Lower fares for low-income people are coming to Sound Transit

by Lizz Giordano

More than five years after launching a subsidized fare on light rail, the transit agency says the $1.50 fare may still be too high for some.

This follows a decision last month by the Sound Transit board to reinstate fines for non-payment this fall after a two-year hiatus.

It’s all part of a campaign to reduce fare evasion – which the agency says is a growing problem – by trying to ensure those who can pay for their ride do so, but also by providing transport. common to those who cannot afford the price of a ticket.

A Sound Transit passenger survey found that around 4% of those found without proof of payment said they were unable to afford the ticket price. A King County Metro Transit survey found that number to be much higher, with nearly 18% of non-paying riders saying they couldn’t pay.

“ORCA LIFT discount fares will be available as soon as administratively possible,” according to Rachelle Cunningham, spokeswoman for Sound Transit.

Sound Transit is experimenting with lowering the ORCA LIFT fare to $1.00, while piloting a program that fully subsidizes fares for very low-income households as the agency tries to bring passengers back to the system and remind them that the doorless system requires payment.

Sound Transit has heard from the community that when fines and citations restart, the agency must also address fare affordability, Peter Rogoff, Sound Transit’s outgoing CEO, said at last month’s meeting. .

During the pandemic, ridership dropped on area buses and trains. Sound Transit lost more than half of its passengers at the start of COVID-19, and today boardings are hovering around 63% systemwide, according to Sound Transit’s ridership tracker. Light rail ridership has rebounded faster than other transit modes — which also include commuter buses and Sounder trains — with ridership at 82% of pre-pandemic levels.

Like many other transit agencies, Sound Transit stopped collecting fares for a brief period in the spring of 2020. At that time, a new fare enforcement policy was being developed as the agency responded to data that showed black and brown people were more likely to be quoted. and punished for failing to pay on the trains.

Last summer, when fare checks resumed and fines did not resume, non-payment remained an issue, according to Sound Transit. The agency estimated the fare evasion rate in 2020-21 to be 10-30% compared to around 3% from previous years.

The ORCA LIFT fare drop is temporary, as the agency studies whether a reduced fare increases the affordability of public transit for low-income households. Council members mostly agreed with the need to lower the fare, but some wanted to wait until a permanent schedule could be established and allow discussions to continue with King County Metro Transit, which shares the current ORCA LIFT fare. $1.50 with Sound Transit.

For some low-income passengers, the current ORCA LIFT fare is still too high, said Russell Arnold, director of customer experience for Sound Transit, in presenting the amendment to council.

“We’ve heard a lot of feedback from the community about the need for this change,” Arnold added, “and we believe we can do the analysis within the six-month period, and we don’t anticipate any negative impact on equity to lower the tariff.

To be eligible for the ORCA LIFT program, households must have an income of 200% of the federal poverty level (about $55,500 for a family of four) or less. Enrollment in the subsidized fare program has dropped by nearly half during the pandemic, according to Sound Transit.

“It is counterproductive to focus solely on fare enforcement as a way to reduce fare evasion,” said Katie Wilson of advocacy group Transit Riders Union. “The solution of lower tariff revenue is more complicated that we have to double the application of tariffs.”

She wants Sound Transit to look through a bigger lens and also consider what the pandemic has done to ridership.

To rebuild ridership and increase fare revenue, Wilson said, Sound Transit could improve the passenger experience with actions such as improving the reliability of escalators or adding bathrooms.

Sound Transit’s new fare enforcement policy, which will reinstate fines from September, gives non-paying passengers two warnings in a 12-month period, instead of one, before a fine is issued. And for the third and fourth cases of non-payment, the rider is fined $50 and $75, respectively.

Lizz Giordano is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, specializing in public transportation and housing. She can be reached on Twitter @lizzgiorand more of his work can be found on his website.

📸 The featured image: As light rail expansion gathers pace in the region — including the future station under construction at the Federal Way Transit Center — Sound Transit also has the challenge of rebuilding ridership that disappeared during the pandemic. (Photo: Lizz Giordano)

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