An illustration of the planned Lynnwood station for Sound Transit’s Link Light Rail system, now under construction and scheduled to be completed in 2024. (Sound Transit)

An illustration of the planned Lynnwood station for Sound Transit’s Link Light Rail system, now under construction and scheduled to be completed in 2024. (Sound Transit)

Editorial: Sound Transit’s lax fare policy just isn’t fair

The agency, as it extends light rail to Everett while taxing its residents, must enforce fares.

By The Herald Editorial Board

“Seattle Nice,” the Emerald City’s legendary ethic of extreme politeness, may be coming off as rudeness on the part of Seattle and King County toward their neighbors to the north and south, specifically Snohomish and Pierce counties, as both counties await the arrival of Sound Transit’s Link Light Rail system.

A reminder: Voters in the three counties approved what was dubbed ST3, Sound Transit’s $54 billion package of sales, property and motor vehicle excise taxes in 2016 to fund the extension of the light rail system’s “spine” from King County north to Everett and south to Tacoma. Even while those taxes are now being collected, Sound Transit — the three-county agency responsible for extending light rail — isn’t expected to bring Link to some Snohomish and Pierce county communities for a decade or longer. Lynnwood can expect light rail service by 2024, but the trains’ arrival at Paine Field in Everett was last year pushed back to 2038 and to 2042 for downtown’s Everett Station. Service to the Tacoma Dome, likewise, is delayed until 2032. Increases in projected costs for land and construction have been blamed, as have been reductions in revenue, made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.

Doubts about the Sound Transit board’s commitment to completing the spine — even within the delayed timeline — are further raised by an apparently lax attitude toward fare collection by the transit agency and some of the 19 board members, the majority of whom are elected city and county officials in King County and represent communities already served by the Link system.

Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin and Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, both representatives on Sound Transit’s board, recently wrote a commentary published in The Seattle Times that questioned the agency’s and board’s commitment to using fare revenue to offset the investments by taxpayers.

Not surprisingly, fare revenue took a devastating hit during the pandemic, dropping, as its CEO reported, from $96 million in 2019, to just $30 million in 2020. About 6 percent of Sound Transit’s overall budget is supposed to come from fare revenue, Franklin and Dammeier wrote, and the board had set a goal of covering up to 40 percent of its operating costs through fares. It reached that mark in 2017, but since the pandemic, fare revenue has fallen to cover just 5 percent of operating costs. And those losses add up. Sound Transit staff have projected total fare revenue of $6 billion through 2046, but prior to the pandemic that forecast topped $9 billion.

During the height of the pandemic, Franklin said in an interview Wednesday, it made sense to suspend fare collection for several weeks, but now, especially as passengers return to jobs and events along the existing Link light rail line, collecting fares is only fair.

It’s not that passengers aren’t asked to purchase tickets or use a pre-paid ORCA card before boarding, Franklin said; it’s that there’s too little enforcement of fares. In fact, the agency recently extended a pilot program started last year that has replaced fare enforcement officers with “fare ambassadors,” who aren’t citing riders for nonpayment of fares or asking them to exit at the next station. The board recently extended the program through the end of the year.

Sound Transit made the switch to fare ambassadors following concerns that fare enforcement was disproportionately falling on Black and low-income passengers.

Equitable fare enforcement in all communities that Link serves is a valid concern, but it should not be difficult to fairly apply an expectation to purchase tickets for all passengers able to pay. As well, Sound Transit already offers free and reduced fares — recently cut to $1 — and should easily be able to apply those reduced fares through the ORCA card program.

Franklin supports free or reduced fairs for transit programs, and fully backs a new program that will make fares free to those under 18 that state lawmakers made part of their $16.8 billion transit package earlier this year. The difference with that program? The Legislature, this time, backed up its mandate with funding, grants that will more than make up for what revenue transit agencies lose to free fares for teens.

But how a nonchalant attitude affects fare collection goes beyond what revenue is lost to a few scofflaw passengers; it sends a message to all passengers that payment is a “suggested donation,” compounding the losses. And, Franklin and Dammeier write, it risks turning a vital transit option into “lodging or a safe haven to use illicit drugs or alcohol.”

To be fair, Sound Transit, in recent changes adopted by the board, isn’t completely ignoring the scofflaws, though the ambassadors’ “enforcement” leans into the Seattle Nice approach: Two warnings are allowed within a 12-month period; passengers aren’t asked to exit for nonpayment; fines of $50 to $75 can be issued on the third and fourth infractions, with a non-monetary option to resolve fines; and unpaid fines won’t be sent to collection agencies.

But Sound Transit could add to the “diplomatic” duties of its ambassadors, having them assist lower-income riders with information and applications for reduced-fare ORCA cards. As well, the ambassadors’ ranks need to grow. Sound Transit staff admit that a passenger currently would have to make 23 trips on average before being asked for a ticket. And if adequate staffing remains a problem, Sound Transit should consider installing turnstiles.

It comes down to fairness to those communities that still have a decade or longer to wait before they can make use of a service for which they already are paying taxes. Sound Transit and its board must commit to a fair and equitable system for fare collection.

It’s as simple as asking, “Ticket, please.”

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