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. It set a policy that once that math changed, fares must be charged.
Now that Link has reached 1 million rides per year, consultants concluded that enough could be made from fares to pay for the equipment and staff needed.
Tacoma Link, staff points out, is the only free public transportation system in the region – at least free to riders. Sounder trains, ST Express buses, Central Link, buses run by Pierce Transit and Metro, even the Seattle Monorail all impose fares.
But Link is different enough from other systems that applying policies across the board creates a foolish consistency. Only the Monorail is sort of similar but, as Tacoma City Councilman David Boe pointed out at a council study session Tuesday, it doesn’t stop (at least not on purpose).
An example of how differences in fact can lead to differences in application comes in how tolls are being charged on state roads and bridges. Consistency and even fairness suggest that a toll should be charged to use the waterfront tunnel in Seattle once it is completed. But Seattle makes a compelling case that tolls would be counterproductive because, unlike bridges, there are ways to avoid the tunnel.
Besides, those other systems Sound Transit staff use for comparison actually go somewhere and are legitimate alternatives to driving. Fares on those other systems produce a lot of revenue (though still not enough to cover costs) and don’t as easily lead to fare avoidance by driving, walking or not riding at all.
The latter is the biggest concern for downtown merchants who oppose the fare plan. Someone at Freighthouse Square, for example, might not take a side trip into downtown. Someone at a convention might not venture too far from the convention center. Someone who works downtown might not dash to a restaurant or shop during a lunch break.
But Mayor Marilyn Strickland doesn’t seem persuaded. People will still be downtown, she said, just not as many will be riding Link.
“Some will say ‘I’ll walk,’ which isn’t a bad thing given how much we’ve invested in walkability,” Strickland said. She is the city’s representative on the Sound Transit board.
Other council members were skeptical at Tuesday’s meeting, worrying about merchants, about School of the Arts students, about how fares would disproportionately impact the poor.
And Councilman Robert Thoms wondered whether Sound Transit is open to public opinion when the board will vote just a week after Thursday’s public hearing.
If approved, fares would not be collected for a year or more.
But just because it will happen doesn’t mean it should happen. The relatively small amount of money collected isn’t worth the negative consequences.Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ thenewstribune.com @CallaghanPeter