Expanded fare table for ST2 stations based on the current distance-based scheme

Last Thursday, the Sound Transit Executive Committee heard a staff update on a potential restructure of Link fares, likely in 2024 if approved. Link fares haven’t been touched since 2015 and — given openings of new extensions on the horizon — are due for a refresh. Alex wrote about some of his ideas back in 2020, proposing to maintain the current distance-based scheme, but with fares increasing logarithmically rather than linearly.

Most of the Sound Transit staff analysis has come down to weighing a flat fare — as is the case with ST Express — versus retaining the distance-based fare. The full slate of ST2 stations, when open, will total 38 stations, resulting in a whopping 38×38 fare table.

Relative to its North American peers, Link is one of very few light rail systems that uses a distance-based fare. Portland’s MAX and the Twin Cities’ Metro both employ a flat fare whereas older mid-century heavy rail systems like BART and the Washington Metro charge based on trip length. Distance-based fares are also popular internationally, particularly in Asia, but these systems almost universally have fare gates that require tapping out upon exit.

Earlier in the fall, Sound Transit undertook a public outreach process to collect rider sentiment on fare restructuring. Overall, preference between a flat vs. distance-based fare was actually split quite evenly, with some variations when drilling down into demographic subgroups. Surprisingly, Snohomish County riders were much more amenable to a flat fare whereas their Pierce County counterparts felt otherwise. This might be the result of Lynnwood Link being a direct connection to Seattle next year while the 1-Line extension to Tacoma is still several years out.

Lower-income earners were also slightly more likely to prefer paying by distance than higher-income earners, but this disparity doesn’t seem significant. Although low-income earners are currently more predisposed to taking shorter cheaper trips on the 1-Line, higher earners typically have their fares paid for by an employer and may be agnostic on either option anyway.

Survey respondents generally indicated that although flat fares would be easier to understand, distance-based fares tend to be more affordable. That seems reflective of the general tenor of this debate, in that this is really a tradeoff between fare complexity (i.e., how easy it is to understand fares) and planning economics (i.e., pricing travel as a function of origin-destination patterns).

Although a move to a flat fare structure would eliminate tap-offs — and thus a source of origin-destination ridership data — I’d venture to guess that the majority of riders already don’t tap off anyway, either because their fare is already paid for or because it’s just easy to forget without exit gates.

The staff briefing acknowledges that zone-based fares came up as a theme in survey comments. Although this model was not analyzed extensively, it is currently employed by our friends in Vancouver, who have a three-zone overlay across the TransLink service area. A zone-based fare is not without its downsides, however. There is an inherent degree of complexity similar to distance-based fares, and zones can arbitrarily penalize short cross-boundary trips.

Sound Transit will host a public hearing on Thursday, November 16th, to receive additional comments on the fare restructuring, which may go to the December Board for final approval.

102 Replies to “Sound Transit mulls feedback on Link fare restructuring”

  1. When ST was formed it was charged with working with the region’s transit agencies to “integrate” fare structures. I read that as simplifying (stupid me) but instead ST introduced completely different fare structures for each mode and different than other local transit agencies. Being able to pay with an Orca card was to suffice for “integration.” Errg!

    For most people who can afford to, that means getting an Orca pass so you don’t need to worry about all the complexity (although on Link, unlike any other transit, you still need to remember to tap off). That means the distance-based element of Link fares primarily affect lower-income people (who often have to travel longer distances to access dispersed jobs and affordable housing) and infrequent riders (who are the ones you’d like to encourage to ride more frequently).

    So my question is – what is the value derived from the added complexity? Is it worth it just for a vague principle that people should pay more for longer trips? Are longer trips really more expensive or less socially desirable? What’s the point?

    1. Quasimodal is correct. Note that ST simplified their bus fares earlier than Metro did theirs. In 2009, the ATU 587 newspaper had stories and letters pointing out that the Metro fare structure was too complex for ORCA and it would lead to delay from extra tapping and button pushing at the farebox. I alerted policymakers. It still took eight years to simplify the fare structure. When SDOT began its streetcar lines, they had a unique fare; it took time for the monorail to be taken into ORCA. Simplification seems difficult. It is probably worth the trouble.

    2. The point is that fares are set based on what a person is willing to pay. When distance goes up, all other forms of transportation cost more, so the amount a person is willing to pay to ride the train costs more too.

      The counter argument is that when buses and trains go to the same point, the should charge the same fare, as the fare should not impact whether people choose train or bus. The counter argument to the counter argument is that most bus routes that act as Link alternatives are likely to be truncated within a few years anyway.

    3. Fares still bring in a large amount of revenue. Also considering Seattle links length this is the default and norm to charge distance based fares. As Mike noted many European cities have an urban subway with flat fare and a separate regional rail with distances based fares. We’re building sound transit as a regional rail system.

      > So my question is – what is the value derived from the added complexity?

      It’s not really that complicated? Like does one stare at the fare table when using other countries rail system either?

      Also the flat fares are not the only thing in isolation being calculated here. It’s also how high of a flat fare or also how much frequency for the suburbs.

      Sound transit is going to be running long and long travel times which means more and more expensive to run the same frequency. Northgate to angle lake was like 51 minutes, lynnwood to federal way is 73 minutes or 40% more. Everett to Tacoma is 129 minutes or 150% more travel time.

      If sound transit implements flat fares it’s probs going to:

      1) flat fare too low so running out of money sound transit runs less frequent trains out to the suburbs (turnbacks)
      2) flat fare too high in the core area who then complain about having some zonable discount etc…

      Either way we’ll just end up back where we started with distance based fares. Or you can have your flat fares but don’t be surprised by much lower frequency for the farther stations

    4. When SDOT added ORCA readers for their SLU line there were actually two readers at stops served by both the C Line and the streetcar. I expect the pennies were allocated between the agencies in the ORCA backroom. They should not have expected intending riders to notice the different readers for different modes. Later, Route 40 got all-door boarding as well. I should check to see if there are still multiple readers on the street.

      To Quasimodal’s point, the backroom allocation was necessary to keep it simple at the farebox. To riders with passes embedded in their cards, it was all very simple. The low income fare may make it simple for the poor former cash payers.

