Free rides on the Tacoma Link light rail system will end in one year.
The Sound Transit board voted Thursday to start charging adults $1 to ride the downtown trolleys, beginning in September 2014. Fares will automatically rise to $1.50 in September 2016.
Sound Transit analysts had recommended to the board that the rates on the 1.6-mile-long line start at $1.50 for adults, saying that rate struck a reasonable balance between maintaining ridership and covering fare collection costs.
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland instead proposed easing the pain by lowering the initial fare to $1.
“There’s nothing more difficult than going from free to fee,” Strickland told fellow board members.
She noted that ridership on Tacoma Link – now about 1 million people a year – is projected to drop by an amount proportionate to the amount of the fare. The higher the fare, the fewer riders.
Strickland said she feared the effects on local businesses and art institutions, and wanted to ease into it more gradually.
“Is the juice worth the sweets?” she asked. “The last thing we want to do is negatively impact businesses and tourism.”
According to a pricing model constructed by Sound Transit analysts, the $1 base fare is likely to reduce ridership to 728,938 in 2015. A $1.50 fare would have brought it to 693,833.
Fellow board members voiced no objections to starting fares at $1, but wanted a guaranteed rise in two years.
“It helps people get familiar with the idea that this is not a free service,” said Paul Roberts, an Everett City Council member who sits on the board.
Although Strickland proposed the lower starting rate, she voted against the measure after the two-year fare hike was tacked on, saying she favored keeping the fare at $1 until the Tacoma Link line is extended. Sound Transit is studying an extension that would take Link from its current downtown terminus up to the Hilltop along Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.
Funding for the extension has not been secured, and there is no definite timetable for construction.
The complete fare structure established by the board sets the fare for youth (ages 6 to 18) at 75 cents. That fare will stay the same, even when the adult fare is bumped up to $1.50 in 2016. The fare for seniors and people with disabilities will begin at 50 cents and rise to 75 cents in 2016. Children 5 and under will ride free.
According to a Sound Transit staff analysis, a base rate of $1 would generate about $142,000 a year after deducting annual costs for fare operations and enforcement. Without a rate hike, the fare would not cover initial capital expenditures within the lifetime of the fare-collection equipment, according to the analysis.
Brian Brooke, Sound Transit’s manager of research, policy and business development, told the board that during a “public involvement” phase in Tacoma over the past several weeks, 87 percent of the 200 people who formally commented were against ending the free rides.
The board also passed two measures affecting downtown property associated with its recently completed extension of the Sounder rail system to Lakewood.
The board declared as surplus six small parcels of land near the railroad bridge constructed to carry rail traffic over Pacific Avenue. The parcels south of the tracks (35,286 square feet) are proposed to be turned over to the City of Tacoma in partial payment for a 1.3-mile-long rail corridor currently owned by the city.
Under a proposed agreement with the city, Sound Transit would pay $4 million for the rail corridor in addition to turning over the surplus property.
Rob Carson: 253-597-8693