Sound Transit looks to remedy its fare policy's ‘unsustainable’ financial trajectory

Jan. 31, 2022
Transit leadership is asking the board to develop a comprehensive fare strategy that addresses declining revenues and makes fare collection methods more equitable.

Sound Transit needs a comprehensive fare strategy according to the agency’s leadership who laid out the “unsustainable” financial trajectory caused by pandemic-related ridership declines, as well as rising fare non-compliance.

Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff provided an overview of challenges and future options during a presentation at the Jan. 27 meeting of the Sound Transit Board of Directors. He also emphasized that the agency’s fare collection strategy will support its equity policies and Sound Transit’s commitment to equity will not be based on how much money needs to be collected.

Sound Transit’s Finance Plan anticipates approximately $8 billion in fare revenue between 2022 and 2046, which is assumed to cover approximately six percent of the agency’s overall costs for operations, construction and other expenses through 2046. In reality, Rogoff notes, farebox recovery rates have been declining since 2016, while operating costs have continued to increase. These elements combined with COVID-19-caused ridership declines and growing non-compliance in fares is putting the agency’s fare revenue numbers on shaky ground.

Sound Transit fare revenue was $96 million in 2019 and dropped to $30 million in 2020. On Link light rail, where the board has established a target of 40 percent farebox recovery, the actual farebox recovery was 32 percent in 2019, eight percent in 2020 and five percent in 2021.

Sound Transit uses two metrics to evaluate fare compliance on its system. A fare evasion rate, which is an observed payment rate during fare checks and a non-fare boarding rate, which is sampled based on automatic passenger counters compared to taps and paper tickets sold.

Rogoff noted fare compliance is down dramatically, but was emphatic the problem was systemic and not centered on any one community or demographic.

“Our fare collection system relies overwhelmingly on an honor system and our increasingly acute problem is that our riders are not honoring the system,” said Rogoff.

Sound Transit plans to hold a deep dive on fare policy issues at a February workshop for its board and has a goal to develop a roadmap and action plan by the end of the first quarter of 2022.

Approach to equitable fare compliance

In addition to laying out the challenges of fare policy, the board also heard recommendations from Sound Transit staff regarding an equitable fare compliance approach.

Sound Transit began its Fare Ambassador Project in September 2021 to take a more educational rather than punitive approach to fare checks. Rogoff recommended “at least doubling” the size of the program because its current staffing levels only allow for approximately two percent of ridership to be checked.

“When you have a 98 percent chance of being out on the system and not being encountered by anybody, it just lends itself to further non-compliance. We need to get back to a place where our passengers are honoring the honor system that we’re using,” said Rogoff.

Staff put forth the following recommendations:

  • Access to fares, such as expanding access to the ORCA LIFT reduced fare program;
  • The number of warnings passengers receive, which is two in a 12-month period;
  • Updated fine amounts and alternative resolution pathways;
  • Law enforcement would not be involved in fare enforcement and a person found without payment would be allowed to finish their trip; additionally, the proposed new system would not include suspensions of service; and
  • Reducing confusion over fares and fare simplification.

“Our upcoming work to update fare policies will help ensure funding for operating our expanding system while increasing our focus on equity. It will also help us stay on track to deliver all the remaining Link, Sounder and Stride bus rapid transit projects approved by voters,” the agency explained in a blog post.

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Group Editorial Director

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine and group editorial director of the Infrastructure and Aviation Group at Endeavor Business Media. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the editorial direction of the group and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.