  2. “ The staff briefing acknowledges that zone-based fares came up as a theme in survey comments. ”

    I prefer zone based fares but the zones would need to be pretty big. I think there are enough natural breaks with longer station distances to make it work well.

    1. I do too, and it doesn’t seem like it has to be particularly complicated. They could just match the subareas ST already has: Snohomish, north/central King, south King, east King, and Pierce. The base fare could be Metro’s bus fare. This means someone going from Shoreline to downtown Seattle would be charged $2.75 (one zone, same as the bus), someone going from Everett to downtown Seattle would be charged $3.25 (two zone, still $1 cheaper than CT’s “premium” commuter fare), Overlake to Seattle likewise would be $3.25 (two zone, same as the 545), and someone going Everett to Tacoma would be $4.25 (three zones, still cheaper than Sounder and way easier to time). Someone forgetting to tap off would just be charged $4.25 and hopefully would catch on quickly. Anyone with ORCA LIFT or RRFP would still be at $1/ride.

      It seems there could be some rationale to dedicate the zone premiums generated by a zone to that subarea too. That could generate a bit of extra money for Seattle since I imagine most of the trips from the other zones are going to be biased for Seattle.

      All of this is a bit abstract for a lot of riders, since many have employer-paid passes. I have a feeling we’re in the territory of angels, dancing and pins because of that, so certainly shouldn’t be over-thought or -engineered.

      1. “All of this is a bit abstract for a lot of riders, since many have employer-paid passes.”

        Employees may not pay attention, but their usage determines how much the employer will pay the next year. If 80% of employees use the passes, and a large number of them use high-fare services (e.g., Sounder or Community Transit expresses from Everett to Seattle), then the employer will pay more than if only 40% use them and they’re all local trips.

      2. Skyler, someone going from Everett to Tacoma would take a four-zone trip, not a three-zone. The ride passes through both Norh and South King along the way. At fifty cents per additional zone, that would be $4.25, so maybe you meant to say “four zones” in the text. Unambiguous three-zone rides between North King and Pierce or Snohomish and South King would be $3.75.

        There is an anomaly in using the sub-areas, though.
        Trips between East King and TIBS or anywhere south of there would be ambiguous, since there would be a “short-cut” STRide line which would stay entirely within two zones between BTC and TIBS. A rider boarding there or anywhere to the east who uses Link all the way and who always “taps off” would pay a three-zone fare to travel to the airport while a rider who used STRide instead of Link would pay for a two-zone ride. Add a zone to go to Pierce in either case.

        The same would not be true with East King to Snohomish since 2 Line trains will roll right through North King to the same terminal in Lynnwood as the STRide North buses at Lynnwood. With off-board payment the ORCA system would not know that the rider went through North King. An “additional” pair of taps at BTC that did not stretch the trip beyond the paid time limits would not be “proof” of switching to STRide for a rider boarding Link East of BTC. The rider might have attended to a brief errand near the TC and re-boarded Link. So no combination of taps could decide which route a rider took unless they got off and re-boarded somewhere in North King.

        ST could arbitrarily exclude the taps at PSS / County Campus or CIDS if completed within a short time-period, to achieve the same results for East King to the south riders, but it would be a “complication”.

        Also, the “no tap-off” fare would depend where one boarded. North, East and South King have no possible trip longer than three zones assuming the tap kludge above (North and East King to Pierce or South King to Snohomish). The other two would have four-zone “no tap-off” fares.

        Other than the tap kludge in Downtown Seattle, I agree that it’s the obvious basis for a “zone fare” system. People would judge it a “Fair Fare”.

  3. One side effect of flat fares is that it reduces short distance trips. It also is anti-density as riders who only go one or two stations don’t get rewarded for living a higher density, more green lifestyle. (Yes greenhouse gas emissions need to be part of the fare discussion.)

    Distance based fares also seem easy to collect with Orca card payments. On the other hand, they pose more challenging fare checking issues.

    Finally, it affects ridership forecasts. A change in method would need to incorporated back into the EIS forecast results for WSLE, BLE, TDLE and ELE analyses — even the No-Build conditions.

    1. I doubt many people would base the decision to live a green, transit oriented lifestyle on the transit fares, and I especially doubt it would come down to whether it’s an additional 1 dollar because it’s a flat fare or because you had to cross from Zone 1 to Zone 2.

      And lower income folks who would be more sensitive to the issue get subsidized fares anyway.

      1. There are a ton of folks who are low income but don’t qualify for the transit subsidy programs which are quite restrictive…me for one. I live in subsidized MFTE housing but don’t qualify for TANF, SSI, etc. I often chose light rail vs bus based on the price ($2.25 vs $2.75 adds up over time for round trips). If we went to flat fare, I’d probably rarely take the light rail at my current income, despite living next to a stop, which would limit my access quite a bit and force me to order from online retailers more during the winter when biking that far is annoying. So, yeah, actually there would be changes that reduced my ability to live a greener “transit-oriented” lifestyle because I don’t always have time for a bus and $6.50-7.00 under a flat-rate to go to Northgate instead of $4.50 would push me to order online substantially more.

        Anyway, clearly you don’t understand how being low income (but not quite at federal poverty level) works. Lol.

    1. Having zone surcharges start with the third zone rather than the second zone would avoid the injustice of living near the border or going to just beyond the border. ST Express’s former zones were unfair to people living in Mountlake Terrace, and Metro’s former zones were unfair to people living in Shoreline or White Center.

  4. I would think it strange that traveling from Tacoma to Everett would cost the same as from Beacon Hill to Sodo.

    Also, I find it strange that Soundtransit brings the technical aspect into the mix for decision-making. Many agencies around the world have distance-based travel. They just introduced a whole new system. And now it turns out the be hard. Come on. They should be able to do better

    1. There are obvious disadvantages to a flat fare, just as there is to distance fares. One of them being is low-income riders get penalized the most on distance fares. Right now, riders from Federal Way and beyond are paying a simple $3.25 for their bus into downtown. With the distance formula, they’re going to pay $4.

      The biggest pro for a flat fare is simplicity, which makes is easier for all customers to ride – especially when attracting new riders.

