Free ride’s end reflects Tacoma Link’s popularity

The News Tribune The News Tribune The News Tribune The News TribuneSeptember 12, 2013 

Fare enforcement officers periodically ask Sound Transit Link riders to show their ticket or preloaded ORCA card on routes where fares are charged.

COURTESY SOUND TRANSIT

Downtown Tacoma workers, students and visitors have been getting the best transit deal in the Northwest for the last 10 years: free Link light rail service between the Tacoma Dome Station and the Theater District.

It’s the only Sound Transit service that doesn’t charge a fare. But a decade of free ridership is likely coming to an end next year; the agency’s policy is to allow free rides only if it wouldn’t be able to recoup the cost of collecting fares.

That’s no longer the case; Tacoma Link ridership is about a million annually and Sound Transit is starting a process designed to culminate in a fare system in fall 2014. Now the agency needs public input on how much to charge and how to soften the impact of fares on such riders as the low-income, students and the disabled. (See box for information.)

That kind of input is important. Sound Transit’s own research found that, compared with the demographics of its entire service area, a Link fare increase in Tacoma would disproportionately affect low-income and minority populations.

Sound Transit has mitigated such impacts by distributing free ORCA (“One Regional Card for All”) cards in affected communities and providing discounted tickets to human service agencies to give out to clients. If that kind of help is wanted here, people need to let Sound Transit know.

When setting the fares, it’s also important to remember that this short rail line was built as something of a sop to Pierce County. Light rail isn’t expected to get down here from King County anytime soon, so the Tacoma Link was built as a project that could get done with the dollars available. Sound Transit money is allocated by how much is raised in the regional transit agency’s sub-areas – Pierce County is one of five – through a 0.3 percent motor vehicle excise tax and a 0.9 percent sales tax.

Ideally, the fare would be as low as possible to cover the cost of collection and enforcement (fare inspectors will periodically board cars and ask riders to show their tickets or prepaid ORCA cards).

Current fares of Sound Transit’s 15.6-mile Central Link (from Sea-Tac Airport to Westlake Station) range from $2 to $2.75, depending on distance traveled. But the Tacoma Link is, for now, much shorter in length (1.6 miles), so the fare should be less.

If you like a free ride, you still have about a year to enjoy it on Tacoma Link. The fact that it will start charging a fare is a reflection of how successful the line has been.

Input on fares

On Sept. 19, attend an open house from 2 to 6 p.m. at the Pantages Theater and a public hearing at 5 p.m. in Tacoma City Council chambers in the Tacoma Municipal Building, 747 Market St. Offer online comments at soundtransit.org/tlinkfares.

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