Photo depicting a King County Metro bus stopped next to a construction site. Under-construction above-ground light rail tracks can be seen in the background at the site.

Lower Low-Income Fare Coming to Sound Transit

by Lizz Giordano

More than five years after a subsidized fare launched on light rail trains, the transit agency says the $1.50 price might still be too high for some. 

This follows a move last month by the Sound Transit board to reinstate fines for nonpayment this fall after a two-year hiatus. 

It’s all part of a push to cut down on fare evasion — which the agency says is a growing problem — by trying to ensure those who can pay for their ride do so, but also provide transit to those who can’t afford the price of a ticket.

One Sound Transit survey of passengers found that about 4% of people found without proof of payment said they were unable to afford the price of the fare. A King County Metro Transit survey found that number to be much higher, with nearly 18% of nonpaying riders saying they couldn’t pay. 

“The reduced ORCA LIFT fares will be available as soon as administratively possible,” according to Rachelle Cunningham, a spokesperson for Sound Transit. 

Sound Transit is experimenting with dropping the ORCA LIFT fare to $1.00, while also piloting a program which fully subsidized fares for very low-income households as the agency tries to draw passengers back to the system and remind them the gateless system does require payment. 

Sound Transit heard from the community that when fines and citations restart, the agency also needs to address fare affordability, said Peter Rogoff, the outgoing CEO of Sound Transit, during last month’s meeting. 

During the pandemic, ridership plummeted on the region’s buses and trains. Sound Transit lost more than half its riders at the onset of the COVID-19, and today boardings hover around 63% systemwide, according to the Sound Transit ridership tracker. Light rail ridership has bounced back faster than other Sound Transit modes — which also include commuter buses and Sounder trains — with ridership at 82% of pre-pandemic levels. 

Like many other transit agencies, Sound Transit stopped collecting fares for a brief period in the spring of 2020. At that time, a new fare enforcement policy was in development as the agency responded to data that showed Black and Brown people more likely to be cited and punished for failing to pay on trains. 

Last summer when fare checks resumed and fines didn’t, nonpayment remained a problem, according to Sound Transit. The agency estimated that the fare evasion rate in 2020–2021 was 10–30% up from about 3% from the years before. 

The lowering of the ORCA LIFT fare is temporary as the agency studies if a reduced fare increases transit affordability for low-income households. Board members were mostly in agreement with the need for lowering the fare, but some wanted to wait until a permanent program could be established and to allow for continued discussions with King County Metro Transit, which shares the current $1.50 ORCA LIFT fare with Sound Transit. 

For some low-income passengers, the current ORCA LIFT fare is still too high, said Russell Arnold, Sound Transit chief customer experience officer, introducing the amendment to the board. 

“We’ve heard a lot of comments from the community about the need for this change,” added Arnold, “and feel we can do the analysis in the six-month period, and we don’t foresee any negative equity impacts to lowering the fare.” 

To be eligible for the ORCA LIFT program, households must have an income of 200% of the federal poverty level (about $55,500 for a family of four) or below. Enrollment in the subsidized fare program has dropped by nearly half during the pandemic, according to Sound Transit. 

“It’s counterproductive to concentrate just on fare enforcement as a way to cut down on fare evasion,” said Katie Wilson, with the advocacy group Transit Riders Union. “The solution of lower fare revenue is more complicated than we need to double down on fare enforcement.” 

She wants Sound Transit to look through a bigger lens and also take into account what the pandemic has done to ridership.

To rebuild ridership and increase fare revenues, Wilson said, Sound Transit could enhance the rider experience with such actions as improving the reliability of the escalators or adding bathrooms. 

Sound Transit’s new fare enforcement policy, which will reinstate fines starting in September, gives nonpaying riders two warnings in a 12-month period, instead of one, before a fine is issued. And for the third and fourth instances of nonpayment, the rider is fined $50 and $75, respectively.

Lizz Giordano is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Seattle’s Rainier Valley focusing on transit and housing. She can be reached on Twitter @lizzgior, and more of her work can be found on her website.

📸 Featured Image: As light rail expansion accelerates in the region — including the future station under construction at the Federal Way Transit Center — Sound Transit also has the challenge of rebuilding ridership that disappeared during the pandemic. (Photo: Lizz Giordano)

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