      1. Caveat: low income riders get subsidized fares anyway, which could well be a flat rate fare.

  5. “Link is one of very few light rail systems that uses a distance-based fare.”

    It’s also the longest light rail, going out thirty-five miles to Tacoma and thirty to Everett like BART. Most large metros have a flat-fare light rail or subway for inner areas, and a different distance- or zone-based system for outer areas. There’s no way to reconcile the disparities between Westlake-Tacoma and Westlake-Northgate without either grossly overcharging 3-5 mile inner trips or grossly undercharging 15+ mile outer trips. Overcharging inner trips drives away the people most likely to take transit, and squanders our biggest opportunity to have areas with low car mode share.

    I really think this change needs to be opposed, and I shudder to think the board might pass it next month as it passes most staff proposals. There goes my reasonably-priced Capitol Hill-Roosevelt trips and Westlake-Beacon Hill trips. it’s not worth it for fare simplicity. The need for differentiated fares is a corollary of deciding to run light rail to Everett and Tacoma and Federal Way contrary to all precedent.

    1. But the issue with the old zonal fares also caused imbalances. A traveling between Aurora Village and Northagte at peak was two zones. But traveling from Northgate to Rainier Beach was one zone.

      Simplicity is worth more than arbitrary zones and unnecessarily complicated fare charts that turn off customers.

    2. The light rail in Phoenix is set on a one price for the whole system. I believe that it should be a flat rate not zones

    3. The “precedent” of serving Everett, Redmond, and Tacoma is that that is what the the voters approved. And they all pay taxes in one way or another.

      The fare system can’t retroactively change this decision, nor is it likely to have a noticeably impact on where people choose to live. Indeed, there seems to be an endless supply of people wanting to move to Seattle if only more housing existed.

      Looking at it another way, distanced-based fares apply (at least some small) upward pressure on Seattle rents.

  6. We have an analogue of the flat-fare system already: Metro vs ST Express. Metro is $2.75 and STEX is $3.25. I have a pass at Metro’s rate ($99/month), which covers all of Metro, and Link trips up to Westlake-Rainier Beach or Northgate-Beacon Hill. Whenever I go to Bellevue I pay $1 more round trip for the 550, and whenever I go to Lake City I debate whether the same $1 is worth it from Roosevelt (vs going to Northgate and taking the slower 20 or 75). Some people in Bellevue drive to the South Kirkland P&R to take the 255 and avoid the 550 because of its higher fare.

    1. Weird. Driving even 1 mile out of your way would surely negate any savings in the transit fare. South Bellevue and South Kirkland are five miles apart! Unless you’re coming from an equal driving distance, it’s cheapest to just drive to the closest park and ride, and definitely cheapest to avoid the driving in the first place if 550 is in walking distance.

      1. Bellevue’s population center is halfway between the two. And the alternative to driving to South Kirkland might be to take the B and 550, so you wouldn’t drive to South Bellevue P&R anyway.

  7. A question about distance based fares: Are they based on track miles between stations or “crow flies” direct miles between stations?

    The table suggests track miles since it’s not $2.25 from Mt Baker to Judkins Park (Closer distance than Columbia City to Mt Baker).

      1. I don’t think track miles is the right metric. Riders are more focused on stop count.

        A stop count based fare system would reward short trips and charge appropriately for longer ones. There are no zones either, and the scheme would be easy to understand.

        1-4 stops: 2.75$
        5 – 9 stops: 3.25$
        10+ stops: 3.75$

        Also there is no confusing 38×38 stop fare matrix. No matter where you are on the system you are charged the same price to go the same number of stops.

      2. Al was asking about the current formula. It’s $2.25 for the first 5 miles, plus 5 cents per additional mile, rounded to the nearest 25 cents. That’s track miles, not crow miles. So SODO-TIB riders pay for the Rainier Valley detour.

        Counting per station may be OK. The proof is in whether these trips are reasonably priced: Westlake-Intl Dist, Westlake-Beacon Hill, Westlake-Rainier Beach (with the future Graham Station), Bellevue Downtown-BelRed (130th). Those are where the stop spacing is the closest, and where iniquities would most arise. If Westlake-Othello is expensive because it has as many stops as Othello-Tacoma or Westlake-Ash Way, then something is wrong.

      3. I get what you are saying Jack, and agree. But here is the thing: No one cares. I don’t mean that literally. There are a handful of us nerds who try to make sense out of the formula, but the average rider just doesn’t care. In the rare occasions where they are thinking about the fare, they just look at the trip and how much it will cost them. People think in terms of the trip, not distance or number of stops.

        It is like taking a plane. Is the cost based on distance, staff, whether it is a hub, current gas prices, or some other factor? No one cares. They look at the trip, then the cost. Then they debate alternatives (other airports, other airlines, taking a train, etc.). The same thing is true with Link. Fares are very easy to figure out once you know your starting and ending point (you just look them up). If you are actually at the station, it is even easier (you just have to put in your destination). The matrix works, but there is no reason why they can’t just add two drop down list boxes, like they do for the schedule. It is interesting that they don’t have the fare listed on that page (maybe because most people know or don’t care).

      4. People are more sensitive for trips they make every day, not so much for trips once or twice a year. Forty fare surcharges a month can add up.

  8. Fare-capping and 30 day passes (not calender passes) that applies to all three counties should be our goal.

    But since we are eons away from that, a simple flat fare is sufficient.

    We as transit needs are used to which agency charges which fare. But the general public can’t comprehend- and rightfully so because there’s so much overlapping and differing fare structures.

    Simplifying fares makes the customer experience easy for the average rider and doesn’t turn away new ones.

    1. “Simplifying fares makes the customer experience easy for the average rider and doesn’t turn away new ones.”

      You’re ignoring the fact that higher short-distance fares than Metro turn away riders. At least the Federal Way-Westlake rider is getting a lot of distance value for their trip. If they’re low income, they’re eligible for $1 ORCA LIFT fares. That’s a flat fare that already exists.

      Every area has both high- and low-income residents and long- and short-distance trips. The suburbanization of poverty and long commutes is just a slightly-higher average. It doesn’t mean the vast majority of riders from Federal Way or further are low-income and working in Seattle while the vast majority of short-distance trips are the opposite.

