Transit considering fares for Link riders

rob.carson@thenewstribune.comAugust 12, 2013 

The days of free rides on Tacoma Link might soon be over.

Until recently, so few people rode Tacoma’s downtown trolleys that it would have cost more to sell tickets than the amount sales would have generated.

That’s no longer the case, according to Sound Transit.

“With annual ridership now at 1 million,” said Kimberly Reason, a Sound Transit spokeswoman, “collecting fares now would generate sufficient revenue to cover collection costs and help offset operating costs.”

Sound Transit analysts are recommending an adult fare of between $1 and $2 on the trolleys, with lower rates for children, seniors and people with disabilities.

Sound Transit Board members are expected to decide Sept. 26 whether to charge fares and, if so, how much tickets will cost, Reason said. If fares are adopted, she said, they most likely won’t be collected before June 2014 because it will take that long to design and install a collection system.

Sound Transit estimates it will cost $26,000 a month to collect fares, after an initial outlay of $709,000 for equipment and design.

Because federal funding helps pay for Tacoma Link, Sound Transit must follow federal anti-discrimination rules if it adopts or increases fares. Mitigation efforts would be needed if fares are found to have “disproportionate impacts” on low-income or minority populations.

In the 11 census tracts within a half mile of Tacoma Link, 23 percent of residents are at or below the federal poverty level, which is twice the percentage in the overall Sound Transit service area. About 38 percent of residents in the Tacoma study area are minorities, compared with 31 percent in the overall service area.

Those demographics led Sound Transit to conclude Tacoma Link fares would have a heavier impact on minorities and the poor.

Sound Transit will meet this summer with Tacoma citizens, community groups and social service organizations to discuss potential impacts and come up with ways to soften the blow on low-income and minority populations, Reason said.

Elsewhere in the region, the agency has lessened the effects of fare changes by distributing free ORCA cards in areas with high percentages of minority and low-income residents, and by providing discounted transit tickets to social service agencies for free distribution to low-income clients.

Tacoma Link, which turns 10 years old this month, is Sound Transit’s only fare-free service. Service on the 1.6-mile light rail line from the Tacoma Dome Station to the Theater District began Aug. 22, 2003.

In a study that will be presented to Sound Transit Board members, analysts modeled impacts on ridership and estimated net profits for a range of fare amounts. The higher the cost of tickets, the more ridership decreases and the longer it would take to cover upfront collection costs and start turning a profit.

At a rate of 75 cents, analysts say, annual ridership would drop from 1 million to 760,000, and it would take almost five years to pay back capital costs. If tickets cost $2, ridership would drop about one-third – from 1 million to 674,000 – but capital costs would be met in 11 months.

Sound Transit is trying to extend the Tacoma Link system. In May, the agency’s board affirmed the City Council’s choice of a 2.3-mile extension that would run through the heart of the Hilltop on Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Transit planners say it will take at least 10 years before the extension opens, and that’s if the financing comes together.

The proposed rail line would extend existing service from its downtown terminus up Stadium Way, then switch back south along MLK Way to South 19th Street. The estimated cost is $134 million.

Ridership could reach 3.5 million passengers annually by 2035, according to Sound Transit projections.

Sound Transit will schedule public hearings in Tacoma on fares and the proposed extension – most likely next month, Reason said.

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693

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