Link riders blast Sound Transit plan to charge passengers

Staff writerSeptember 19, 2013 

Based on testimony at a public hearing Thursday, there’s not much doubt how Tacoma residents feel about the prospect of free rides ending on the Tacoma Link light rail system.

They hate it.

A dozen residents blasted Sound Transit’s plan to start charging between $1 and $2 to ride the downtown trolleys, arguing that the fares will reduce tourism, hurt downtown businesses and museums, further impoverish the working poor and increase pollution and congestion.

“Do we want people to be more dependent on cars or less dependent on cars?” demanded Sarah Morken, a health care worker at MultiCare. “All public transit should be free,” Morken said. “This is just one more attack on working people.”

So far there’s been no official decision on the fares, but a resolution passed by the Sound Transit Board in 2010 leaves little room to let the free rides continue.

The board would have to either change its fare-collection policy or work out some sort of an arrangement with local jurisdictions to cover lost revenue, said Brian Brooke, Sound Transit’s manager of research, policy and business development.

Free rides previously were authorized on the 1.6 mile line because of low ridership. The cost of fare collection would have been greater than the revenue collected, according to Sound Transit analysts.

That exception no longer applies, Brooke said. More than 1 million people now ride Tacoma Link each year, enough so that analysts believe fares would generate more money than it would cost to collect them.

The Sound Transit Board is scheduled to take up the fare question at its next meeting at 1:30 p.m. Thursday in Seattle.

Both Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland and Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy sit on the 18-member board. McCarthy currently serves as the Board’s chairwoman.

Strickland said Thursday that it’s not a foregone conclusion that the Board will approve the fares, but she said members do have “a responsibility as fiscal agents.”

“This is not the first time it’s come before the Board,” Strickland said. “Two years ago we decided to stand down.”

Laura Berry, a Tacoma native who lives downtown, said at Thursday’s hearing that she thinks the city should look into the possibility of coming up with money so the free rides can continue. “The alternatives here don’t seem to have been explored,” she said.

Brooke said that if local jurisdictions were to make payments in lieu of fares, they would need to cover roughly 20 percent of Tacoma Link’s annual operating costs of $4.3 million, or about $860,000. That’s the estimated percentage of total costs that could eventually be expected to be covered by fares, Brooke said.

According to figures that will be presented to Board members before they vote next week, if the fare amount were set at $1.50, annual ridership would drop to 693,833 from 1 million in 2015.

At the $1.50 rate, analysts say the annual revenue, minus fare collection costs, would come to $524,000.

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693

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