      1. Do you have data showing that ridership would be lost by raising the minimum Link fare from $2.25 to $2.75? (Which may happen anyway with distance-based)

        In the first few years of Link, riding the train within the tunnel was $1.75, while riding a bus was free. And yet, 10% of Link trips were intra-tunnel.

        Is Link ridership really more price-sensitive than service-level sensitive?

      2. “Do you have data showing that ridership would be lost by raising the minimum Link fare from $2.25 to $2.75?”

        No, of course not, especially if it’s for the first 10 miles rather than 5. That would match Metro’s fare, and is widely seen as a tolerable baseline. (Although some have pointed out Metro/Link have one of the highest fares in the country, like New York, while giving less than half the service for it New York does.) The issue is making it all flat fare above Metro’s fare.

        “In the first few years of Link, riding the train within the tunnel was $1.75, while riding a bus was free.”

        That’s not what I remember. When Link started ST asked the public whether to have a $2.25 base fare without participating in the ride-free area, or a $2.50 base fare to compensate for participating in the ride-free area. The majority said $2.25, because general trips were more important than free downtown trips. That’s what Link started with, and it’s been like that ever since.

        “10% of Link trips were intra-tunnel.”

        How many of those were on monthly passes or employer passes, where the financial advantage of ride-free doesn’t exist?

      3. @ Mike… I definitely agree what every area has both low and high income riders. I’m not saying that majority of suburbia is low-income (though many have been outpriced and pushed there). I’m highlighting that a simple fare minimizes obstacles to riding. It saves people from having to scan through an 38×38 excel-like spreadsheet just to find their one-way fare. Or saving them to scroll through a list of stations and spend more time at a TVM. And for new riders or visitors who may be purchasing a ticket through the app, they won’t have to scroll through a list of ticket prices which they have no reference or context. The transit industry is poorly deficient at designing the riding experience for regular people. Fare structures is a part of the riding experience.

    2. Simplifying fares makes the customer experience easy for the average rider and doesn’t turn away new ones.

      The average rider pays with an ORCA card. That is as simple as can be. Changing to a flat fare doesn’t make it simpler.

      I suppose if you are budgeting, and your employer doesn’t pay for transit, and you are making exactly the same number of trips each month (but to different places) than yeah, this would make it simpler. But for the average person, the ORCA bill is roughly the same every month, or they don’t care. If anything, the problem is that there are a different number of work days in each month (blame the Romans for that).

      I also don’t see why a “complicated fare” would turn away anyone. People aren’t debating whether to take Link based on the fare. If they are, then a higher (single) fare would discourage people (since most trips are relatively short/cheap). But new riders aren’t buying a ticket based on the cost. If you don’t have an ORCA card, you get to the station, punch in your destination, pay, and get your little ticket. Most pay with a credit card, which means it is just as simple.

      Some cities have zones. It is quite common in those cities to focus on those zones. We don’t. We focus on destination, and again, riders with ORCA cards (which means the vast majority of riders, old and new) just aren’t worried about it. At some point they may look at the cost and figure out ways to save money, but for those folks, the current fare system is more likely to lead to higher Link ridership.

      1. After working in transit customer service for years and having to explain transfers between three different agencies to both visitors and new riders – yes, indeed we have a complicated fare structure throughout the region. I’ve had to explain many a time how an ST Express bus was $3.25 but a CT local bus is $2.50 and how transfers are only on ORCA cards. But ORCA cards are only available at grocery stores and rail stations and cost $5 (old fee)…etc, etc.. By the time I was done explaining the added-up costs and the amount of specific dollar bills they had to carry on each bus – it often ended up in “i’m just gonna drive” or “this is way more complicated” than they thought. People called in because they couldn’t understand the fare structure online to begin with.

        So if ST has an opportunity to simply the customer experience, they should. We as transit nerds often overlook the customer service/experience side of transit and are tunnel-focused on the technical aspect. The average customer and general public just want a simple experience. The less time they spend trying to decipher the costs, the easier the rider.

      2. ORCA cards and their availability are a significant barrier. Many times I’ve had to explain the system to visitors or new riders or my car-driving friends. Often they choose to drive, pay cash, or get on Link without paying rather than finding a TVM or paying a $5 fee. But that’s separate from the fare structure. It’s an additional burden, not the same thing.

        Again, we can’t have a $2.75 flat fare when Link will go all the way to Everett and Tacoma, and we can’t have a $3.25 flat fare because that would be counterproductive and throw Seattle/short-distance riders under the train.

      3. Frankly, Metro ought to raise its regular fare to $3. Less change fumbling would reduce operational and fare collection costs,

        I fear we may end up with ST matching Link and ST Express fares at $3.25, putting pressure on Metro to skip to $3.25. Ugh.

        There is also the impact on regional day pass costs and coverage value.

        Orthogonal to setting fares, I hope getting a Link ticket or day pass will be pushed harder as an online option. Riders shouldn’t miss trains due to being stuck in queue at the SeaTac Airport Station vending machines. Not in the age of online payment.

        And the ability to set up free phone-based ORCA accounts (which would put us ahead of Portland in at least one aspect of common sense).

        Simplifying the payment system is probably more important than the fares in terms of not losing woul-be first-time riders.

      4. Tap to pay with a contactless chip credit or debit card or Apple Pay would greatly simplify things. Portland has this, Vancouver has this. Probably install some signs at exits reminding passengers to tap off to avoid getting charged to the end of the line. Occasional and causal riders don’t want yet another specialized app on their phone with yet another password to set up and keep track of just to ride a bus or train.

      5. “ORCA does have an $8 Day Pass.”

        They certainly don’t market this very well. I didn’t know this. Last I heard there was a temporary pilot for a $12 pass, or that you could only get something like that in a phone app separate from regular ORCA or TVMs. I’m still skeptical that you can get a $8 day pass at a TVM; can anybody confirm?

        “Paine field is served by Bus Rapid Transit, via the Community Transit Swift Green line, Community Transit 105 bus route and the Everett Transit route 8 bus.”

