Link riders will pay $1 per ride next year

The end of free rides on Tacoma Link is here.

Sound Transit Commissioners voted to begin collecting $1 fares from Tacoma Link riders starting next September and start charging $1.50 per ride in the fall of 2016.

The $1 fee that was adopted was lower than the staff-recommended $1.50 fare as a way to ease riders into paying for what has been a free system since the trains began running 10 years ago. Discounts will also be available for children and low-income riders.

“Details on the process for creating and distributing the discounted vouchers to low-income riders, and the number of riders who would benefit, haven’t been fleshed out yet,” Sound Transit spokeswoman Kimberly Reason said. “The agency plans to mirror the system King County Metro has in place, which sells discounted tickets to social service agencies for distribution to their client base.”

About a million riders use Tacoma Link each year, but that will drop to about 728,000 riders once fares are required since people are expected to either walk or drive to avoid buying tickets.

Tacoma Mayor and Transit Board Member Marilyn Strickland championed the lower rate as well as argued to keep the fare at $1 until the 1.6 mile route from the Tacoma Dome to the Theater District gets extended to Martin Luther King Jr. Way in 10 years if proposals move forward as projected. Design and engineer work on the expansion will come this winter, but actual construction can’t start until $50 million in federal grants is awarded and a “local partnership” of another $50 million is established.

The decision to start charging fares came after Link ridership topped the one million mark, suggesting that ticket sales would generate revenue to help pay for operating the system. The fare collection system is expected to cost about $550,000 to install. That means ticket sales will take about four years to pay off the cost of collecting fares once the 2016 hike kicks into effect. It would take almost two decades of charging just $1 to pay off the ticketing system. That is longer than the system is projected to last before needing replacement or significant repairs. Once paid off, the collection system will generate $791,000 in total annual fare revenues, yielding $262,000 in annual net revenues at the $1.50 fare rate.

The total annual operation costs is $4.7 million for Tacoma Link, and the projected fare collection would represent about 16 percent of the system’s total cost. Sound Transit policy goals seek fares to bring in about 20 percent of costs for the transit service. That means higher fares could come in future years, especially when the Hilltop expansion comes.

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