Fare enforcement on Sound Transit light rail and Sounder commuter trains will resume June 1 due, in part, to concerns over vandalism and biohazards, after more than two months of coronavirus-spurred free ridership.
The fares will be discounted, costing $1 on the Link Light Rail and $2 on the Sounder train. Sound Transit will also promote ORCA Lift, a reduced-fare program for low-income riders that reduces typical fares by an additional 66 percent.
Income-eligible people can apply for ORCA Lift cards over the phone or online, since offices have been closed due to the coronavirus.
Glenn Coles, a Real Change vendor who often sells the paper outside the Sounder Train in better times, said he wasn’t fussed about the changes. He mostly rides King County Metro buses and still has unused fare on his ORCA card should the need arise. Coles has changed how he approaches transit to accommodate his health.
“I’ve been doing lots of walking,” he said. “Lots.”
He misses selling the paper, which is still only available online, somewhat for the money but mostly for the interactions with his customers as they board and decamp the Sounder, Coles said.
The beginning of June was also Gov. Jay Inslee’s tentative date to begin reopening parts of the state in “Phase 2” of the four-phase “Safe Start” plan. However, the state announced on May 22 that only a third of counties were eligible for the second phase. Under the plan, high-risk people are encouraged to “stay home, stay healthy,” but group gatherings of five people or fewer will be allowed as well as some services such as dine-in restaurants and hair salons or barbers.
Neither King County nor its immediate neighbors are eligible for Phase 2 right now, the state announced.
The resumption of fare collection was originally announced on May 18 and will go ahead as planned, said John Gallagher, spokesperson for Sound Transit.
Fare enforcement will operate as it did in March when social distancing was initially encouraged. That means fare enforcement officers will ask for proof of fare, including a paper ticket, a purchasing app or an ORCA card. Officers will maintain a distance, which means they will not be able to scan and verify the proof of payment.
“It’s on the honor system,” Gallagher said.
The goal behind bringing back fares is, in part, to prevent further vandalism and biohazards on the trains. Although ridership dropped 83 percent when the state locked down, the number of biohazards — urine, feces, vomit and needles — as well as incidents of graffiti and vandalism more than doubled.
There was also an increase in the number of “non-destination riders.”
“Ridership is for essential riders, frontline workers, people who need to get to grocery stores and doctors,” Gallagher said.
It’s unclear if progressive changes to fare enforcement or the ability to apply for ORCA Lift remotely will survive after the pandemic slows and the state returns to a new equilibrium. These are requests community members made to Sound Transit at a February meeting at El Centro de la Raza that was held to solicit the opinions of a more just system of fare enforcement that did not target marginalized groups.
Other suggestions included lower fines for fare violations. Fare enforcement officers will not be giving tickets in the short term, although riders will be asked to leave if they cannot show a form of payment.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the May 27 - June 2, 2020 issue.