On Jan. 27, the Sound Transit Board of Directors began a process toward considering options for making Sound Transit’s fare collection methods more equitable and addressing our declining fare revenues.
During the pandemic, Link light rail fares have been particularly impacted by lower ridership as well as increased rates of non-payment.
In 2021, Link fares covered 5% of operating costs – nowhere close to the 32% percent of operating costs experienced in 2019 or the 40% targeted by current Board policy.
Fares are important not only for operating existing services, but for avoiding reduced funding for advancing the largest transit expansion program in the nation in a challenging financial environment. They are currently assumed to cover 6% of our overall costs for operations, construction, and all other expenses through 2046.
In total, Sound Transit’s financial plan anticipates some $8 billion in fare revenue between 2022 and 2046 – the year when our current capital plan is expected to be completed.
While current service levels and construction projects are fully funded, with projects advancing toward openings over the next few years, completing later projects on time depends on having sufficient revenues.
Kicking off a comprehensive review looking at updating fare levels and other policy issues, next steps include Sound Transit Board decisions for establishing our long-term approach to checking fare payment on our trains with the goal of providing access and mobility for all.
Early in the pandemic, Sound Transit was required to suspend fares and fare collection on our system. After bringing fare collections back, we started a pilot project on Link and Sounder which puts focus on moving to a more equitable approach.
Issuance of citations for non-payment is suspended during the pilot project, in which we transitioned from contracted fare enforcement officers to a newly hired team of fare ambassadors.
While asking for proof of payment, these ambassadors put much greater emphasis on educating passengers about requirements and pointing eligible passengers to reduced-fare options.
Sound Transit’s overarching goal is a system where everyone taps – where everyone with ORCA cards or passes can get where they want to go, and everyone who needs financial support for fares can get access to it.
For the moment, though, too many passengers aren’t tapping their ORCA cards or buying tickets. This problem is not centered on any one community or demographic of our riders. It is a system-wide problem.
The CEO and staff recommendations to the Board include expanding fare ambassador staffing to enable more fare checks. As detailed in the Board presentation, the recommendations also call for re-establishing payment incentives under a more equitable and flexible system.
The recommendations include expanding access to the ORCA LIFT reduced fare program and annual subsidized passes. We’ve proposed reducing ORCA LIFT fares and youth fares from $1.50 to $1, and encouraging more municipalities, school districts and/or Olympia to finance ORCA cards for low-income youth.
We have also proposed an aggressive goal to finance a marketing program to get ORCA-LIFT cards to 80% of our eligible riders, far greater than the 38% who are currently enrolled.
Passengers without proof of payment would get two warnings in a 12-month period without penalty instead of one. Fare ambassadors would have an option to flag passengers who are unsheltered or experiencing homelessness or other instability, so they would not progress to citations.
A third interaction would come with a $50 fine, and a fourth with a $75 fine, but with the addition of multiple resolution options to avoid fines. Those alternatives would include participating in an engagement or education activity or loading the $50 or $75 onto an ORCA card. Passengers eligible for reduced fares could choose to sign up for ORCA Lift and add the funds to their new card.
On a fifth issue within 12 months, Sound Transit would maintain the ability to refer a $124 infraction to district court for resolution and/or dispute. This would not be a criminal referral, but a civil infraction, like a red light, speed camera or parking ticket. This would maintain a tool for any passengers that continue to not pay.
In the past, Sound Transit issued $124 citations through the district court system after only one warning.
The proposed new system does not include suspensions of service or involve law enforcement in fare compliance, and passengers without payment would be allowed to continue their trips.
In less than three years, today’s 26-mile Link light rail system is on track to grow to 62 miles as Sound Transit opens extensions to Tacoma’s Hilltop this year, the Eastside in 2023, and Lynnwood, Federal Way and Downtown Redmond in 2024.
The timely delivery of our further expansions to Tacoma, Everett, West Seattle, Ballard, and Issaquah will depend on our continued collection of fare revenue in concert with the other voter-approved taxes we receive.
Our upcoming work to update fare policies will help ensure funding for operating our expanding system while increasing our focus on equity. It will also help us stay on track to deliver all the remaining Link, Sounder and Stride bus rapid transit projects approved by voters.