        BRT what??? Stride 2 hasn’t started yet, and it won’t go to Paine Field, and the sentence implies it’s something different from the Green Line. (And is the Green Line really within walking distance of the terminal entrance?) Let’s see what the details page says. “Public transportation: rental car, taxi, shuttle (=airporter), bus. Buses: ET 8, CT Green and 105. Green Station walking distance: 9 minutes to terminal. Well, it’s not as impossible to take transit to a Paine Field flight as I thought. Still, none of that is BRT.

      6. “I’m still skeptical that you can get a $8 day pass at a TVM; can anybody confirm?”
        I saw it with ma own eyes, I tell ya!

        Well, actually it was a tourist I encountered who had one. I was also surprised. Although she didn’t tell me the details of how she acquired one, she didn’t seem befuddled by the process to get one.

        I was basically pointing her to the ORCA reader, as far as doing anything helpful, since ORCA doesn’t happen to be my jam!

      7. On my way home, I walked by a ticket vending machine on a Sounder platform.

        I was able to find the day pass, but it was not available (little x’s next to that option).

        Maybe they’re just starting to roll it out.

  9. ST’s farebox recovery ratio for Link is still 40%, despite projections presented in May (https://www.soundtransit.org/st_sharepoint/download/sites/PRDA/FinalRecords/2023/Presentation%20-%20Fares%20Strategy%20and%20Farebox%20Recovery%2005-04-23.pdf) predicting farebox recovery between 15-20% for the next few years.

    Non-payment rates are still high, too; the 2024 Financial Plan assumes payment rates won’t return to 75-80% until 2029 (and that seems optimistic). I think there needs to be some discussion of the point of charging fare – clearly ST is okay with riders paying most of their fare via taxes, but would any of these fare increases bring farebox recovery closer to the policy goal? Should the policy goal be changed? What’s the point of charging fare if ST has sufficient tax authority to go fare-free?

    Beyond the philosophical questions, it seems to me that the big operational question is this: what’s the acceptable tradeoff between loss in riders from high fares versus decrease in burden on general taxpayers?

    1. Metro’s council-set target is around 20-30%, and some cities target 10% or less. So if Link is getting 40% in a bad year, it’s still above average.

      “What’s the point of charging fare if ST has sufficient tax authority to go fare-free?”

      There’s no intrinsic reason to charge fares. Libraries, parks, and the fire department don’t. But given ST’s and Metro’s limited resources, and the huge unmet transit needs (Metro should double or triple its service hours to reach the average of industrialized countries), zeroing out fares would ditch any possibility of needed frequency expansions, and could even lead to reduced service.

      There is an argument that fares keep out the homeless from using it as a rolling shelter. But the answer to that is universal housing, not nuisance fares. Since universal housing is politically unachievable, and a sufficient tax rate for an international-standard level of transit is also unachievable, fares are a necessary evil at present.

      1. As you know, any homeless rider can qualify for the SAP, if someone points them to where to get it.

        The biggest affordability debate right now is whether Community Transit will join Everett Transit, Sound Transit, Metro, the streetcars, and the monorail, in participating in this program that removes financial apartheid, or at least most efficiently reduces it, from who can ride transit.

      2. There’s pretty good evidence against free fares in European systems if that money could otherwise be spent expanding systems/times. I agree we shouldn’t waste money on making sure every single person pays like NYC is doing out of some perverse punitive fairness mindset–we’re subsidizing most of the cost anyway and I’m fine with that for environmental and social benefits!–but for those able and willing to pay, there’s not reason not to charge a reasonable rate to keep the services at maximum levels. That’s what gets people to use the services more, actually, as long as the prices aren’t excessive. Not Just Bikes, I believe, had a fairly recent video about this.

    2. Nathan, the value of fares to ST is as a tweaker and stinker repellent, and that can only occur with “real” turnstiles in the grade separated stations and full-time attendants with the authority to arrest unpaid “trespassers” on the street-level stations. Given the increase in safety and cleanliness that would mean, it’s probably worth the costs.

  10. Seattle link is not really comparable to short distance light (say sf muni) but more akin to regional rail. And practically all regional rail have distance based fares.

    I’ve thought about zone based a bit and it generally just doesn’t make much sense. With large zones you end up with the boundary issue and with small zones you are just recreating distance based fares. Outside of Seattle all the stations are already spaced quite far so I don’t see why to implement zones.

    I guess to acquiesce slightly maybe they could change the distance fare calculation based on travel time not distance as that is what it generally costs operationally. This might even it out a bit more for farther suburban stations

  11. I would support a fare cap but keep the distance based fare. Changing to a flat fare would mean charging some riders more for a service that is going to be less frequent. opening the new extensions is already going to degrade service, charging more is just added insult

    1. Opening more stations is going to degrade service? The number of trip pairings possible on Link is going to nearly quadruple in the next few years.

  12. Not that it should be an example, but Copenhagen has some 98 fare zones. If you travel only on the Metro, however, you are charged for a maximum of 3 zones. This encourages people to use the expensive infrastructure. Tickets are not valid for more than 8 zones, so above that you have to buy a destination based ticket.


    It seems to me a time based fare would be best. If a Link issue happens, automatically drop a regional day pass onto the ticket or card.

    1. The metro is high-capacity transit, intended to be everybody’s first choice in the trip patterns it serves. It’s more efficient to have people on the metro than on other modes. The more people use the metro, the lower the per-passenger cost. There is an expense when you have to buy an additional train or line, but if you’re doing it because the existing system is near capacity (typical for non-US capital cities), then the answer is to add service, not discourage people from using it. You encourage people by having a fare that’s the same or less than other modes.

    2. Copenhagens fare zones are used in conjunction with their bus system. Thats why it makes sense. It’s basically almost a distance based system just simplified for the bus network.

      One buys a 2/3 zone transit ticket and it goes for both busses and trains. Most people also don’t think about zones they just enter in the destination and get that ticket the machine output. Or they have a zonal transit pass, which honestly works pretty similar to sound transits pass.

    3. Copenhagen does have one quirk that we don’t have, and that is check in check out system for bus fares. When you board a bus, you will check in with a tap of your Rejsekort (Denmark’s national fare card) and then check out with another tap, the reader will calculate how much to take out of your e purse based on which stops you checked in and checked out from.

  13. The question of fare policy can’t really be calculated independent of how much frequency and how much we want link to be a regional rail.

