Rendering of Link at Kent-Des Moines Station (Sound Transit)

Amidst discussions about the design and compromises of the Link Light Rail system, one aspect that gets relatively little attention is how exactly fares are calculated based on the distance traveled. While important, it is also never an urgent priority and can always be changed down the road (unlike things like the route and station access which are, almost literally, set in stone).

Currently, with the exception of youth/ORCA LIFT fares ($1.50) and senior/disabled fares ($1.00), the cost of a trip on Link is based on a linear formula: $2.25 plus 5¢ per mile, rounded to the nearest 25¢. So a 5 mile trip on Link will cost $2.50, a 10 mile trip $2.75, etc. This formula has been unchanged since Link began service, with the exception of a 25-cent fare increase in 2015 accompanying the introduction of ORCA LIFT fares. Over Link’s history thus far, this formula has generally suited the variety of trips generally taken on Link. Short trips within the city are affordable and on par with bus fares (though recently bus fare increases have outpaced Link). Longer trips have a higher fare better matching a premium service, maxing out at a reasonable $3.25 (coincidentally, the same as ST Express).

However, as light rail expands, the fare for the longest trips will continue to increase at the same 5¢ per mile unless the formula is changed. Federal Way to any DSTT station will cost $3.50, and to UW will cost $3.75. Tacoma to downtown Seattle will cost $4, and $4.25 to UW. From Everett, trips downtown will cost $3.75 to $4. As expected, trips to SeaTac airport will be cheap from the south (maxing out at $3.25 from Tacoma), higher from the east (at $3.75 from downtown Redmond), and pricey from the north ($4.50 from Everett). This will create conditions that may be seen as problematic:

  1. As Link replaces ST Express routes, the new fare for the same trip will often be higher
  2. For many of these trips, the higher fare will come along with slower service most of the day
  3. Much higher fares in the suburbs more heavily impact riders who were priced out of Seattle, or never could afford to live in Seattle in the first place
  4. High fares will make it all the more difficult to attract car commuters, a task which will undoubtedly be more difficult if public transit FUD persists for years after COVID-19

There are a lot of trade-offs when it comes to deciding how to set fares. While there are arguments in both directions for every consideration that affect fares, it seems like that punishing riders who have a cheaper ride on ST Express today with a higher fare is not something we want to be doing when we open much higher capacity service in these areas. Another factor in determining the “fairness” of Link fares is routing inefficiencies. For most people from the farther suburbs, the deviation to the Rainier Valley from the south or to Paine Field from the north are nothing more than annoyances on the way to where they’re actually going. Since these inefficiencies are largely un-correctable, these riders will already have to pay for these inefficiencies with added travel time for eternity. But paying an additional 5¢ per mile of added distance that they don’t want to (or, if driving is an option, even have to) travel is punishing riders twice, something that seems supremely unwise high-capacity public transportation.

One way to change the fare formula is to increase the fare logarithmically with distance rather than linearly. Put differently, this means that if (for sake of illustration) a 4-mile trip costs 25¢ more than a 2-mile trip, then an 8-mile trip would cost 50¢ more than a 2-mile trip (and not 75¢ more). A 16 mile trip would cost 75¢ more than a 2-mile trip, 50% more than a 4 mile trip, and 25¢ more than an 8-mile trip (when under a linear scale, it would have cost $1.75, $1.50, and $1 more, respectively). Doubling the distance would not double the fare, it would just add 25¢. This means that the fare will still go up based on distance, but it would make longer trips more affordable and a better value per mile than shorter trips. This would work particularly well for Link because Link works much better for shorter urban trips (especially in conjunction with a frequent bus network) than it does for long trips that run parallel to freeways and compete with cars and express buses. A logarithmic fare would reflect this difference by making the fare increase more slowly the more the travel time advantage diminishes.

For a more realistic example, let’s consider the following fare: $2.25 for the first 5 miles, plus 50¢ for each time the distance multiples by 5. Here is what the fares would look like to common destinations when compared to the current formula, with logarithmic fares having a gray background:

Intl Dist/Chinatown$2.50$2.25$3.00
Kent-Des Moines$3.50$3.25$3.25$2.50
Federal Way$3.75$3.50$3.50$2.75
Tacoma Dome$4.25$4.00$4.00$3.25
Fare comparison for common trips from the south
Fare comparison for common trips from the north
Intl Dist/Chinatown$2.50$2.25$3.00
Mercer Island$2.75$2.50$2.50$3.25
Bellevue Downtown$3.00$2.75$2.75$3.50
Redmond Tech Center$3.25$3.00$3.00$3.75
Downtown Redmond$3.50$3.25$3.25$3.75
Fare comparison for common trips from the east

A fare system like this would set Link up for the future, and let future riders know that Link Light Rail is being expanded with their economic needs in consideration, and not as an afterthought. And in an environment where Metro will be reducing service hours as Link opens and people will be more reluctant than ever to leave their cars behind, easing the fare burden of longer-distance trips may help ensure that Link is well-utilized as it continues to grow.

102 Replies to “Reforming Link fares for a larger network”

  1. “From Everett, trips downtown will cost $3.75 to $4.”

    I wonder what the fare would be without the added mileage of the deviation to Paine Field?

      1. I am somewhat skeptical of fares that use mileage as a computation of the fare. There may be instances where, through no fault of the passenger, the fare ends up being higher because the line deviates from a more direct line between end points. While the deviation to Paine Field results in about a three mile difference in travel distance, some other fare estimates may be a little more extreme:

        1. Redmond Tech Center to University of Washington (about a 10 mile difference between using SR-520 versus I-90) – however, there is a bus that will hopefully continue to use SR-520
        2. For Sounder between Tacoma Dome and King Street Station – again about a 10 mile difference because the rail line does not operate directly between Tacoma and Seattle

        While the Paine Field variation may result in a fare being perhaps a quarter higher than if the line were built along the old interurban right of way (or along I-5) between Mariner and the SR-526/SR-527/I-5, the two other instances makes me wonder if it is fair (or should I say equitable) to the passengers just because there is a deviation in the line?

      2. “No, but they are based on track mileage.”

        No, they aren’t lol. Just because they’re based on distance doesn’t mean they literally measure the length of track and set the fare based on that.

      3. Barman,
        Tacoma is closer to Seattle than Puyallup. If the fare is not based on track mileage, please explain why the fare from Tacoma to Seattle is fifty cents higher than the fare between Puyallup and Seattle.

      4. I don’t think you understand what I’m saying… the distance between Tukwila and Rainier Beach is far longer than the distance between SeaTac and Tukwilia yet they’re both a $.25 difference. Yes distance plays an obvious factor but they aren’t LITERALLY using the track mileage to determine the fare amount.

      5. Have you actually, you know, measured it? It shouldn’t be too hard, if you start at Tukwila (where is a decent size bend in our system). I’ll get it started. As the crow flies, TIBS to SoDo is 8.28 miles. I don’t have the track distance, but I get 11.10 by dragging the line over the as best I can (using Google Maps).

        So, it is supposed to be $2.25 plus 5¢ per mile, rounded to the nearest 25¢. As the crow flies: 8.28 * 5¢ + $2.25 = $2.66. Rounded to the nearest quarter, that works out to $2.75. Track mileage: 11.1 * 5¢ + $2.25 = $2.80, which rounded works out to, well, the same thing. Unlike Sounder, Link really doesn’t detour very much. At a nickel a mile, it really doesn’t matter. Feel free to find an edge case where someone is charged an extra quarter (or not) but I don’t think it is worthy worrying about.

        It is certainly the case that Sounder changes more per track mile (just like every commuter rail I’ve ever heard of). Whether Link is doing the same really doesn’t matter.

      6. While Link has fairly limited deviations currently, I think you will see an edge case when East Link opens when we see the rail fare from Overlake to University of Washington. But as I mentioned earlier, there will be a bus that provides a more direct link.

        Secondly, it is possible that the deviation to Paine Field may bump the Everett to Seattle fare up a quarter higher than if the alignment did not deviate to Paine Field.

        Here is the text from the latest Transit Development Plan from Sound Transit on how fares are calculated for Link and Sounder (note the use of “based on the distance traveled”):

        “For Sounder, single-ride fares for adult riders range from $3.25 to $5.75 and are based on the distance traveled. The price of a Sounder ticket starts with a base fare of $3.05. A per-mile charge of $0.055 is added to the base fare and the sum is rounded to the nearest quarter to determine the final cost of the trip.”

