As Sound Transit Board members representing the north and south ends of the agency’s geography, we are very concerned about the future of light rail. Our residents deserve to get the highest value possible for the hard-earned dollars they each invest through various taxes and fees. We both want to see this system built out efficiently and in a cost-effective manner.
An issue that hinders that build-out is fare enforcement. While a fare-free system would be great, it’s not a realistic option for Sound Transit. The agency relies heavily on the millions of dollars in fare revenue it forecasts each year to support current light rail operations, as well as expansion plans.
When Sound Transit falls short of those forecasts, the system is not financially sustainable, is unfair to the tens of thousands of households who pay taxes and fees to support the growth of the system (whether they use it or not) and allows these billions of dollars in investment to be an attractive venue for criminal behavior.
Earlier this year, Sound Transit’s CEO reported that fare revenue fell from $96 million in 2019 to just $30 million in 2020 — a substantial shortfall. This is partly attributable to pandemic-related declines in ridership, but also reflects a lax approach toward fare enforcement.
Paying a fare is fair. It is reasonable to expect that people who use a service should pay for the service. And because public transit should be affordable and accessible for all, we support programs that provide reduced fares for lower and fixed-income riders, as well as free fares for youth, so cost is not a barrier to using transit.
It’s not fair nor equitable, however, to condone fare evasion in communities where light rail service has existed for years, while communities such as ours have yet to benefit from the system that is promised to us. Pierce and Snohomish county residents have been paying into this system for decades and have many more years to wait to have access to regional light rail connecting Everett to Tacoma! Our taxpayers are essentially getting taken for a ride, subsidizing fare evaders in King County.
Public transit is meant to provide a cost-effective way for people to get from one place to another. It is not intended to serve as lodging or a safe haven to use illicit drugs or alcohol. Increasingly we’re seeing the intended purpose of the system being abused, contributing to unsanitary and unsafe conditions for passengers. This trend is only reinforced by tolerating fare evasion. Tolerating this behavior not only makes for an unpleasant experience for King County riders, but further delays equitable access for Snohomish and Pierce county taxpayers.
We are committed to providing a world-class transit system that may be safely used by residents of and visitors to the beautiful Puget Sound region. We urge Sound Transit and our fellow board members to take swift action to address fare enforcement. In doing so, we can create a more sustainable and effective operating model that increases security, revenue and safety.