    For the farther suburban stations I think people are imagining it’s going to have very high frequency, also very cheap fares and also a one trip ride… it’s just not very sustainable to have all three.

    Even for say Japan sure the large cities have high frequency for their jr (regional trains) but for their medium sized cities JR stations frequency is more like 15/20 minute frequency off peak. Unless the outer suburb cities massively upzone I don’t see how we’re going to afford running trains that far with 8/10 min frequency off peak. Even say Vancouvers metro system generally only goes out to a 10/15 mile radius from downtown while ours is going to go 25 miles out.

    And on top of that now the suburbs want even steeper discount for their fares as well.

    I mean would they be okay with flat fares if it meant trains coming only every 20 minutes or turnbacks? Because that’s most likely what it’d entail

  14. When I was living in Denver in 2011, I remember being upset with the fare structure being too costly for long trips.

    I would ride the 0 Central to save money to Mineral so that I could get away with not needing a regional fare (2x) upgrade.

    1. When I visited Denver in the early 2000s, I couldn’t believe the airport-downtown fare was $13.

      1. That fare actually seems reasonable for airport rail, though? That’s what I remember it costing to get to the Newark airport roughly on NJIT, too. Considering the alternative is an Uber where the airport adds on fees that are roughly that amount, I think it’s fine to help subsidize the rest of the system with tourist money. Obviously, there should be alternative pricing, though, for employees because we still want them to use public transit.

      2. I took PATH to Newark Station and the 24-hour local bus to the airport. The fare was what you’d expect, around $1.50 for each in the 2000s. Once I took NJT one-way from the airport to Manhattan because I was in a hurry, and I paid a normal regional-train fare for that, maybe $10. But that shouldn’t be the subway fare, and I view the bus as a stopgap until PATH can be extended to the airport. Metro subways are supposed to be the first choice for everybody in all the trip patterns they serve, so they should have an economical fare, because they’re the most efficient and cost-effective way to move people around.So I disagree with price-gouging airport riders, because how is an airport trip different from a work trip or grocery trip or museum trip? They’re all just trips, and people should be encouraged to take the optimal number of trips for them — not in a car/taxi, and maybe thinking twice about a premium/express train, but not thinking twice about the subway. In the “sixth borough” of Newark/Jersey City/Hoboken, PATH is the subway. In Pugetopolis, Link is the subway. And SeaTac Link station is not a dedicated airport station like some others are; it’s also SeaTac’s local station and bus transfer.

    2. They are ironically changing course next year in getting rid of the zone fares and going to a flat fare model (the only exception is the airport which will still be around $10) on top of the changes they made last year to MyRide (Denver’s fare card). One price for all fares and lowering pass price to improve ridership. I know this change will likely do wonders for nudging some people to ride the A line as many airport workers have said the $200 monthly pass was too much. Alongside other people or commuters.

      1. Not ironic. For a system that has a problem with ridership, switching to a pricing structure that is cheaper & more easily understood by non-experts is logical.

        Figuring out how to charge premium to customers (peak pricing, express pricing, etc.) only makes sense for a system that (occassionally) has capacity issues.

      2. Ouch! $200 a month!? That would deter me from working at the airport, whether or not I had a car. RTD should’ve at least partnered with DEN airport to provide subsidized or discounted transit passes for airport workers.

    3. When I was in Denver there was ten miles of nothingness on the way to the airport, so I could see that it might have been the longest route and had few on/offs along the way. I’ve since heard that area has been filled in with development?

      Is the airport fare only on the airport stop? That would be akin to BART’s or JFK’s Airtrain system where people going through the airport station or entrance pay the surcharge but people at surrounding stations/entrances don’t. And I think BART airport workers get a card that bypasses the surcharge. Is that what Denver is doing?

      (And what SeaTac can’t do, because the entrance is shared with the pedestrian bridge and SeaTac city destinations and (as was originally intended but didn’t happen) a SeaTac civic center.

      1. Oh Green Valley Ranch near Peña Boulevard. Yeah it’s being built out. Though it’s mainly suburban houses. Though some more 5 over 1 or old style suburban apartment complexes have taken form near stations or on the other side of Peña in Gateway. It’s still has a lot of empty prarieland tho.

        As for the other question, the airport exists in its own zone separate from the rest.
        Currently its…
        Local (1-2 zones, local buses, FlationFlyer for Boulder/US36 Stops): $3
        Regional (3 zones, Regional busses, and FlatironFlyer to Denver Union Station/Civic Center): $5.25
        Airport (A Line, Skyride Routes, and other Airport bound busses): $10.50

        In 2024 it’ll be…
        $2.75 flat fare for any route that isn’t Airport bound.
        $5.50 Day Pass for any trip that isn’t the airport bound.
        $10 Airport Fare
        $88 monthly pass
        So this basically means in about 9 trips, the monthly pass will pay for itself if an airport employee. Or about almost a full work week of trips to the airport. So they’re getting a fairly subsidized pass now with this modification to the fare structure like the CollegePass program is for Denver & Boulder metro university students.

        As to why they didn’t change the policy to give a bigger discount for airport employees earlier. I don’t know and not purvey to that information of how the EcoPass (similar vein of ORCA Passport) works.

        Here’s the list other changes happening if you’re curious

    4. Chicago has a simillar issue, where the CTA and Metra run in parallel, the slower but cheaper option is to stick with CTA trains or buses. Metra has tried to match CTA pricing but the mayor of Chicago has blocked it to preserve revenue.

      1. Metra can afford lower fares but Chicago’s mayor won’t let it? Wow. Talk about scummy Chicago politics.

  15. Distance based fares, with a cap of $3.50. Increase ST Express Fares to $3.50. Concession fares (RRFP, Youth, Low Income) remain the same fares as today. This at least brings some uniformity in the system which would be helpful.

    1. $3.50 for Issaquah-Bellevue or Overlake-UDistrict? ST Express has different kinds of routes. I assume all three Stride lines and Everett Link will be running by then; otherwise I’d mention Roosevelt-Lake City, Renton-Burien, Burien-Westwood Village, and Ash Way-Everett too.

    2. I do expect reduced fares to evolve next year, including Community Transit hopping on the $1 bandwagon as it gets ready to eliminate commuter routes, and therefore commuter fares (and also possibly hopping on the SAP bandwagon).