        “Like Sounder, adult fares on Link are distance-based and currently range
        from $2.25 for short-distance trips and increase in 25-cent increments up to $3.25 for a trip between University of Washington and Angle Lake stations. The price of a Link ticket starts with a base fare of $2.25. A per mile charge of $0.05 is added to the base fare and the sum is rounded to the nearest quarter to determine the final cost of the trip.”

  2. Or, just set the Link fare to exactly the same amount it would cost to take a Metro or Sound Transit bus between the same points.

    Nobody should feel a need to spend twice as long meandering across town on buses to save 25 cents on the fare vs. Link.

    1. As it is now, you can get from Everett to Tacoma for $3.25. The 510 + 594 is almost definitely faster too.

      1. In theory, it’s faster, but by the time you slog all the way through downtown on a bus and wait for a up to 30 minutes for a transfer between two half-hourly bus routes, most of the time savings is evaporated.

      2. Not just in theory. I ride the 512 and the 594 to get from Lynnwood to Tacoma Dome and back about monthly and it actually is faster.

    2. Bus fares were altered for simplicity, which meant that essentially there is a subsidy for longer trips. You are suggesting we do the same for trains, even though we obviously have a way to easily charge for longer trips.

      Nobody should feel a need to spend twice as long meandering across town on buses to save 25 cents on the fare vs. Link.

      And nobody will. Before Sound Transit, you had two choices for getting from Seattle to Everett by bus. You could take Greyhound, or you could take a bunch of different local buses. Nobody did the latter (those with little money would just hitchhike).

      1. I do regularly use two local buses for this trip instead of the single Express bus when I’m tight on money at the end of the month, since the RRFP lets me transfer and still pay local fare + 25¢. Speak for yourself lol.

    1. Link’s fare structure is not simple. The distance-based formula just gives a fair basis for it; it doesn’t make it simple for passengers. Passengers don’t usually how how many miles it is between stations, especially stations relatively close together, although now they do because the fare schedule tells them how far they are. As to what distance is being measured, I think most people would assume track miles, and how is that different from the odometer? ST should clarify it if it’s not based on track miles.

      Link’s fare is actually similar to Germany. German commuter/regional/intercity rail have a standard per-kilometer charge, plus a surcharge for short-distance trips (<5 km if I remember), and other surcharges for faster service.

    2. It seems pretty simple, but then I read the New York Times in 8 languages. I don’t think the description is overly verbose, either. The idea is pretty simple, but it is helpful to have a chart. Most of the text is simply describing the political ramifications of the fares.

  3. Set the price at an reasonable initial zone price and if link ridership is not high, lower the price. When it gets to ridership capacity, raise the fare.
    Initially, if the fare from Redmond, or Everett has to be zero to get people interested, so be it. (I doubt that would be needed). What you want is as much incentive to ride as possible. Make Link the absolute first choice for everyone who is going where it goes.
    Adjust fares based on demand. Maybe the fare is double on home Husky days, or for Mariner or Seahawk days. There could be a peak fare which is different from off peak. Maybe even ride free after 10 PM. Whatever it takes to get that train full.

    1. Changing fares based on events seems confusing, but otherwise I agree with the gist of your idea.

      Keeping in mind peak ridership is in the downtown, riding from, say, Everett to Lynnwood or Federal Way to SeaTac is nearly free, but then any trip that goes through downtown is $4 (or whatever) during rush hour. So rather than price by distance, price based upon excess capacity in each segment/zone. Would encourage maximum ridership while not overwelming the core.

  4. Thanks Alex, is there any way you can estimate the difference in total fare revenue/year from the different fare formulas you compare?

    I am not sure I quite understand logarithmic vs. linearly and wonder if the regular rider will either.

    Also do you know what percentage of riders on light rail ST is estimating will not pay a fare, and if they break they down based on long vs. short runs? If more of this fare evasion could be captured it would allow overall fares to be reduced to collect the same total fare revenue.

    I think when citizens voted for light rail they expected a more comfortable ride with capacity to sit and a more certain travel time, a big issue for commuters. I also think they assumed fares on light rail would be somewhat higher than on a bus.

    If the issue is competition with driving on long runs that depends on several issues. First my guess is most riders originating from these outlying stops will need to own a car due to where they live, so the cost of owning a car is moot, and the actual cost to drive vs. take light rail is gas and wear and tear. But a business related driver can deduct 57.5 cents/mile currently (and most drivers have a pretty generous definition of business related). I would like to see the business deduction for employee transit reinstated but I think that was part of the 2017 tax cuts and would need new legislation.

    The other factor is congestion, which mostly affects the peak hour commuter. If the train is going where the commuter needs to go, the run is long, and congestion terrible like on I-5, and first/last mile access decent, rail could cost significantly more than driving and still be competitive.

    1. Daniel, you can only take a deduction for mileage AFTER you omit “commuting” to your place of work. If in your case you drive to Pioneer Square and back you may not deduct that, because your “place of work” is Smith Tower (IIRC). BUT, if you drive out to the UW Law Library for an obscure book you need for a case, you can take that mileage both out and back.

      For people who work out of their own home, “commuting” is the first and last leg of the day.

      The bottom line is that “drivers” do not get to determine what is “business related”. You are an attorney; you really should know that.

      Other than that your comment is quite accurate. Commuters to the CBD from suburban areas are the very definition of “choice” riders.

  5. I thought that fares were calculated as a straight line distance (“as a crow flies”) rather than track distance. Am I wrong?

    If so, deviations don’t affect fares between any two points.

    1. I think the author is making the point deviations aren’t as popular. For example, if you are trying to get from UW hospital to Capitol Hill, then Link is perfect. If you are trying to get from Beacon Hill to Capitol Hill, the detour to downtown costs you time.

      The counter argument is that it doesn’t matter. If I’m trying to get from Sand Point to Kirkland, I have to go around. It would be silly of me to argue with the cab driver that I should get a discount because it is so close.

  6. Had it tried any more diligently to infect itself with the World’s every work-related illness, and had it wired itself on Shachlers’ every ounce of Oxicontin, could Sound Transit have tried any harder to take something The Lord Himself made Easy and make it incomprehensible?

    Possession of a pre-paid montly pass on a valid ORCA card should in every case constitute not State’s Evidence, but BLANKET IMMUNITY on an evasion charge. Period, paragraph and Hell’s own years’ supply of exclamation points. (!)

    The ST 574 leg of my average Olympia-Seattle trip is probably contains more DISTANCE than the present length of LINK. Way the system looks at it, and should, is that my “Tap On” grants me Admission to ST’s whole length and breadth. One way or another including Olympia.

    Apportionment’s in an accountant’s job description, not mine. With this morning’s unemployment stats, if ST’s short re-sick-call, it can surely hire a temp. Can’t “Indeed!” enlist you a “troop” who can Apportion with an “IMPACT?”

    But what’s sadly finally joined me in my own Obsolescence is my own original ORCA card. Which I can’t even find. Folding Phone, please verify my fare! As a technology, Touch-Screen’s whole purpose is to make it legal not to hire old people!

    Mark Dublin

  7. They should shift to pricing by zone. Outside of Seattle & Bellevue, the trains will have plenty of room so the cost shouldn’t increase no matter how far you travel because it’s zero incremental cost to the system. If you are boarding in Federal Way, it should be $2.50 to any destination until the system start hitting capacity issues (Rainier Beach?), at which point it can toggle up.

    And the same going outbound. If you board downtown, once you get past, say, Northgate, why should it cost more to get off at 145th or Lynnwood?

    My guess is once these issues crop up, we’ll end up with a flat rate like NYC or Chicago because that’s the easiest solution for the Board.

    1. The zone idea works for STEx and Sounder because almost everyone is going to a single final destination. It gets fuzzy on a service like Link where people will be coming and going to many different points. Crossing a fare zone can sometimes be arbitrary. Distance fares are just a smarter way of doing zones without punishing some short rides.

      1. Crossing a fare boundary is more arbitrary though. Going from Fife to Federal Way would cost the same as going from Northgate to SeaTac.

      2. Bringing back zone-based fares on ST Express would re-introduce zone resets as people pay their fares at the front of the bus. Please don’t bring that back.

    2. If you board downtown, once you get past, say, Northgate, why should it cost more to get off at 145th or Lynnwood?

      Because it costs a lot more to serve Lynnwood than 145th.

      we’ll end up with a flat rate like NYC or Chicago

      The commuter rail lines in both New York and Chicago charge more depending on distance (e. g. LIRR: Is travel from Tacoma more like commuter rail, or more like a subway? Well, in terms of distance, it is clearly commuter rail. The New York Subway — serving a massively large city that dwarfs greater Seattle — extends at most less than 20 miles from the core. Chicago is similar. So is the DC Metro. But a trip from Baltimore to DC costs more than a trip from one of the DC suburbs into DC.

