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.