      I’m just glad that all these various groups of riders who are actually price-sensitive don’t have to deal with the politics of the regular fares.

  16. In an article (from King 5, I believe) describing the coming crackdown on checking fares on Nov 15, it was admitted that fares only account for 7% of revenue, and even if people were paying, it would still only be 10%, the rest coming from taxes and grants. ST could get the money from other sources but they’d rather spend even more money on an authoritarian apparatus designed to punitively affect people out of the American obsession of denying people anything free.

    1. Olympia already determined with their transit system that it’s cheaper just to make buses free than to try and hound people for money. Same should go for light rail

      1. There are a lot of fixed costs related to fare collection (less so fare enforcement, which scales more linearly). For small operations, fare free operations often does make sense. Island Transit has long been (mostly) fare free for this reason, and (the slights larger) Intercity Transit may have reached the same conclusion.

        But for larger operators, the opportunity to invest the fare revenue (net of fare collection & enforcement costs) in operations outweighs the cost. 7% of total revenues is an immense amount of money for an agency that pulls in billions of revenue (~$3B/year).

        “ST could get the money from other sources” is a foolish statement and also a non sequitur. If ST obtained a new revenue stream, eliminating fare revenue is unlikely to a priority of the board or of most of the community.

        An obvious but still important point, “What’s wrong with free transit? It costs money. More precisely, it costs money that could be spent on other things.”

    2. And who is volunteering to lobby for having the state cover lost revenue from eliminating fares?

    3. Virtually every country collects transit fares, including those with vastly higher taxes than the USA. Every single transit system I’ve used worldwide charged a fare. It isn’t an American-only concept.

    4. So, DSA fan, then? Make it free so the oppressed tweaker have a snug place to cook!

      If someone is so poor they can’t afford a Low-Income ORCA fare then why, and how, are they in Central Puget Sound, one of the more expensive places in the country to live? It doesn’t add up.

      I get that there are people who are disabled in some serious way that makes consistent employment impossible. That can certainly include a mental or emotional disability. But such a person will almost certainly have a “navigator” who assists them in getting community support, including the Low-Income ORCA card.

      Other folks who demand “free” this and that in order tto avoid the hassles of establishing a disability are essentially claiming the title of “free-loader” for themselves. I guess that would include you?

      Read the other comments. There’s one that notes that Copenhagen, capital of the famed “Socialist” Danes, has 98 zones. Ninety-eight! Seems like they have that “obsession” to “deny people anything free” too, doesn’t it?

  17. As a regional community, the only thing that makes common sense and has some element of fairness, is a zone-based system which should apply to all agencies and modes. The simplest zone system would correspond to the zones that ST Express bus service used when it was introduced – basically Pierce County, Snohomish County, west King County, and east King County.

    While there are a few things that are unfair about it, the major objection (short cross-zone trips) can be moderated by also creating a “short trip fare” that charges a one-zone fare for short trips (say up to 5 miles or 5 stops). Maybe you would need to do tap on/tap off on all modes. With GPS on all vehicles this would not be technically hard to accomplish.

    A single system-wide flat fare either needs to be low so that it doesn’t create a ridiculously high price for short trips, or else it really penalizes short rides like UW-Capital Hill or Beacon Hill-Sodo and creates illogical mode imbalances (Tacoma-Seattle bus cheaper than Rainier Valley-Seattle Link fare? Metro 7 cheaper than Link?).

    As it is we already have stupidly inconsistent fares. Bellevue-downtown Seattle is 3.25 but Bellevue-U-District is 2.75. Kirkland-U-District is 2.75 but Redmond-District is 3.25. Eastgate-Seattle depends on the color on the outside of the bus, operated by the same agency. Kent-Seattle cheaper than Federal Way-Seattle. Tacoma-Seattle same price as Bellevue-Seattle. Not like Bellevue doesn’t have apartments and people on the whole spectrum of income and diversity.

    Frankly the only customers who should comment on the fare proposals are those who do not get employer-based passes. If you have an employer-based pass you don’t have to think about fares and aren’t impacted by what the fare policy is. There are technical solutions to the “forget to tap off” problem for calculating what to charge employers by employing sampling and statistical methods to account for the failure to tap off.

    Saying that can all be paid by ORCA is a cop-out. 50c fare difference matters, else set all the fares at 2.75, not some at 3.25. A high Link flat fare would make this worse.

  18. Fun fact:

    These are the American rail systems (both light & heavy rail) that are currently larger than Seattle’s and apply a flat rate.

    Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, NYC, Philly, Portland and San Diego.

    Interestingly, Dallas and Portland’s regional rail applies a flat rate. This may be due to the limited number of stations.

    1. Well, pick one of those to move to. (Just kidding.)

      I have not met anyone who has ever said they chose where to live based on the fare system. But I certainly would not have moved here if the transit system was anything like half the cities in that list.

      Portland went with interagency fare capping, making it plain how much a passenger could be charged in a calendar day. And yes, I could see myself moving there some day.

      1. Joking aside, If I had to move to any of those cities, I’d pick the neighborhood with the most walkability and most transit-dense ….as I do the same when picking a place here in Seattle.

        It’s always interesting and healthy to see what/how our peers are doing in their cities. And sidenote, ST can take a page out of Philly’s book for wayfinding and information distribution:


      2. Ironically, the walkability score in my neighborhood is lower than my mom’s house in east El Paso.

        I live in this neighborhood to walk to work at any time of day or night, and depend on at least somewhat frequent transit to get to groceries or anything else. When I visit my mom, I get to walk to a farmers market grocery store, but the transit barely exists.

      3. Funny…just visited El Paso this weekend. Drank in “Pride Square” and my gf & I chased down (in our rental car) their immaculately restored 1950’s trolley. Aside from their BRT line, the “Brio(?)”, it was indeed absent of functional transit.

    2. Note than none of those cities listed are “regions,” they are all understood as cities. LA on the extreme is a massive sprawl, but it is consider one metro area – people travel all sorts of ways, and driving from Santa Monica to Long Beach or San Fernando to Ontario, the typical person would consider it all “within LA.” In contrast, traveling from LA to San Diego is a higher fare because that is understood as a trip within the southern CA ‘region’ but between two cities.