      1. No, it costs the same? It’s the cost per rider that is different. The operating plan is to run the trains all the way to Lynnwood; that’s a policy position independent of who happens to be riding that day.

        Chicago metra should charge the same fare as the CTA. The fact that Chicago is opposing this because riders will shift to Metra (a superior service) is frustrating. So I see Metra are something the supports my point, because Metra should evolve to have a flat fare and better all-day, bidirectional service; i.e. operate more like Link. (Metra also needs way better TOD outside Cook). Link isn’t commuter rail, it is S-Bahn. It should be priced to encourage spontaneous trips, suburban or urban, not priced for commuters.

        What do the Germans do for pricing on S-Bahn?

      2. “The operating plan is to run the trains all the way to Lynnwood”

        Lynnwood and KDM are fifteen miles out, so comparable to NYC’s distance if RossB is correct. The problem is Everett and Tacoma, which are twice as far out. That’s unusual for a subway, and what makes Link a hybrid subway-commuter system. That in turn makes it necessary to reconcile the differing fare traditions and costs of subway and commuter-rail service that are combined on the same lines.

        German’s S-Bahn fares are distance-based, as I said elsewhere. There’s a per-kilometer charge, which is the same for S-Bahn, regional, and intercity trains. There’s a short-distance surcharge for trips under 5 kn (10 km) if you buy an individual ticket at a TVM rather than using a monthly pass. There are other surcharges for faster service (InterCity, InterCity Express, etc) — the faster the category, the more you pay. The regional trains are partly express but cost the same as S-Bahns as far as i could tell; they don’t have the expensive track or vehicles that InterCity and InterCity Express have). They were called SE trains (Stadt-Express) when I was there, but I think they’re the same as what’s now called Regio trains.

        When I was in Duesseldorf, there were three levels of passes, one for the city, a higher-cost one including inner-ring suburbs, and a highest-cost one for the entire transit district (like the ST district). So I mainly used the third one. But when I took the S-Bahn to Cologne it was half outside the transit district so I had to buy single-trip tickets from the last station in the district, and thus pay the short-distance surcharge. And when i took an SE to Aachen (3 hours), it was under a weekend pass that covered all S and SE trains throughout the country at a low price.

        I’ve always wondered what people who commute between Duesseldorf and Cologne do. Do they buy two passes for both transit districts? Or are there just not many cross-district commuters, because Germans tend to both live and work in the same city, or at most in adjacent suburbs?

      3. “it costs a lot more to serve Lynnwood than 145th”

        No, it costs the same. It’s the cost per rider that is different.

        No, it is both more expensive AND more expensive per rider. The longer the train, the more it costs to run it. This would be true even if Lynnwood ridership dwarfed that of Seattle. Lynnwood to 145th will take ten minutes. 145th to downtown is about 20 minutes. Thus it costs about half as much to run the trains from downtown to Lynnwood than it would if they just ended at 145th.

        But for the purposed of this discussion (where we are discussing fares, you are right). What matters is the subsidy per trip. The cost of serving Lynnwood riders is much higher than serving 145th riders, because the ridership per hour of service is much higher. Either we subsidizes those Lynnwood riders more, or we charge more. The latter makes more sense.

        It should be priced to encourage spontaneous trips, suburban or urban, not priced for commuters.

        So basically the current pricing model, except maybe a rush-hour surcharge?

        Right now the pricing encourages shorter, more spontaneous trips. A flat fare would do the opposite.

  8. And easiest of all? Convert this region’s every ORCA card into an EMPLOYEE PASS. In the Transit arm of the Recovery package that our country’s existence now demands. Two Presidents, Eisenhower and Roosevelt, Truman nod approval from Celestial Consulting’s Dupont Circle offices. Dupont-DC, not the Bypass.

    COVIDIA herself? No, she doesn’t belong in Security. Media Relations? Tempting. But no, communications clarity like hers writes “INFORMATION” all over her. Time and location, cause and effect, actions and results? For forthrightness, She’s evil but she truly is the Queen!

    Mark Dublin

    1. “Convert this region’s every ORCA card into an EMPLOYEE PASS.”

      That’s like employer-based medical insurance. We have that now with the Passport and U-Pass programs, but only large employers participate. Small employers, companies located outside King County, and the unemployed don’t participate, so they pay more for a monthly pass (if they don’t qualify for LIFT). Just like the medical insurance patchwork. We can use employers to distribute passes and get their corporate taxes, but the overall plan should be universal, so that everybody can participate at the same price Passport/U-Pass employers/employees pay.

      1. Mike Orr, the Universe is a big service area, and those Time-Warps really do play hell with subareas and schedule. But as a reliable employer, We The People of The United States of America really do have a proud and proven record.

        Self-employed and also commercial-contracting, starting with the technology of two centuries ago, we shaped and defined our country with a railroad effort stellar in its multi-ethnicity. Present-times would ill-forget the work-force that’s Chinese Ireland!

        Though it’s likely true that numerically, more Chinese students than American know that despite being called “Biddy”, Elizabeth McGee was not a chicken. And could definitely lay more track than Chiang Kai-Shek and Li Keqiang put together on their best shift!

        But in time and space and topic so much closer: Many thousand shield-bearing metal roadside poles bear witness to a powerfully durable Employer. Whose most exemplary Beneficiality comprises many thousand miles of civil structure.

        Which are as convertible to rail as the carriage trade’s acquirement of a motor. Those retained whip-sockets indicate the smart money was also ($)cagey.

        #We The People already have the World’s biggest democratic country on our delivery-record. 4000 x 2500 Border-free miles. 330 million people. How many European countries would that make- minimum ten?

        So I’m not just talking about any-old Employer here. Kind of “torn” though. Explaining what I’m wrong about, you can leave to lengthier contributors and not feel duty-bound to something wrapped in barbed-wire. Though while the First Amendment says you can refute me, the Ninth most likely says you have to.

        Mark Dublin

  9. The purpose of trunk transit is to get everybody to use it because it’s more efficient than the spaghetti of bus routes it replaces. You should be incentivizing them to use it by a low fare, not discourage them from using it by a high fare. That just pushes them to parallel buses and cars, and to demand parallel buses, and contradicts the purpose of building the rail line (which was to eliminate those parallel buses). I’m not talking about local shadows that serve in-between stations and neighborhoods (which Link doesn’t serve), but express routes. But people will use long, slow local routes if no express route is available in the corridor, if they’re deterred by Link’s high fares.

    Sounder is marketed as a premium service with a premium fare. There are arguments both ways on whether it should be, but that’s absolutely inappropriate for Link. Link is meant to be the core service that everybody uses, not an elite premium service, and not something that significantly increases people’s total transit costs.

    The ST board has always sidestepped this issue, meaning ST3 Link will default to Sounder-like fares for longer-distance trips. The arguments about the Everett and Tacoma extensions have always focused on the presence of a frequent train, and not addressed the fare issue. Well, this will be a wake-up issue for suburban Link activists and their governments who have ignored it.

    I don’t care much what happens to long-distance fares as long as short-distance fares don’t rise. Link’s fare should be less than Metro for distances up to Westlake-Rainier Beach, because Link is more efficient than buses and passengers should get some of the benefit of that efficiency. That and we want to encourage the most people to use Link when they can. Its ability to absorb capacity spikes and high ridership is one of the reasons we’re building it.

    The tension with Link fares is it’s so long, so it’s hard to apply a strict distance-based formula that’s fair to short-, medium-, long-, and very-long-distance riders simultaneously. Link’s and Sounder’s fare structure is about not letting long-distance riders freeload on the rest of us by paying a less-than-fair fare. As it happens, Metro’s fares have increased substantially over the past twenty years and are among the highest in the country, so that’s why Link’s fares are lower than Metro’s fares for short-distance trips. Metro’s fare increases whenever the cost of fuel or personnel rise too far. Link’s fares were set to absorb some future cost increases, and its operational expenses are less volatile, so fares don’t need to change as often.

    Metro and ST Express have simplified their fare structures by merging zones and averaging the fares. This has the effect of penalizing short-distance riders. Metro’s one-zone fare was $2.50 until it merged with the peak-two zone fare, resulting in $2.75 for all riders. That’s a price increase for one-zone riders and decrease for two-zone riders. That allows the longest-distance riders to freeload. It’s tolerable only because most of those routes will go away in a few years as Link is extended. ST Express also merged its zones, resulting in unfair fare increases for trips like Westlake-Bellevue and Westlake-Lake City. In contrast, CT has two levels of long-distance express fares, both appropriately higher than the local fare, and comparable with Sounder.

