Looks like the free rides will continue on Tacoma’s Link, at least until the line is expanded to the Hilltop neighborhood in the coming years.
Sound Transit and the City of Tacoma have struck a deal whereby the city or its designee will contribute about $29,000 annually to keep fares free for riders of the 1.6-mile line, which runs from the Tacoma Dome into downtown.
The regional transit agency was to begin charging fares for the first time on Tacoma Link later this year.
The $29,000 is the amount of revenue Sound Transit estimates it could generate over costs if it began charging a base $1 fare on the trains, which have been free to ride since the service began in 1999.
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Tacoma’s Business Improvement Area, which has paid the $29,000 to Sound Transit over the past two years to stave off the fares, is set to extend its donations indefinitely.
“We are open to contributing to that effort,” the group’s manager, David Schroedel, said Tuesday. “With the potential loss of hundreds of thousands of riders, $30,000 a year seemed worth it.”
The Sound Transit Board of Directors is set to vote on the proposal Thursday.
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who also is vice chairwoman of the Sound Transit board, called the measure “a pretty straightforward, common-sense solution.”
Sound Transit has estimated it would lose up to 177,000 riders a year at the base fare of $1. About 1 million people have ridden the train annually since 2012, although ridership fell slightly at the end of 2015 and the beginning of this year, according to Sound Transit records.
Charging a $2 fare could generate upwards of $484,000 over costs annually, but ridership is projected to fall by about 211,000, according to Sound Transit records.
The annual cost of operating the line was about $4.2 million last year.
Schroedel said losing that many riders would be a blow to downtown and Dome District businesses.
“These are people we want walking and shopping throughout downtown,” he said. “Add to this the convenience of being able to hop on the Link to run down the street for lunch, and it doesn’t take many lunches or shopping bags to add up to the $30,000 per year.”
How long the free rides would last depends on how long it takes Sound Transit to complete plans to expand the line from its current terminus through the Stadium District and onto the Hilltop.
Sound Transit is in the final design phase for that project, but a complete budget must be established and all construction money identified before work on the line could begin.
If all goes well, extended service could begin in 2022, said Kimberly Reason, a Sound Transit spokeswoman.
Not everyone is happy with the thought of continued free rides on Tacoma Link.
Tacoma resident Stacey Isaacs parks at the Tacoma Dome Station parking garages and takes transit to work in Seattle.
Isaacs contends free Tacoma Link fares encourage students and downtown workers to park in the garages, taking parking spaces away from regional commuters who pay fares to help offset the costs of commuter rail or express buses.
She points out that Pierce Transit is studying a proposal to begin charging to park at the Tacoma Dome Station, partly to discourage Tacoma Link users from leaving their cars there.
City Councilman Ryan Mello told the Pierce Transit board earlier this year that the city generally supports the plan, according to minutes from the February Pierce Transit board meeting.
In an email Tuesday, Isaacs wrote: “As a Sound Transit rider and local taxpayer, I would like to better understand Sound Transit’s seemingly short-sighted plan to keep the Tacoma Link free indefinitely at the mere pittance of $29,000 per year, at the same time that other Sound Transit fares are increasing and hefty Sound Transit 3 taxes are being proposed.
“I would also like to better understand City of Tacoma support for parking fees at TDS at the same time they are underwriting continued free rides on Tacoma Link.”