Rational Thinking on Tacoma Link Fares

Yesterday Sound Transit held a public meeting at the Pantages Theater and a public hearing in Tacoma Council Chambers on Tacoma Link fares – concurrently -- and during working hours (@ 5pm, and 2-6pm).  However, there was one thing that was sort of missing at the hearing – the proposal (which is still not available online).  How do you take input on a proposal that is not out for public review until today? Well, regardless of how you feel about that, the Sound Transit Board is scheduled to vote next Thursday on a staff proposal to charge $1.50 to ride the 1.6 mile Tacoma Link light rail.  Why? Because Sound Transit’s policy is that services that have sufficient ridership to justify collecting a fare, should be collecting a fare.As a transit enthusiast, I recognize that farebox recovery is an important part of public transit that helps to support high quality service.  Subsidies pay for most of transit, but the goal for most transit services is to charge a fare that recovers about 20% of the cost of the service.  To get close to that level of recovery, Sound Transit indicates that riders would need to pay $2 each way.  One impact of charging a fare that high is that ridership losses of 30% (or more than 300,000 riders a year) are projected.  On top of that, the actual fare equipment that would be installed would require an upfront cost of $500,000.  At last night’s Pierce Transit CTAG meeting, we were told by Sound Transit that fares would take anywhere between 4 and 20 years (! ) to payoff that initial investment, depending on how much of a fare is charged.But wait there’s more!   Sound Transit wants to (logically) use ORCA as a fare payment system.  The problem with that is the dilemma that a tourist, new to Tacoma, would experience.  She or he would need to purchase a $5 ORCA card before paying whatever fare Sound Transit decides to charge to go 1.6 miles.  You don’t need to run very many numbers to determine that fewer tourists will use Link after an event at the Tacoma Dome when confronted with a $5+ charge to go into Downtown via light rail.  This will hurt Downtown Tacoma in a way that Sound Transit staff have not fully taken into account.  On top of that, as if Pierce Transit’s 36% service cuts haven’t been enough injury, charging fares on Tacoma Link would actually SIPHON OFF $50,000 annually from Pierce Transit’s budget because of how revenue from ORCA is shared among local agencies.  Less funding translates to less bus service.Who sees the logic in charging a fare to pay for farebox equipment anyway?   That seems like a good deal for whoever the equipment provider is, but a raw deal for riders in Tacoma.  Sound Transit could just as easily program the $500,000 ticket vending machine expense into the extension of Tacoma Link and begin charging fares then.  Why the rush to purchase and begin paying off ticket vending machines that won’t be paid off for at least ten years anyway?   It simply doesn’t make any sense.Tacoma LINK fare talking points:The payback period for the fare collection equipment alone 4-20 years based on a fare of $1-$2Ridership is projected to drop 20-30% if a fare is imposedUsing ORCA as a fare collection for LINK will siphon off $50,000/year from Pierce TransitThankfully, there is a loophole in Sound Transit policy that could save Tacoma Link riders and Downtown Tacoma from this mess – if the City of Tacoma is up for it.  Hypothetically, the City of Tacoma could work to cobble together some funding that would begin flowing to Sound Transit in 2014 to offset Tacoma Link operating costs.  It could come in the form of an LID or as a part of the Business Improvement Area, or as a collaboration among employers and educational institutions.  This would have the advantage of keeping Tacoma Link fareless for all passengers – to the benefit of students, workers, transit riders, residents and visitors.  It would also have the side benefit of getting the City to think seriously about how it’s going to fund an extension – both in terms of capital and operating dollars.My message to Sound Transit is, yes, we know that Tacoma Link needs to be charging a fare, but look at your own numbers.  It doesn’t make sense to do it right now – Tacoma Link will lose 20-30% of its ridership, it will take between 4 and 20 years to payoff the ticket vending machines, tourism will suffer, and Sound Transit’s bastion of support in Pierce County will be alienated.  It makes more sense to partner collaboratively with the City of Tacoma to offset operating expenses in the time between now and when an extension of Tacoma Link opens for service.I will gladly pay my fare when I see light rail run to the Stadium District and beyond.  I can’t wait for that.Until then, I encourage readers to voice your concerns to Tacoma Mayor and Sound Transit Boardmember Marilyn Strickland and the Sound Transit Board.  And fill out another one of those surveys. ...read more

by Tacoma Transit Sep. 20, 2013 at 8:50am