    1. Mike, at the present time, Time’s so pricey that people will ride what’s easiest, not cheapest. The punishment closest to flogging is a ride that has to be (GAAAAAH!) figured out.

      cc Amnesty International.

      Mark Dublin

    2. I agree Mike, except for this part:

      The tension with Link fares is it’s so long, so it’s hard to apply a strict distance-based formula that’s fair to short-, medium-, long-, and very-long-distance riders simultaneously.

      I think ST has that. Charging $4 for a trip from Tacoma to Seattle is quite reasonable. It is still a subsidy for Tacoma riders, but not as big as what the author suggests. It still encourages riders to take Link for short or long distances. It happens to be a bit cheaper than Sounder, which makes sense. This is way less than what BART charges for a similar trip.

  10. And: Distance? Area/Subarea? Name me one comparable ticket-able offense involving my car-tabs! Tacoma Narrows Bridge eastbound-only?

    If I don’t stop at the booth like I always do to check the wind direction… What I get in the mail is an account statement, not a summons. Though they really should teach those booth-tenders the difference between Starboard and Port!

    Mark Dublin

  11. Does anyone here know anyone that cheats on their Link fare? A rider that uses a family member’s LIFT, senior, or student card to commute?

    1. If you’re trying to identify snitches so you won’t get caught, Sam, honestly, you can save yourself the anxiety. By many humanitarian exemptions and the Geneva Conventions, some kindly Chief of State like, let me think, Viktor Orban?

      Will see to it you will always get your ride and none-the-wiser. Because Worldwide and Across the Generations, Terminal Patheticism is always grounds for mercy. And by long-honored Fundamentalist Conservatism, the higher your income, in all Humanity’s bet-fixed hearts, the more Pathetic you will always be.

      Mark Dublin

  12. LA. Pittsburgh. Miami. NYC. Atlanta. Phoenix…

    ..these are cities off the top of my head that have a flat fare for any ride on their rail system. Simple as that. Some even apply the same fare for both rail and local buses. For the sake of customer experience, ST should adopt a single fare for both light rail and ST Express/Stride.

    1. They have a flat fare for their metro, but not for their commuter rail. When Link gets to Tacoma (and Everett) is is clearly acting as the latter. It will be farther from Tacoma to downtown Seattle than it will be from anywhere on the New York Subway to Manhattan. Anywhere. This is huge city, with a huge subway, and trips from that far away are done with commuter rail (or buses). It makes more sense to treat this like a commuter rail system and charge more for long distance trips (like Tacoma to UW).

    2. How large is their flat-fare service area? New York and Chicago have flat subway fares but the subway doesn’t go much beyond the city limits. Their commuter-rail fares, which is comparable in disntance to Link to Everett and Tacoma, are under a different distance-based or zone-based structure. That’s where the pressure to have a distance-based fare or too-high flat fare is coming from: the long Link network has cost pressures those subways don’t have. And those cities are also much denser, and thus have higher ridership per mile throughout the network, which lowers costs relative to Link.

  13. This is how fares should work, if you want to ride you pay the fare, if you can’t pay or don’t want to pay then you don’t ride. That simple. I’ve been in situations where I did not have the money to pay tonget where I needed to go. So I walked.

    1. Renn. Long time! So I know Stimpy would want me to ask you this: Wouldn’t you feel kind of bad if somebody swerved to miss you and “got” somebody innocent instead?

      Worst of all if the motorist in question already had the partial alibi of being traumatized by the fact that within a week or so, his every single judicial appointee had told him to just suck up the bad news, ’cause they had a country to help run.

      This is what puts the “Public” in Transit. In return for its taxpayer’s money, it’s also got its duties.

      Mark Dublin

  14. Two Thoughts:

    Why the big reconsideration for Link and no one mentions Sounder? It’s nuts that Sounder is twice as expensive as the ST bus on some comparable routes. Sounder, with close to zero marginal cost per rider, has a pricing disadvantage to using an ST bus, which bus has a high marginal cost for additional capacity at peak times.

    The Europeans have figured this out. In virtually every country in Europe (except Britain) it costs the exact same price between two geographic places regardless of whether the vehicle travels on rail or road or what logo it carries. What matters is origin and destination, and it is usually zone based. With electronic fare payment this is easy enough to do. Tacoma to Seattle costs $X. Federal Way to Seattle costs $Y. Rainier Valley to Seattle costs $Z. Doesn’t matter if it is Link, Metro, ST bus or Sounder.

    1. Most of those ST buses are going away or being truncated in a few years when Link and Stride are extended, so it’s the same temporary issue as Metro’s long-distance expresses.

      Metro will have some remaining or new express routes (Seattle-Auburn, Auburn-Snoqualmie, Renton-Enumclaw), but these are few in number, and experimental concepts that may not actually be realized, so they’re no big deal.

    2. Part of the problem is that Sounder is so expensive. Not because it costs a bunch to run the trains, but because it costs a bunch to lease the time from BNSF.

      It is goofy that they charge different rates. I think both the buses and the trains are subsidized quite a bit. My guess is, the pricing is based on the market. Someone will pay extra to ride the train during rush hour, simply because it is reasonably fast, consistent, and especially comfortable. They won’t pay a bunch for a bus because it lacks those comforts.

      1. “Part of the problem is that Sounder is so expensive. Not because it costs a bunch to run the trains, but because it costs a bunch to lease the time from BNSF.”

        I think you’re confusing the equipment leases, which are actually with a third party investor agreement through a leaseback program and not BNSF that dates back to 2001, and the purchased easements from BNSF for the limited slots that Sounder trains operate within. It doesn’t really matter though as the former involves capital leases and the easements are capitalized ROW expense.

        The higher fares on Sounder reflect the higher level of service as well as the higher operating costs. The fares would actually be higher if the agency modified it’s financial plan for this mode and sought a higher recovery ratio than it has modeled previously, all else being equal. Of course that could reach a tipping point that negatively impacts ridership which would negate the whole exercise.

        Out of curiosity, do you think fare recovery rates should be the same across modes?
        (I’d love to hear one’s rationale either way.)

        The following is taken from page 9 of the 2019 Fare Revenue Report:

        “Farebox recovery

        “Sound Transit policy establishes that farebox revenue must recover a specified percentage of operating costs. The
        percentage of farebox revenue to operating costs is called the farebox recovery ratio. Sound Transit calculates farebox recovery ratios by dividing fare revenues by direct and indirect service operating costs. Sound Transit policy was most recently stated in ST Board Resolution No. R2014-27, which establishes minimum farebox recovery ratio thresholds as follows:
        • Link: 40%
        • ST Express: 20%
        • Sounder: 23%

        “To better align with the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database reporting, as of 2017, operating
        leases and paratransit costs are no longer included in operating expenses for the purpose of the Sound Transit Farebox Recovery calculations.

        “In 2019, both ST Express and Sounder farebox recovery ratios met policy requirements. Link, however, had a farebox recovery rate of 34%, which is below the 40% policy threshold. While Link fare revenue increased in 2019, so did expenses, as the agency ramps up for Northgate and East Link extensions. In this situation, the agency is incurring
        expenses for the startup of Northgate and East Link service, but not receiving any fare revenue yet, lowering the farebox recovery rate.

        “Per Sound Transit Fare Policy, minimum farebox recovery ratios are not applicable to services in start-up phase. Sound
        Transit continues to monitor Link farebox recovery rate. However, due to the slower ridership growth, it is most likely the farebox recovery for Link will continue to decline and a fare increase may need to be implemented.”

        One can make what they want of the narrative offered by the agency concerning the decline in Link’s recovery fare ratio. Clearly the agency’s operating expenses have been growing faster than anticipated, particularly in the area of purchased transportation services, insurance and administrative overhead.

      2. My understanding is that ST paid BNSF to use their tracks. The more they run the trains, the more expensive it is. This is different than Link, where they own the tracks. It does cost more to run more often (more where and tear on the vehicles and the track, more labor) but that is nothing compared to leasing the rights to run the trains. Again, that is my understanding.

