Wednesday, July 26, 2017 This Week's Paper

Link fares are on the way

A report drafted by Sound Transit recommends that Tacoma’s Link light rail line from the Tacoma Dome to the Theater District start charging riders.

A Sound Transit Board vote on the issue was set for Thursday, so results were not available at press time but will be available online.

What is clear is that free rides on the Link are ending. At issue now is the fare, between $1 and $2 a trip or double that amount for a round trip that also works as a day pass.

The driver behind the switch from free to paid is the fact that the 10-year-old Link is popular, tallying more than a million riders last year. Until now, the cost of collecting fares would be higher than the money they would bring in.

That changed last year, when ridership topped a million passenger trips. A Sound Transit Board decision has held that services would be free as long as it would cost more to collect fares than the system would make in ticket sales. Link has reached that point. A policy goal of having ridership revenue make up 20 percent of the route’s budget folds into the decision as well.

But revenue from ridership isn’t a straight calculation. The higher the cost for tickets, the fewer riders the Link will have. If one-way tickets cost $1.50, for example, ridership would drop by about 30 percent, down from a million to 693,000 riders a year, according to Sound Transit analysis. At that ridership volume, it would take between one and four years just to recoup the cost of installing the $500,000 ticketing system. The variation depends on the fare rates and the system Sound Transit adopts to mitigate impact the fares would have on low-income people who might qualify for free passes or discounts.

The city or some other agency could also simply pay Sound Transit the $800,000 a year to cover the 20 percent target of the $4.3 million operating budget. But there are no proposals at this point, at least not formally.

“We have certainly heard inquiries about that option,” said Sound Transit’s manager of research, policy and business development Brian Brooke.

Following the 20 percent formula, a trip on the planned expansion route that would run a line from the Theater District station up to Hilltop along Martin Luther King would cost between $2 and $4. That expansion is still about 10 years away, and therefore not part of the current fare debate. That route is still not funded because the $50 million “local partnership” that would fund a third of the project has not been solidified. Sound Transit and federal grants are slated to cover the remaining two thirds of the $133 million pricetag.