      I’d argue greater Seattle is the same. Decades ago Tacoma was a distinct city (like Orange county or Riverside vis-à-vis LA), but today Everett to Tacoma is functionally one city, anchored by one major urban center (Seattle) but several urban nodes.

      Another good example – UTA; one region (Wasatch Front) that spans multiple cities (SLC, Provo, etc.). Travel modes that are primarily (or solely) within one city (light rail, streetcar, bus) are flat fare, but the commuter rail system intended for travel between cities has a fare matrix (https://www.rideuta.com/-/media/Files/Fares-and-Passes/Fare-Matrix/FrontRunner_FareMatrix2022.ashx).

      Seattle’s comp to the FrontRunner is Amtrak Cascades, not Sounder.

      1. @ AJ…

        1) “Region” or not, the aforementioned cities have a much larger rail system than ours (by miles of track) yet they offer a single, user-friendly fare that doesn’t force the public to use a fare table. If a system has to use an actual table that resembles an excel spreadsheet, then there’s something inherently wrong with how think the customer experience ought to be.

        2) Define region ….cuz most of the cities mentioned completely dwarf Seattle in population. And I haven’t looked at thier metro area population…which in itself could be considered a region.

      2. “Region” is a vague term used at multiple scales. Both Sounder and Cascades are regional rail, but one is metropolitan (70 miles) and the other is multi-state (500 miles). Link may be regional rail too (and is officially called that), but it’s metropolitan rail too with a smaller scope than Sounder. And Russian oblasts are translated as “region” (to avoid the czarist terms “province” or “government”), and “rayon” is translated as a smaller region within a city.

      3. @Jordan

        No one in real life uses the fate table. They just tap on and tap off. Or if you’re at the station you just select the destination.

        It’s the same for metro systems around the world.

      4. “No one in real life uses the fate table.”

        Only us looking for patterns in the fares to report on the blog. Like at what point Link’s fare reaches Metro’s, and at what point it goes above it. Westlake-Rainier Beach is below Metro, Westlake-TIB equal, Westlake-SeaTac above. Westlake-Roosevelt is below, Westlake-Northgate equal. Northgate-Capitol Hill is below, Northgate-Mt Baker is equal, and Northgate-Columbia City is above. I do wonder if they expanded the minimum extent slightly or changed the rounding; some of these are one station further than I thought.

      5. @WL…

        You are correct in that customers don’t look up fare tables when they are at the TVM. But when they plan their trips beforehand (info-gathering) and try to gather information in planning their journey – say “how do I travel between the airport and the cruise terminal” – then the fare table comes into play. I myself recently had to look up the cost of travelling from Washington Dulles airport and my parents’ house outside Baltimore. I was comparing the cost between MARC (their version of the Sounder) and Amtrak.

    3. While there is a flat fare for LA Metro, there are other trsnsit providers with different fares. The City of LA allocates money from the transit sales tax (collected at the county level) to fund Dash (free neighborhood shuttles all over LA) and Commuter Express (higher premium fare) for example.

      Granted the LA County transit service offerings are far more complex than ours, but the notion that they use flat fares is systemically wrong.

      1. The very fact that there’s sooo many overlapping transit agencies and services (it seems like each municipality has its own system) serves as the very reason why flat fare should be instituted. Unless there’s a regional agreement to enforce fare-capping, a flat fare offers a streamlined customer experience and spares the rider from looking up a fare chart every time they ride.

  19. I responded to the survey and my free-form text response was basically: I don’t care so much about distance-based vs. flat rate per se. I would however be disappointed to see intra-Seattle train trips become more expensive than intra-Seattle bus trips, after we reorganized our entire bus network to make people transfer to the train for many in-city trips.

    If you want to set a flat fare the same as (or less than) Metro’s fare I have no real objection. Make the train transfer cost more than the bus-only journey that used to be available but now often isn’t, and that just feels unfair.

    1. Ans this, Eric, highlights the inherent flaws of our region’s public transit. Each agency has its own fare and very little to no coordination& planning between them. Solution: all agencies throughout the Puget Sound should have the same fare structure.

      But that’s never gonna happen. So atleast Metro and ST should have the same flat fare.

      1. We actually have it pretty good here with a single payment system. Sure, it would be nice if we could use contactless credit cards to pay as well, but our transit is still substantially easier to navigate than places like LA or the Bay Area. LA has 20+ different public transit agencies, each with its own bilateral agreements (or lack of agreement) with its neighboring agencies around transfers. Sometimes the transfers only work at specific locations (i.e. you can transfer to/from OCTA and Metrolink with a Metrolink ticket if you’re on an OCTA route that serves a Metrolink station), or even specific trips (i.e. you can transfer to/from Riverside Transit and Metrolink with a Metrolink ticket only if the Riverside trip goes into a transit center, and often those are peak-only trips). How are you supposed to know all that in advance? If you’re a transit nerd like the people here, maybe you can glean it from the timetables or website, but for the general public I’m guessing they just try it and get yelled at, or more likely are just intimidated and decide to drive instead.

        I’ll take the one-tap convenience of ORCA any day over that mess.

      2. Pugetopolis was one of the first metros in the US to adopt a shared monthly pass between agencies. When I was in junior high there were only Metro tickets (a 10-pack discount book). When I was in college and at my first jobs, there were Metro passes. To transfer to CT/PT you gave them a Metro transfer and got a discount, but I don’t remember if Metro passholders got that deal. (There were some things that were unfair to passholders.) Then PugetPass came, and suddenly inter-county transfers and out-of-county rides came under your normal pass.

      3. @ Mike….the most ridiculous setup was running your pugetpass through the farebox slot but if your pass value was less than the actual fare, you’d pay the difference in cash. Then you were issued a paper transfer and have to present both your pugetpass and transfer slip to the next driver.

      4. I just presented my transfer slip. I thought that was the full fare, and it’s all I was ever told to do. There used to be cases where you got seemingly-excessive transfers, like on routes that were through-routed downtown, if you boarded before the ride free area where it was pay on entry but you got off after the ride-free area where it was pay-on-exit. It seemed like more of that.

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