      3. Sounder has 5 main costs

        1. ROW. Between Tacoma and Seattle, this is owned by BNSF so ST has purchased easements. This is capital expense, and for South Sounder the easements are permanent so there are no further costs for ST.
        2. Purchased Transportation, i.e the cost to staff & run the trains This is paid to BNSF, as BNSF understandably wants their staff operating on their ROW. ST pays this via an annual contract to BNSF and is a function of how many trains are run (I don’t recall the specifics). This cost is included in Fare box recovery and is very similar to what ST pays KCM for Link.
        3. Fuel. Included in Fare box recovery
        4a. Fleet maintenance. Regular costs are included in farebox recovery. This is everything from daily cleaning to replacing parts.
        4b. Major maintenance, i.e work that would occur only every few years, is a ‘capital expense’ and is not included in farebox recovery.
        5. Fixed overhead. ST permanent staff for oversight, safety, planning, etc. Insurance costs.

        2, 3, and 4a are in Farebox recovery and appear at O&M in the long range finance plan. 4b is covered under SOGR in the long range finance plan.

        ROW is both the largest Sounder expenditure and not relevant for Farebox recovery.

  15. This is reason number 47 why you don’t build a metro this far away from the urban core. The long distance trips are rare, and expensive. If you charge less (as Alex suggests) it means you have to do one of several things:

    1) Run the train less often to that distant location (Tacoma/Everett).

    2) Have more cost-effective/urban riders subsidize long distant riders with higher fares.

    3) Cutback overall service.

    The last two are essentially a subsidy for the relatively few riders. The first is a degradation of service for only those riders.

    Every time I’ve mentioned the ridiculous nature of Tacoma Dome Link (it will be slower than a bus most of the day and will be slower than Sounder, always) I hear people say “but it isn’t about that”. It is about frequency, or trips to the airport. Fine. In that case, those that want frequency all the way to Seattle should pay for it, and if everyone else is taking a short trip (to the airport) they are better off.

    Driving costs are always calculated on a per mile basis. I’ve never heard anyone reimburse, or otherwise calculate them on a logarithmic way. Driving from Tacoma to Seattle may avoid Rainier Valley, but it will still be a long, expensive drive.

    A lot of people have called our system “BART Del Norte”. According to their website (, BART fares are set with a mileage-based formula. According to this analysis ( it is a linear system based on distance, although they charge to cross the bay, go to the airport, or cross the San Mateo county line. I see no reason why we should deviate from a distance + base fare system, especially since our fares our much lower for similar trips.

    1. RossB,

      For Link, my first wish is a branding-arrangement with Charlotte to let our trains be cats instead of pork-sausages. “Electroliner” could still be under patent. For TOD-for-Real let’s keep it there ’til needed. Look it up online.

      What Tacoma Link and its “Like” are for is that it’s finally time to relieve our country’s Defense Highway network of parking-lot duty.

      Though it is possible that light rail can be worked into the structure so that people really can leave their cars parked there, board their trains at stations, and return when automobiles can once again move. Light like “Lightly-Reserved”, not light like BART-cars. No rule on Earth that lots can’t be linear.

      We can also start adopting what I’ve heard that French-born Arabs do in Europe: Services where, on your call, your car gets picked up and driven to a garage- where it’s also washed, repaired, and maintained. And then returned to you wherever you end up and call from. Like the bullet train station where your train-trip ends.

      Brass cartridge or cap-and-ball, our rifles aren’t percussion anymore. And to stay in motion at all, rolling wheeled Defense requires a lot more trains than automobiles. And my every morning’s news report affirms it. In their present usage, our Defense Highways are killing a lot of Americans.

      Not to mention every flag-draped funeral occasioned by our century of screaming need for oil. Yeah, there’s oil under The Gulf of Tonkin too! And double boo-hoo with a Texas drawl. Lone Star State’s been sent Solar by The Market! And Fossil Fuel’s only Federal protection can’t even make his own Judicial appointees answer the phone. Women! Hate ’em! They’re all just like his Cousin!

      Sounder? I rode on those exact cars in Toronto. Difference? I don’t think they have to side-track for freights. Cal-train seems to whip ’em right along too. Wonder how long it’ll be ’til BN’s holding company texts us to have mercy and just “Take ‘Em ’cause the Repo’s On The Way!”

      But here’s my main “Main Message” for the night. What equipment, mode-choice, agency, politics, fares, financing, and all else “Transit” has in common, all share one thing. Plate tectonics and hydrology deserve their due. But above, underneath, behind, under and ahead of it all, everything is decided by people, and subject to change traceable to the same source.

      And remember this about COVIDIA’s sister Natural Selection: In areas of policy, She’s awards much success to variety and surprise.

      Mark Dublin

    2. Will be #1 and #2, but the subsidy is from high ridership to low ridership segments (assuming common frequency across the system), not longer trips per se There’s no incremental cost to the system for a rider to travel further.

      There is subarea accounting that tries to allocate the cost to each subarea proportionally. For example, the cost to operate a station and maintain ROW is allocation by count and distance, respectively. So the subsidy for the length and frequency out in the hinterland will be borne by Pierce and Snohomish. If Pierce wants commuter rail, they can ask Sound Transit to turn back trains at FW off peak so TDLE gets 20 min frequency (or whatever) outside the commute window, and thereby save a bunch of O&M. But they won’t do that because they don’t want that. They want all day frequency to support all day trips that have nothing to do with Seattle and are funding it accordingly.

      (And Seattle gets 1/3 of 2nd downtown subway line paid for by facilitating Pierce and Snohomish’s rail vision. Seattle transit advocates should be thankful for P & S ambition and be less perplexed that they want to create transit oriented communities)

      This is different than BART. BART places their CBDs in the middle of the system (good) and then sends the lines to end at airports (ok) and bedroom communities (not good). The result is that BART, outside of SF and Oakland, is indeed little more than commuter rail, with the 15 minute frequency to match.
      Link, OTOH, will terminate in cities that strive to be all day generators of demand.

      Contra Costa county presumably doesn’t look at BART as anything more than commuter rail. Snohomish and Pierce instead are more like Santa Clara, which is working to expand BART to generate ridership *into* San Jose, not simply to commute out of San Jose. Tacoma Dome is analogous to Diridon – clearly less important than San Fran/Seattle, but also a solid terminus for what is indeed a very long rail line.

      To expand the comparison, Diridion is also the anchor for Caltrain. Caltrain at recent frequency is clearly commuter rail. But the vision for Caltrain is to electrify it and run it at subway frequencies. They even want to change the fare collection system to get rid of the conductor. In other words, make Caltrain more like the Link system we are building. So Caltrain will have the same length but will cease to be commuter rail because it will (hopefully) have adically different operations.

      Only after BART gets to Diridon and Caltrain upgrades their operations will the Bay Area system look like ST3.

      So please, stop trying to price Link like it’s commuter rail.

      1. Will be #1 and #2, but the subsidy is from high ridership to low ridership segments (assuming common frequency across the system), not longer trips per se There’s no incremental cost to the system for a rider to travel further.

        No, but who better to pay for the extra cost to run the train that far? If someone treat it like commuter rail, shouldn’t they pay for it like commuter rail? Why should those who ride within the urban area subsidize those riders?

        The result is that BART, outside of SF and Oakland, is indeed little more than commuter rail, with the 15 minute frequency to match. Link, OTOH, will terminate in cities that strive to be all day generators of demand.

        Strive all you want, but there aren’t that many people trying to get to the Tacoma Dome. Or any of the freeway stations between there and SeaTac. Or Tukwila, Ash Way and a bunch of other stations. If anything, BART has stronger stations at their outskirts. Richmond Station is located in the center of town. The Fremont Station is right next to a major hospital. These are cities with more density than Tacoma, let alone Everett. You can pretend it isn’t commuter rail, but those who treat it like it is should pay for it that way.

      2. “Why should those who ride within the urban area subsidize those riders?” That’s my point: they don’t and they won’t. Seattle-only riders don’t pay for trains to Tacoma because of subarea accounting.

        If weak ridership outside of Seattle means we don’t meet our system-wide farebox recovery goal, then change the metric, not the fares.

  16. The fare is already pretty low. I think that, if we need to encourage people to take Link, we should raise the prices of the alternatives – most importantly the tolls on I5, I90, and SR520, but also the gas tax. The experience of riding Link compared to riding an express bus is so much better that I don’t think adjusting ST Expresd fares will be necessary.

    1. The experience commuting from Tacoma to Seattle on Link won’t really be better, because it will take significantly longer than ST Express 590/594. It will also be more crowded heading back, with many Tacoma-bound riders standing until the train reaches TIBS or so.

      I think a $2.75 fare for this longer ride with more time standing seems a better idea than simply charging the same as or more than ST Express. Regardless, I just don’t see ST Express 590 going away even when Tacoma Dome Link Station opens for service.

