Tacoma Urbanist

Sep. 25, 2013 at 12:01am

Transit Analyst: Sound Transit's Threat to Impose Fees on Link Would Gut Tacoma's Transit System

After reading transit guru Chris Karnes' post on the transit blog Tacoma Tomorrow, it is clear that there is no upside to Sound Transit's proposal to start imposing fees on Tacoma's "Link to Nowhere."  Let's be clear: Tacoma's Link is nice and cute but it does not deliver much value compared to the other light rail systems in the state.  Link simply connects the huge parking garage downtown, a benefit to commuters, and is useful for the rare Tacoma Dome event.

This is a lose-lose proposal for Tacoma as ridership, using ST's own numbers, would be reduced by 20 or 30 percent, undermining Tacoma's transit system, with no benefit whatsoever for Tacomans. Tacomans would continue to pay the same tax to Sound Transit.  Bizarrely, the payback period for collecting fares would be 4 to 20 years, so there is little benefit for ST other than to employ a few more people.

The result would more people using cars in Tacoma, fewer people coming downtown, a disproportionate impact on the the poor, severing off the connection between the Dome District and downtown Tacoma, thereby making it harder in the future to justify Link extensions.

From Tacoma Tomorrow:


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:
  1. The payback period for the fare collection equipment alone 4-20 years based on a fare of $1-$2
  2. Ridership is projected to drop 20-30% if a fare is imposed
  3. Using ORCA as a fare collection for LINK will siphon off $50,000/year from Pierce Transit
Thankfully, 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 BoardAnd fill out another one of those surveys.


Action steps:

Take the Sound Transit poll today and let them know what you think.

Contact your Tacoma City Council member and give them your opinion.

comments [5]  |  posted under Link, Sound Transit, Tacoma, tacoma


by Erik on 9/25/2013 @ 12:20am
Also see:


Peter Callaghan: We’re being railroaded to accept Tacoma Link fares (pun intended)

The only way to justify charging fares on Tacoma’s Link light rail is to compare it to other public transportation systems that aren’t comparable.More a downtown circulator than an actual transportation system, the 1.6-mile route is nice but hardly vital for commuters.

Its frequent stops make it likely that many who ride now will simply walk if faced with the recommended flat fare of $1.50, turned off by the hassle as much as the cost.Sound Transit’s own analysis suggests that, depending on the amount of the fare, ridership on Tacoma Link could fall between 20 percent and 30 percent. So in return for fares that will raise negligible amounts, the number of riders could fall by 200,000 to 300,000 a year.

And again, depending on the amount of the fare, it could take anywhere from a year to four years to even pay off the investment in the equipment to sell tickets and monitor that riders have paid.That doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen. Sound Transit began its public outreach process with a conclusion that fares should be charged, seeking comments only on the amount and how best to soften the impact on poor and minority riders.

The rationale is as much bureaucratic as financial. When a previous batch of board members decided to make Tacoma Link free, it did so knowing that the amount raised from fares wouldn’t even cover the cost of collecting them.

More here:

by fredo on 9/25/2013 @ 3:20am
All this was foreseeable back in the 1990's when Pierce County voters decided to affiliate with Sound Transit. Now we are embroiled in an unseverable organizational and financial mess from which there is no hope for resolution. It should be clear to any social scientist that the real purpose of Sound Transit is not the provision of transit but rather the provision of an unresponsive bureaucracy.

by tacoma_1 on 9/25/2013 @ 8:33am
Fares on T-Link are inevitable.  

I don't think that T-Link fares would necessarily encourage driving. If anything, the lack of fares encourages driving. 

Many (if not most) of T-Link's riders drive to the T Dome parking lot already, and park for free to take the free shuttle.  If a downtown commuter has to pay for gas and a transit ride, they will be financially better off skipping the initial car trip and go door to door via transit. Plus once initially on transit, the Link will be a free transfer.

by Erik on 9/26/2013 @ 1:14pm

Take the poll Kevin Freitas has created on the ST Link proposal to impose a fee:

Here is a link to the poll


by JesseHillFan on 9/26/2013 @ 1:55pm
It should be subsidized by another form of motor vehicle or fuel tax.Every tax should be a tax on motor vehicles.