels, ST2, McGinn, Murray, and Burgess.

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