      1. That is my complaint with light rail from Seattle to the airport. Sure it’s cheap but talk about a milk run. I don’t know how many stops will be between Tacoma to SeaTac and then Seattle but it could be interminable. There is a reason Germany charges more for express trains.

        I think Ross makes a good point when he points out commuter/light rail just loses its appeal when we start talking about runs from Everett to Seattle to Tacoma. At that point the fare is almost irrelevant unless I-5 is a parking lot. A zillion stops for a commuter who used to take an express bus will be very frustrating IMO. Light rail from Everett to Tacoma just has too many stops without the density to support the stop, and I don’t think density will follow light rail to that extent. One advantage of a car is there are two stops: your garage, and your destination.

        Granted there ain’t much density on East Link, but look at the long distance between stops. At least you will feel like you are MOVING somewhere, although you are going through mostly nothing. Like the train to Portland although there is a lot of pretty nothingness along the route (no one is going to) you look out the window and feel like you are going fast, somewhere.

      2. There won’t be a “zillion” stops between Sea-Tac and TDS. There will be six (eight including the end points).

        There will not be a “zillion” stops between Everett and Lynnwood. There will also be six with the current plans. In fact, the train will mostly be running at track speed, which for Link is 60 mph, not the 50 of Portland MAX and other “classical” LRT systems.

        Yes, the Rainier Valley running is pretty slow because of the need to match the light timing. But even between IDS and Sea-Tac there are only eight intermediate stations, ten once Graham and BAR come on line.

        Between Westlake and Lynnwood there will be seven intermediate stations, nine after 130th and South Lynnwood come on line. Link will move throughout most of its trackage.

      3. Link will be faster than ST Express 510/511/513 even with the Paine Field elbow, because traffic. Link will be faster than ST Express 512 because that route is a milk run of loop-de-loop pull-off stops (well, two of them). I don’t expect any of the current Snohomish County ST Express routes to still be around after Everett Link Station opens. (STRIDE will have replaced 532/535.)

        Link will also be fast than ST Express 574 between Tacoma Dome and the airport, mostly because of the circuitousness of 574’s path including loop-de-loop at Federal Way, traffic at the park&rides stops, and then the long local approach in SeaTac, and the loop-de-loop to get to the terminal stop. I think people will gladly pay more for Link over the ST Express fare on south-end trips to the airport, which is not to say we should charge more given that it is largely airport workers riding 574.

        We had long arguments with a guy who lost his one-seat-ride on the old Metro route 194 (Federal Way to Seattle via the airport, with several BRTish stops) over the time-competitiveness of Link vs. 194. I’ve been on both. I will take Link over route 194 any day of the week after my cramped, luggage-awkward, slow, and snow-failure trips on 194.

        The cases where ST Express beats Link by 20 minutes or more are really just Federal Way to Seattle (ST Express 577) and Tacoma to Seattle (ST Express 590 and 594). It is those trips where I believe charging the same for Link as for ST Express will cause the politics to tip in favor of maintaining the existing high-cost-per-rider ST Express routes in perpetuity. Those are the cases where distance-based Link fares will end up costing ST a lot more money than the added Link fare revenue bring in, if, indeed, it actually somehow brings in more fare revenue. A decision to keep distance-based fares is inseparable with the long-term ST Express service plan.

        I’m not saying flat-out that ST Express 577 and 590/594 should eventually go away. I’m just saying their is cause and effect between Link’s fare system and this service decision. I’m personally not sold on eliminating those bus routes, but I think it would be goofy to keep them just for Link fare system reasons. Keeping them, and Link’s annoying distance-based fares, would be a lose-lose outcome.

      4. Every transit line has a sweet spot where it’s most competitive and a fringe area where it’s worse than alternatives. For trips to/from Westlake, the sweet spot extends to Everett, Redmond, and Rainier Beach.

        In the north end, Link is in the midrange of ST Express, faster than rush-hour traffic but slower than Sunday morning. So it’s competitive with the 41 512, and 510, and Sounder.

        In the Eastside, Link will be faster than the 550 and 545. For short-circuit Redmond-UW trips, ST plans to continue the 542.

        In Rainier Valley, Link is faster than the 7, 36, or 106.

        The south end is the opposite, Link is slower than the former 194 to SeaTac (by 10 minutes), and will have even larger gaps to Federal Way and Tacoma Dome. This is because the longer the distance, the less a 55 mph train can compete with a 65 mph freeway, and the “Rainier Valley overhead” is around 10-12 minutes.

        Metro is planning to take over the 577, and create a new Seattle-Kent-Auburn route for the 578. Pierce County has no fallback for the 59x. All of ST’s planning scenarios truncate all the routes except the 574. This could change at the last minute, but that was always the case.

        The 574 may come under greater scrutiny as it gets closer to making a decision. The P&Rs between Federal Way and SeaTac were inherited from the 194. They’re probably used only peak hours, and hardly anything is within walking distance. So a simple peak-hour Metro shuttle could take care of them, if they even need to be retained at all. The A takes 35 minutes between FW and KDM, and for typical trips in the middle where the P&Rs are it would take only fifteen minutes to get to KDM.

      5. The experience commuting from Tacoma to Seattle on Link won’t really be better, because it will take significantly longer than ST Express 590/594.

        That misses the point. The buses are heavily subsidized. Here are some numbers, with their corresponding subsidy:

        574 — $7.13
        586 — $12.26
        590 — $8.55
        592 — $14.28
        594 — $7.48

        In contrast, the Snohomish County buses do much better:

        510 — $2.01
        511 — $1.48
        512 — $3.68

        I can’t find data for subsidy per Link trip, but with the UW, it has to be much better. Farebox recovery was better on Link in previous years, and has probably gone up.

        Running the express buses to Seattle from Tacoma is great, but expensive. Unfortunately, that is true of running the trains. Giving those riders a cheaper price for a long distance trip amounts to a much larger subsidy than for those taking shorter trips (many of which actually pay for themselves). The money for the subsidy has to come from somewhere (as I pointed out in a different comment).

        It doesn’t make sense to subsidize these riders, just because we fear they will find an alternative. The same is true of all riders. The money has to come from somewhere. If you increase the price for everyone else, you lose riders. If you cut back on service, you lose riders. Sound Transit’s fare system is based on BART’s, and it makes sense, both from a fairness standpoint, and as a means to maximize ridership.

      6. “Farebox recovery was better on Link in previous years, and has probably gone up.”

        Actually, based on the 2019 report, the farebox recovery ratio has actually declined for Link, now well under its benchmark (40%):

        2017 43%
        2018 38%
        2019 34%

      7. RossB,

        I am painfully aware of the high cost of Pierce-King express buses. But really, my opinion on the matter doesn’t count worth squat. It is the riders from Tacoma and Federal Way you have to convince to switch to a slower, more stop-and-go, more-time-standing ride, for a higher fare than what they pay today. Good luck with that!

      8. Actually, based on the 2019 report, the farebox recovery ratio has actually declined for Link, now well under its benchmark (40%):

        2017 43%
        2018 38%
        2019 34%

        Darn inflation of costs!

        I bet ST could raise the base fare on Link to $2.75, and leave the higher fares right where they are until the next time ST indexes for inflation, and nobody would decide to switch from riding the train because of it. They might whine, but they’d still ride the train.

        Heck, I wish Link and Metro had moved immediately to a $3 fare to minimize change handling during this pandemic thing (which still wouldn’t result in anything above 10% fare recovery for 2020 regardless).

      9. It is the riders from Tacoma and Federal Way you have to convince to switch to a slower, more stop-and-go, more-time-standing ride, for a higher fare than what they pay today. Good luck with that!

        My point is that you don’t worry about it. We are subsidizing those riders to a huge degree right now. The reason the 574 doesn’t run every half hour is because we are subsidizing buses like the 586. Yes, those riders will be worse off. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t see why it matters. You will lose riders, but you will lose more if you continue with the express buses. The money has to come from somewhere.

        Likewise, you will lose more if you ask more cost-effective riders to pay. There is no reason to believe they are less cost sensitive. At some point, taking a Metro bus or Uber becomes a better value.

        If you charge less and take the money from service, you will probably lose more riders. Again, the money has to come from some where — getting it from riders who are likely to pay is the best option.

        If your goal is maximizing ridership or fare recovery then the framework ST has makes sense.

      10. “Farebox recovery was better on Link in previous years, and has probably gone up.”

