In another sign of societal discord during this time of pandemic and upheaval, increasing numbers of Sound Transit riders are not paying fares and instead riding for free.

The financial impact on Sound Transit is serious and threatens the underlying financing model for the three-county system with an ambitious light-rail expansion planned over decades. While there are no easy answers, as a start, Sound Transit’s 18-member board should increase the number of people who check fares. Sound Transit and King County Metro should also implement stronger campaigns to let people know about low-cost ORCA Lift transit passes.

King County Metro suspended fare enforcement since the start of the pandemic. King County Executive Dow Constantine will transmit recommendations on fare policy to the Metropolitan King County Council later this month, according to Metro.

Long-term solutions to fare evasion, particularly in light of a pending Washington State Supreme Court case, are urgent but elusive.

At a Sound Transit board meeting last month, CEO Peter Rogoff painted a bleak picture.
From 2019 to 2020, fare revenue dropped from $96 million to just $30 million as ridership dropped from pandemic restrictions. At the same time, fare compliance also dropped. By some measures, 40% to 70% of riders are not paying fares, although a fraction of that may be legitimate, such as kids under 6.

The agency set a goal of paying 40% of Link light rail operating costs through fares. When the numbers are finally counted, it expects to only hit 5% last year.

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The context of fare enforcement has evolved since the George Floyd murder in 2020 and transit agencies paid greater attention to racial disparities in citations and fines. Sound Transit is now piloting “fare ambassadors” who check fares and focus on warnings.

The trouble is there are only 15 fare ambassadors and four supervisors for 19 Link light-rail stations and Tacoma Link light rail. For the average rider, there’s a 98% chance of not seeing any Sound Transit personnel on the system, said Rogoff. Without that visibility, even the most law-abiding citizen could be tempted to skip paying. He recommends the board double the number of ambassadors.

Building station turnstiles isn’t a viable option. Many Sound Transit platforms are outside and impossible to fence in. Making transit free won’t work, either. Sound Transit budgeted $8 billion revenues from fares until 2046, when the last planned projects are expected to be completed. With communities clamoring for projects to be accelerated, the Sound Transit board is unlikely to extend timelines to make up for the loss of fare revenues.

This month, the state Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case over whether it’s legal to ask transit passengers for proof of payment. That could have major ramifications for agencies.

Rogoff said 40% of those contacted by fare ambassadors refuse to provide identification. If the potential of law enforcement intervention goes away, there is reason to believe more people will simply refuse to cooperate with fare ambassadors, even if citations are a last resort.

“We can’t have a first, second, third, fourth, fifth warning if we don’t know who you are,” Rogoff said last month. “That will make this a very, very tough slog.”

Adding more fare ambassadors is a start. But elected officials must make finding comprehensive solutions to fare evasion quickly a high priority. Otherwise, transit financing will become another victim of pandemic-created rules-flaunting.