Sound Transit says it uses a proof-of-payment system instead of turnstiles because it is less costly, is more effective at preventing fare evaders and is inherently safer than gateway entrances.

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Sound Transit light rail has no gateways or rotating turnstiles to access the trains. Just tap a card reader and board the car.

The agency relies on a proof-of-payment fare system, where passengers scan their cards at a detector and fare-enforcement officers conduct periodic sweeps to check rider compliance.

Yet for newcomers and longtime residents alike, a question persists: Why don’t they have turnstiles?

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One reader, who said she rides light rail between Sodo and Beacon Hill three times a week, contacted Traffic Lab after a Seattle Times story about a partnership between Sound Transit and the Seattle Mariners that lets fans show their game tickets and ride free.

She said she has rarely seen enforcement officers check riders for payment, and wanted to know if turnstiles might cut down on suspected scofflaws riding for free.

In this week’s Q&A, we’ll spotlight the payment and entry systems at the region’s light-rail stations.

Geoff Patrick, a spokesman for Sound Transit, said proof-of-payment systems are used instead of turnstiles because they are less costly, more effective at preventing fare-evaders and inherently safer than gateway entrances.

Sweeps by fare-enforcement officers are randomized but occur throughout the day, Patrick said. About 8 percent of riders are checked each month.

Those found in violation are subject to a $124 fine. First-time offenders usually receive a warning, he said.

Barrier-based fare systems, such as turnstiles, require staffing at each station entrance to assist passengers who need it. That could include, for example, people who use wheelchairs or people with strollers. Eliminating that barrier helps move people to the train platform faster.

Staffing is also required to “avoid high rates of fare evasion through people jumping turnstiles,” Patrick said.

The proof-of-payment system means that some riders could risk the penalty and avoid paying, but Sound Transit says they usually don’t.

“Based on periodic sweeps to check our fare-evasion rate, it generally hovers in the area of 4 percent,” Patrick said.

That number is relatively consistent with averages across national-light rail systems.

In a 2012 American Public Transportation Association study of 33 transit agencies in the United States and Canada, 30 operators, including Sound Transit, employed proof-of-payment systems for one or more of their regular bus, bus rapid transit, heavy-rail transit, modern streetcars or commuter-rail services.

For light rail specifically, 23 of those agencies — including Los Angeles, Portland and Vancouver, B.C., as well as Seattle — use a proof-of-payment system.

Even though some transgressors can gain entry, fares covered about 41 percent of Sound Transit’s light-rail operating costs in the last 12 months. That’s more than its target goal of 40 percent. The national average for light rail farebox recovery is about 28 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Gateway systems add construction costs, Patrick added, because “facility designs would have to be much more restrictive with barriers and turnstiles.”

Barriers pose a major design challenge to ensure safety, he said, noting that at-grade stations in the middle of Martin Luther King Jr. Way can be approached from different directions.

Turnstiles or gateways at those types of stations could encourage fare evaders to walk on the tracks to get to the train platform, a safety hazard.

However, proof-of-payment systems aren’t without their problems. A recent audit found that the fare-inspection program King County Metro uses for its RapidRide bus lines puts an extra burden on homeless people, and its system used to collect fines frequently fails.

Patrick acknowledged the fact that people can fail to pay because of mistakes or confusion.

“For that reason, someone without proof of payment who has not been warned or cited within the past year receives a warning rather than a ticket,” he said.

Got a question?

Do you have a question about transportation for Traffic Lab? We’d like to try to answer it. Send your questions to trafficlab@seattletimes.com, and we may feature them in an upcoming column.