        I was referring to the period before and after U-Link. Ridership went way up, while costs (to run trains that far) went up only minimally. I don’t think ridership went down prior to the pandemic, so it really comes down to costs, not fare revenue. It gets complicated as to how to calculate costs, but as you noted above, they have included some of the costs for expansion.

        I wasn’t looking at as a percentage, but in terms of subsidy per rider. While it still may be worse for Link than an average ST bus, it wouldn’t surprise me if it is better than the buses I mentioned, since each is in the fourth (worst) quartile.

        If I remember right, the average fare is about $2 for Link. If the fare tripled and you had just as many riders, then fare recovery would triple as well. Since we are only paying for about a third of the cost, tripling the revenue would cover it.
        That means the subsidy per rider is somewhere around $4, which is above some of the buses, but well below these.

      11. If the main source of the longer travel times is the diversion through the Rainier Valley, Would one option here be a “bypass” bus route from downtown to TIBS? It could run pretty frequent if you’re reallocating the service hours from TIBS to Federal Way or Tacoma.

    2. The fare is already pretty low.

      I agree. The system is similar to what BART charges, which makes sense, given the similarities. BART charges a lot more.

      I think that, if we need to encourage people to take Link, we should raise the prices of the alternatives – most importantly the tolls on I5, I90, and SR520, but also the gas tax.


      1. I wonder if there would be any opposition to tolling I-90 and I-5?

        I wonder what tolling I-5 would do to Seattle’s surface street congestion, or tolling I-90 would do to the port?

        Seattle is the western terminus of I-90 and so might not be so keen on tolling I-90 since Tacoma’s port wouldn’t have tolls, and tolling I-90 would increase the costs for Eastsiders to come to Seattle to work, shop or dine. Bellevue might like the idea because it would make Bellevue more competitive with Seattle for eastsiders. An eastsider can live quite comfortably without ever going to Seattle these days, unless it is to catch a ferry.

        The gas tax probably should be raised because fewer miles are being driven, or at least gallons of gas purchased are down whereas the infrastructure costs are going up because much of it has been ignored. But at the same time transit should pay the tax as well, because transit uses the roads and bridges (at least buses do), and incentivizing transit to be more fuel efficient is good policy too.

        If transit continues to believe the only way it can compete is to somehow disadvantage its competition then it will have a hard time competing because it becomes lazy and inefficient. Parking taxes, increased gas taxes, tolls, congestion pricing, tab fees are designed to deal with transit’s disadvantages without dealing with them, and poor efficiency.

        With technology changing so fast transit needs to provide a better and more efficient service without worrying about legal maneuvers to disadvantage other forms of transportation. For peak commuters that is grade separation to avoid congestion. For all day service that is cost (and the future is likely increased transit costs due to unions, and lower Uber/Lyft costs due to driverless technology and ride share apps), and whatever frequency can be afforded.

        Fare revenue and general fund subsidies for transit are going to decline after Covid-19 is gone. That is just a reality. Millions of more citizens are not moving to King Co. Metro talks about large increases in service levels and funding, but that is pre-Covid talk. The real issue is how to avoid having a 10% to 25% reduction in total transit revenues translate into a 10% to 25% reduction in levels of service.

        I think light rail is a good step towards greater comfort and avoiding peak hour congestion (assuming peak hour congestion returns), except it is expensive to build and has first/last mile access issues except in the densest areas. Current plans to reallocate transit service IMO herald a future in which different neighborhoods and jurisdictions have to fight over declining transit funding and service levels, and that will likely include light rail.

      2. Other forms of transportation already have plenty of legal maneuvers to advantage them, you need to somehow level the playing field for transit to complete.

        One of the largest such legal manuevers is parking requirements. How is it “fair” if the law requires a company to have an onsite parking spot for every employee, while subsidizing employee’s transit fares is considered optional?

        With respect to the gas tax, the gas tax mostly funds state highways, but transit vehicles spend most of their service time on local roads. King County Metro also pays directly for the cost of maintaining roads such as 3rd Ave. downtown, which receive excessive transit usage.

  17. And Transportationally National, Sure and this can’t be anymore TOPICAL: Her sister Elizabeth was in-daid the Delight O’ Ireland. But ’twas BRIDGET McGee that drove the Golden Spike one-handed, so she did, so she did!

    The lovely capitol and me, both named for an Austro-Hungarian geographically related to Bernie Sanders. Look up “Surnames.” A lovely Viking trading town, she was, she was.

    But b’Jaysus, slander worthy o’ th’ Brits: The I-day-a that any good Irish Icelander would ivver have to ABDOOCT a woman! Old Iceland had the only men in Europe what took

    Divil of an intercity boos service too. Pipe yer exhaust right and a runnin’ river gives ye pavement and a bus-wash all at woonce!

    Mark Dublin

  18. I prefer Alex’s logarithmic formula to the current one, partially because it will improve fare revenue.

    But fare revenue could also be improved by raising the base fare to $2.75 and making $3.25 the top fare, with a lower fare per mile.

    That said, with all the difficulty going through the T&CVM mess to try to get a ticket or a day pass, we might save a good chunk of change on T&CVMs by making the purchasing process faster. We need several at Seatac Airport Station because each purchaser takes forever. People in the queue can miss one or two trains while waiting in queue and fumbling with the purchasing process.

    We punish occasional riders by wasting their time with purchasing complexity. I’d rather make their first or occasional ticket-purchasing experience much faster, and keep them as passengers.

    It is incredible easy to game Link to get a lower fare. Just get off the train about halfway, tap off, tap on, and catch the next train.

    There are reasons why nearly every other subway/light rail system in the country besides Link and BART charges a flat fare. The above is just one.

    1. I prefer Alex’s logarithmic formula to the current one, partially because it will improve fare revenue.

      Yes, but only by increasing fares for those that ride the most. You could do the same thing simply by increasing fares across the board. Or you could do the opposite of what Alex suggested, and charge more for longer trips (say 10 cents a mile). Actually the opposite would be charging exponentially for longer trips, but I would keep it simple, and just charge extra per mile to keep it simple.

      There are reasons why nearly every other subway/light rail system in the country besides Link and BART charges a flat fare.

      Yes, because nearly every other subway/light rail system in the country sticks close to the urban core. The fact that the system most like ours (BART) has the same basic fee system (although a lot higher) suggests our model is sound.

      1. That fact that we have a fare system similar to BART’s merely suggests that we followed their lead. A lot of tech geeks who had experienced BART or read about it thought it would be a really neat gadgetbahn to incentivize certain behaviors.

        Distance-based fares have essentially no impact on encouraging riders to move closer to the urban core.

        Distance-based fares have utterly failed to disincentivize building light rail way out to the less-dense suburbs.

        I don’t see a case being made that distance-based fares have nudged riders to take the train rather than the bus downtown. I’d love to see data suggesting it has actually done that.

        I also haven’t seen a fully-fleshed-out argument that distance-based fares will be revenue-positive relative to a flat fare that is the same as Metro’s. You have to take into account the cost of extra equipment and lost ridership to assess the real impact.

        And finally, I don’t see a case being made that distance-based fares are carbon-neutral or somehow magically will increase ridership, when BART has more-or-less demonstrated the opposite with its low suburban ridership. High fares encourage people to drive rather than ride from the suburbs? Who knew?

      2. High fares encourage people to drive rather than ride from the suburbs?

        Right, but that’s not why ridership to the suburbs struggles. It is pretty simple, really:

        * Even if it is free, not that many people will ride transit a long distance. Look at the UW to Tacoma express. I’m sure it is a wonderful bus for those that ride it. Not only is it cheap, but it is dramatically cheaper than any alternative. It is by far the best value in the entire region, when you consider the alternative. If your goal is to save money (and time) that is the bus for you. Yet ridership is tiny. There just aren’t that many riders, and cost has little to do with it.

        Again, the money has to come from somewhere. If you subsidize these riders (like we are currently doing), it is likely that things will be worse overall. Consider some options:

        1) Increases fares across the board. OK, now you’ve hurt a lot more people. Whether you charge a little or a lot, more people take short and medium trips than long ones. There is no reason to believe these people are less price sensitive than long distance riders. For many short and medium length trips, a bus or Uber ride is just as good, if not better. If a ride from the U-District to Capitol Hill costs more than Metro, suddenly the 49 seems like a great value (especially if it involves less walking). In contrast, for long distance trips it isn’t an issue. No one will run a bus like the 586 any more, and an Uber can’t possibly compete with it.

        2) Reduce service. You are going to lose way more riders by reducing frequency than you are going to gain by reducing the cost of long distance trips.

