The Sound Transit board of directors voted Thursday to extend its “fare ambassador” program, which is intended to put a more welcoming face on fare enforcement, through at least the end of this year. The board also voted to reduce the cost of fares for low-income riders from $1.50 to $1 and extend its participation in a program to provide free passes to people with very little income.
Both votes are continuations of a yearslong effort to overhaul fare policies to make the system more equitable and less punitive. The board already voted last month to increase the number of warnings given to riders and make it less likely lack of payment would land someone in court.
The changes come as Sound Transit seeks to increase the number of low-income riders signed up for ORCA passes, and amid data showing enforcement has historically landed disproportionately on Black riders.
The board pushed forward with the changes despite a dramatic decline in fare revenue in the past two years, corresponding with depressed pandemic-era ridership, and concerns, raised most vocally by outgoing CEO Peter Rogoff, about an increase in nonpaying riders. Some board members raised the question of whether the new system could lead to fewer people paying while others hypothesized that compliance would increase with ridership.
Sound Transit began piloting its fare ambassador program in August 2021. The goal was to put a friendlier foot forward on fare enforcement, a task previously given to contracted security. Ambassadors are to provide more education and make riders aware of alternative ways to resolve fare disputes other than paying a fine.
So far, however, the program has struggled with lack of staff: Sound Transit staff estimate a rider will take 23 rides before running into an ambassador, on average. Under the new system, staff hope to decrease that to every seven rides, with an “aspirational” goal of every three rides.
The decision to reduce low-income fares to $1 from $1.50 is part of an effort to get 80% of all riders eligible for reduced rates signed up for an ORCA pass. Sound Transit estimates 39% currently are signed up.
In addition to the reduced fare, the board authorized new spending to educate the public about who’s eligible for subsidized passes.
For those with very little to no income, the board opted to extend a program to provide free passes. There are currently 10,000 people signed up.
Several board members wanted to delay the price reduction in order to try to better coordinate with other transit agencies that use ORCA. “I don’t understand this at all,” King County Councilmember and Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducci said of the choice to move forward Thursday. She and fellow King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove wanted to continue their discussions with King County Metro about the reduction.
But the board opted to move forward, saying the price reduction was especially relevant now as enforcement increases.
“I don’t want the work to go off and just die,” said board Chair Kent Keel.
Of Sound Transit’s sizable overall budget, around 6% is supposed to come from fare collection. The board set a goal of covering up to 40% of operating costs through fares, but achieved that only in 2017. Since the beginning of the pandemic, that has plummeted to 5%. Staff recently revised down total revenue forecasts through 2046 to just over $6 billion from $9 billion before the pandemic.
Calls to make fares free have gained momentum recently, particularly in the wake of 2020’s protests, but Sound Transit has so far not seriously considered taking that step.