“Security Levels Are Going to Increase” on Sound Transit Trains, as Agency Struggles to Win Back Riders

By Erica C. Barnett

Hours after Sound Transit’s Technical Advisory Group read the light rail agency the riot act for, among other things, fostering a culture that “appears to discourage decision-making” (read Mike Lindblom’s comprehensive story on the TAG’s critique and recommendations), Sound Transit’s Rider Experience and Operations Committee got an update last week on the agency’s renewed efforts to crack down on people who violate transit rules, including riders who fail to pay their fares.

As longtime PubliCola readers know, Sound Transit has long struggled to balance its fare enforcement policy (which was recently amended to give riders additional warnings and more opportunities to resolve fare violations before receiving a $124 ticket) with its farebox recovery policy, which stipulates that fare revenues should pay for 40 percent of the cost to operate Link Light Rail. (Sound Transit’s other services, such as Sounder express rail and Sound Transit Express buses, have lower farebox recovery targets). The agency has only achieved that 40 percent goal—which is significantly higher than King County Metro’s 25 percent farebox recovery target—in one year, 2017; between 2019 and 2020, the rate plunged from 26 percent to 8 percent, and hit 16 percent—a post-lockdown high—last year.

Security officers “have already started conducting targeted enforcement activities of removing people from trains and stations throughout the system,” Sound Transit CEO Julie Timm said, adding that the agency has also begun moving ORCA fare card readers away from station platforms, “especially in our tunnels.”

According to a presentation by Sound Transit staff, the agency’s “fare ambassadors”—neon-vested Sound Transit staff who replaced uniformed fare enforcement officers in 2020—found that 15 percent of the riders they interacted with had not paid their fare. This number is far less than casual estimates by former agency CEO Peter Rogoff, who once lamented that he witnessed “almost no one” paying their fares after a Mariners game, but still twice as high as pre-pandemic nonpayment levels. Sound Transit’s Deputy Director of Passenger Success Sean Dennerlein said at Thursday’s meeting that the agency is still struggling to hire fare ambassadors—currently, there are 17, up from a low of four but still a third less than the number funded—and “we do lose them fairly quickly,” Dennerlein said.

New Sound Transit CEO Julie Timm said the agency has initiated a new crackdown on violations of the state law governing transit conduct, which prohibits a wide range of behaviors on transit and at transit stops, from smoking to playing music and “loud behavior.” In January, the board approved four new contracts for private security services totaling up to $250 million over six years; these new contracts, Timm said, would help address “the ongoing challenge of too few available officers on our system.”

Starting this month, Timm continued, “security levels are going to increase.” Security officers “have already started conducting targeted enforcement activities of removing people from trains and stations throughout the system,” Timm said, adding that Sound Transit has also begun moving ORCA fare card readers away from station platforms, “especially in our tunnels,” so that fare ambassadors can check fares before people board trains and so security can “discourage or report unlawful conduct to discourage incidents on trains.”

The new emphasis on security guards represents an apparent reversal of efforts both pre- and mid-pandemic to address concerns about racially biased fare and rule enforcement by reducing the presence of security guards on trains.

Sound Transit’s current fare policy “triggers consideration of a fare increase” if farebox recovery falls below the minimum levels adopted by the board. Currently, Sound Transit’s zone-based adult fares are all over the map, ranging from $2.00 for the isolated Tacoma light rail “T” line to as much as $5.75 for Sounder commuter rail. If nothing changes, according to Thursday’s staff presentation, fares would range from $2.25 up to $4.25 once all the projects from the 2008 Sound Transit 2 ballot measure, which will extend light rail to Redmond and Federal Way, are open.

One option is a flat fare that would apply across the system; this option would eliminate the requirement to “tap off” after getting off a train and would make it feasible, according to Sound Transit staff, to cap fares after a rider has spent a certain amount—something many transit systems across the country, from Portland to New York City, already allow.

10 thoughts on ““Security Levels Are Going to Increase” on Sound Transit Trains, as Agency Struggles to Win Back Riders”

  1. Former agency CEO Peter Rogoff was right when he said this about people attending games, and he’s still right about it at certain stations. I am usually the only person tapping my Orca card when I get on at my station. While some people above argue whether the ST Board should be focused on passenger experience over fare box recovery, the fact is that they must do both. If the passenger experience is improved with greater safety and getting rid of the drug users and homeless people, fare box revenue will return. Should ST simplify the fare structure? Definitely, as that will improve the passenger experience as well.

  2. ST completely out of touch. As others have said, the focus needs to be on cleaner, a safer, better. Clean up trains, clean up stations, provide security. Start by sweeping everyone off train at end points. Yes you need police support for that.

    Simplify ticketing with a daily $4 pass. Right now you feel like a bit of a fool for paying when so many others are not.

    1. I am pretty sure they already sweep everyone off the train at end points.

  3. How about the front car in every train be designated for ticketless, homeless and pit abs fentanyl smokers ? My wife traveled today Ava’s felt the train was pretty filthy !! What have we paid for ? I was very excited about this. Now I conjure up a trash train almost. This is not even a few years old coming into Northgate. Is there a way for the taxpayers to shut it down Ava save their money ?

  4. So, we are spending 250 million extra dollars to further harass the people still riding light rail (on that note, it’s obvious these guys don’t even know their own system. I buy tickets on my cell phone so you won’t ever “see” me paying fare unless you are authorized to ask) instead of replacing or overhauling infrastructure so chronicly broken it’s basically a joke, instead of making a fare system that itself is easy to manage and understand, instead of having a presence that says “we care about safety AND community”. Well, at least they are good at digging holes.

    1. Enforcing rules and collecting a fare for a service is not “harassing.” When did that all get so twisted? Yes, many things wrong with light rail but not feeling safe is an existential threat for ridership.

      1. Fares should not exist and fentanyl unlike cigarettes does not impact the people not using it. People doing drugs are generally dealing with things you cannot even imagine. Let them be for once.

  5. Turnstiles cost money but long-term they don’t require pay and benefits and could greatly improve fare recovery. Cost benefit may be positive for these.

  6. This is welcome news. I witnessed a man screaming expletives at another man just this morning, I thought it might come to blows. Earlier that ride he threatened to kill people. It shook me up pretty bad. The antisocial behavior on public transit is deeply damaging to this institution. When you walk through the stations you hear: “Sound Transit does not tolerate harassment if any kind.” Some officer presence would go a long ways to keeping that promise and saving the transit system.

    1. Yeah, the whole thing about “fare box recovery” is pretty weak and shows just how out of touch (and not riding transit) the ST board and leadership is. Sound Transit is worried mostly about fare jumpers….. transit riders are mostly worried public safety issues. The sad truth is if ST hired the proper amount of security, properly cleaned trains, buses and stations, and fixed the broken escalators, the “fare box recovery” numbers would by way worse. Whatever happened to “customer service” and “rider experience”?

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