        My point is, it is quite likely BART has already done the math, and so has Sound Transit. The best way to maximize ridership is to charge a bit more for long distance trips, because it is a better value. I would argue that four dollars from Tacoma to Seattle is a very good value. Better than say, Capitol Hill to Westlake for $2.50. Right now, Uber charges about $8 to get from Capitol Hill to Westlake, and $50 from Tacoma to Westlake. So you save $5.50 if you take Link from Capitol Hill, and $46 from Tacoma. The Tacoma fare is a huge bargain.

        Charging more for going farther may cost ridership. But the alternative would cost a lot more.

  19. I really, really, really don’t like the idea of having a Tacoma-Everett fare (just to name the longest example), when passengers will have to switch trains in Seattle. Resetting fares to start the count over seems like a fair way to handle forcing riders to change trains.

    If we don’t have an assumed fare reset at transfer hub stations, then you know what passengers will be doing? They’ll be lining up to tap off and tap back on to get the fare reset, which means we’ll have to install a lot more fare readers, just because the key people didn’t think through the operational impacts of the fare system.

    That said, I’m also not a fan of forcing transfers for riders going from north of Seattle to south of Seattle. I prefer minimizing the number of riders having to change trains at transfer hub stations over setting the line pairings to make it easiest to give drivers breaks. The convenience of the most passengers should come first. There are other ways to get drivers their breaks.

    1. You can’t tap off and on to get a fare reset unless you wait fifteen minutes or walk to the next station.

      1. I’ve been testing that and every time I tap off and on within 15 minutes, the reader shows the start of a new ride.

    2. I don’t know what you are worried about. You don’t have to tap off when you switch trains. You get charged for where you started (tap on) and where you end (tap off). What happens between there is irrelevant. You can get off at every stop if you want (although I think there is an overall time limit for a trip). You can get off, ride the train the other direction, get off again, head the right direction — it doesn’t matter.

      Tapping on and off at the transfer (or just in the middle of your trip) will result in a higher fare. I don’t think many riders will want to do that.

      1. Tapping off and on at a transfer hub will result in the same or lower fare.

        Give me a counterexample of when it actually results in a higher fare.

      2. There’s only one line, so switching trains isn’t a typical train-to-train transfer. You’re either continuing in the original direction or going backward. We don’t know what an inspector would do if they find you traveling toward the station you tapped in at. Would they say it’s fine or would they cite you for partial fare evasion for the part you backtracked? ST has never clarified this.

      3. Tapping off and on at a transfer hub will result in the same or lower fare.

        Why would it be lower? Either it ignores the fact that you tapped on and off, or it counts it as two trips. Two trips are more expensive than one.

        For example, UW to downtown: $2.50; downtown to SeaTac $3.00; total cost, $5.50. If you simply board at the UW and ride to SeaTac, it costs $3.25. It will be the same for Beacon Hill to Bellevue. Either it ignores it if you needlessly tap off and back on again, or it charges you more (my guess is it ignores you).

        I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some public announcement that you don’t have to tap off and on when transferring between trains.

      4. We don’t know what an inspector would do if they find you traveling toward the station you tapped in at. Would they say it’s fine or would they cite you for partial fare evasion for the part you backtracked?

        My guess is they don’t care. They might not even know, or notice. It may be OK, similar to how transfers work. They used to list the bus you were on, and you couldn’t use it for a round trip. Then they figured that was too much work and started giving folks a “one hour transfer”. This allowed riders to get on a bus, do something, and then get back in time to not pay the extra fare. Sometimes you would slip under the wire, other times drivers would give you a dirty look, and once in a blue moon they would tell you your transfer is expired. With pay as you get off you could always flash the transfer and jump off.

        Anyway, my guess is it is an unpublished feature. You can probably take advantage of it if you are savvy enough (and turn around quick enough), but most people aren’t aware, or don’t have the guts. It is pretty rare, anyway (most people don’t have such quick turn-around trips). Plus if you mess up (and take too long) I think you get charged for the maximum fare on the first trip. On the return trip you would be risking a fine, and when you go to tap off, you would have to notice that you actually tapped on, otherwise you will get charged the maximum again. Not worth it in my book (or most people’s, my guess).

      5. Why would it be lower? Either it ignores the fact that you tapped on and off, or it counts it as two trips. Two trips are more expensive than one.

        If the second trip starts within the two-hour window, then it presumably counts as a valid transfer, so the cost of the trip would then be the more expensive of the two legs.

        If it is outside the two hours, then the trips are charged separately and cumulatively, as it should be.

        Even with a flat fare, shorter trips can still cost less than longer trips, because they can be done within the two-hour window.

        For those with N-day or monthly passes, the question of the two-hour window only matters if both legs cost more than the value the pass covers.

        The FEOs, for their part, don’t consider being within the transfer window as a valid excuse for mis-tapping because ST will internally claim both trips for billing purposes within the pod, and so mis-tapping is still considered theft by them even if the valid transfer covers the highest possible value of the trip you are on. Even a flat fare won’t get rid of that bug in the billing and FEO logic.

  20. Mike Orr, Brent, Martin, Frank, and my every elected representative, just because something is ridiculous does not make it funny. And this act, predates Jimmy Durante.

    If my memory were in my laptop, we’d both be in the dumpster. So humor me: On what date did Sound Transit sell its first electronic fare card? Pretty sure that was also the date I bought mine.

    Problem Prehistorically Solved. First of every month, however many it’s been all these years, I tell my bank to pay my transit system for at least 31 days worth of bus, train, and ferry fares. Non-refundably. Transit, you’ve got my money and I can’t get it back.

    So, call me a thief over a missed-move on an aging reader-tap in an impatient, “pushy” crowd and it is going to cost you. From ST’s IN-ception, I’ve constantly defended the agency against some really chilly RE-ception. Often wearing my same brown uniform. Give me a summons by way of a Thank You, and here’s what You’re going to be Welcome to.

    A lawsuit for character-defamation, filed in front of every camera and smart-phone in Creation, and as much of reporter Mike Lindblom’s work time as The Seattle Times Editorial Board can spare me. Suspect Christmas will make them generous.

    King County Superior Court are big boys and girls who can take care of themselves. So my guess that they’ll tell my transit system that, like Old Chicago used to say aboard an ‘El’ train ’round The Loop, “The Jig Is Up.”

    The Court: “ST, Mark paid you. Leave him alone, or your new address is either Walla Walla or Western State Hospital. Are you telling us we’re not Pro-Choice?”

    Law-abidingly, Mark Dublin

    1. Out of curiosity, Mark, when was the last time an FEO accused you of failure to pay, or failure to tap properly, or failure to pay enough, or anything else of which they accuse riders?

      How many times have you been accused of any of the above?

  21. How would an Orca card work if the fare value remaining on it is low? Today, the card warns you at $5 if I’m not mistaken. In the future, won’t there be $5+ trips? Will the low fare message go to $10? What happens if a FEO finds a rider with a low-fare amount left that can cover some trips but not others? Can a card go negative?

    1. A card can go negative I’ve heard. If you tapped in you have a “Permit to Ride”, and that should be all the inspector checks. There may be an issue if you’ve already gone beyond the distance you can pay for, but I don’t know that the inspectors would make that calculation on the spot. The remedy would be to simply refill the card as you’re exiting the station; then the balance would be negative for only a couple minutes. And since Link doesn’t have turnstyles, you could refill the card first and then tap out, and no inspector would be monitoring the ticket area that closely to see which order you did things.

      1. This is really one more point in favor of a flat fare. The simpler the fare system, the faster FEOs can do their job and the fewer false positives (of which we have documented plenty). More passengers get checked, including the intentional kiters huddling in the middle, and then more people pay the fare. There are so many downsides to trying to nickle and dime riders from the ‘burbs. Todays debate has been one of whether we nickle ’em or dime ’em.

      2. I surely hope ORCA cards can’t go into negative value. That’s why WMATA has never been able to get rid of the $2 fee for SmarTrip. They have peak-of-peak surcharges rather than distanced-based fares, which can be triggered upon tap-off or failure to tap off.

        One more point for a flat fare.

  22. Much higher fares in the suburbs more heavily impact riders who were priced out of Seattle, or never could afford to live in Seattle in the first place

    Even if that was an issue (and I’m not convinced it is), wouldn’t a low income fare solve the problem? Why charge more for trips from Rainier Valley, but less for trips from Shoreline?

    Are you concerned about those who buy a five bedroom house with a view in Federal Way, who couldn’t possibly afford something similar in Seattle?

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