You may have seen the signs posted all around Sound Transit’s light rail stations saying, in bold, capitalized letters: “Fare policy in effect starting November 15.” The messaging is crystal clear to passengers: pay up or you could get in trouble.
Fare enforcement policies are common throughout most transit systems around the world. Some, like New York City’s subway, rely on physical turnstiles to block nonpaying riders. Others are based on voluntary compliance enforced by periodic fare checks. Sound Transit’s Link light rail falls in this second category.
The agency has ambitious voter-approved plans to rapidly scale up the system through the 2040s, with lines to Lynwood and the east side more than doubling Link’s length in the next couple of years. At the same time, Sound Transit has been beset by costly delays and construction mistakes, leading some contractors to begin charging a premium to cover financial risks from delays, slow decision making and excessive paperwork.
All these factors have led to mounting financial pressure to recoup losses, as Sound Transit aims to rake in at least $5.5 billion in fares through 2046. In 2019, fares accounted for about 30% of the agency’s operational costs. During the pandemic, both fare compliance and ridership experienced a significant dip, amplifying concerns about decreased farebox revenue among the Sound Transit board, made up of appointed local politicians.
The new signage is meant to let riders know Sound Transit is taking fare payments seriously.
Persisting racist inequities
Since 2018, Sound Transit’s fare enforcement system has been under significant scrutiny over the impacts of funneling riders into the court system simply due to a failure to pay fare.
Before the pandemic, Sound Transit contracted third-party security guards to do fare checks. If a passenger was found to have not paid fare, they would be given one warning, with further violations resulting in fines of $124, filed with the county court. After two fines, they could be prosecuted with theft in the third degree, a misdemeanor.
Public records previously reported in Real Change and The Urbanist showed that between 2010 and 2019, citations and criminal charges consistently and disproportionately targeted Black riders. These riders were also less likely to have their citations resolved at the King County District Court.
Partly due to political pressure in the wake of 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising, Sound Transit suspended fare enforcement operations and commissioned a thorough overhaul, which resulted in a new “fare ambassador” pilot program.
Instead of wearing intimidating security guard uniforms, fare ambassadors wear more approachable blue jackets and yellow caps. They are also unarmed.
Additionally, the new policy is less punitive, with two warnings provided instead of just one. After the third and fourth violations, passengers are given internally managed fines of $50 and $75, which they can waive through several different ways: signing a pledge, taking an online course, participating in a focus group or enrolling in ORCA LIFT, a program which provides subsidized transit passes to people who make an annual income of 200% or less of the federal poverty level.
However, the new fare enforcement system continues maintaining the pipeline to the court system, and passengers who fail to pay five times or more in a year will still receive citations.
The policy still presents a persisting systemic barrier for the poorest Seattleites, who due to historical and current racism are disproportionately Black, Brown and Indigenous. Many eligible riders may not be able to afford the $1 ORCA LIFT rate or may not have the wherewithal to sign up for the program.
Sound Transit has not yet released new data about the racial demographics of fare compliance with the updated fare ambassador program.
Ramping up enforcement and increasing fares
After building the fare ambassador program for two years, Sound Transit is now focused on scaling it up. According to a September presentation, the team has about 35 staff members and aims to reach 75 in summer 2024 and 140 by 2026. These numbers will help the agency increase the amount of fare checks it can do.
Between September 2022 and August 2023, ambassadors inspected roughly 1.41% of trips and found that 86% of passengers had paid fare, while 14% did not. This level of compliance is a significant rebound from pandemic rates but still less than in 2019, when it was about 95%. Sound Transit has a goal of checking 10% of all rides, which it estimates will significantly increase deterrence.
The transit agency is also committed to increasing fare rates in order to plug the revenue gap. Currently, adult Link riders pay between $2.25 to $3.50, depending on how far they travel on the light rail. Seattle-only trips like Rainier Valley to downtown Seattle or Capitol Hill to U-District are only $2.50, while trips from Northgate to the SeaTac Airport are $3.50.
Youth aged 18 and under ride for free as a result of a grant program passed by the Washington Legislature in 2022.
In November, Sound Transit board members approved a decision to change rates to a flat $3 for adults as of fall 2024. While this will simplify the rates and make it easier to calculate how much you have to pay, it will also be more expensive for most riders who take short trips within the city. The decision follows in the footsteps of King County Metro, which adopted a flat $2.75 rate in 2018.
In a Sound Transit survey of nearly 4,000 community members published in November, respondents were split about the decision, with 50.1% expressing support for maintaining a distance-based fare scheme and 49.9% supporting the new flat fee.
For Link light rail riders, the ramp up could mean more uncomfortable fare checks and higher transportation costs. However, Sound Transit says that these costs will be worth it if the extra revenue can speed up the rollout of new lines and increase reliability.
This article has been updated to remove a quote by King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove that was taken out of context. Upthegrove had advocated for less punitive measures toward nonpaying riders. The newspaper regrets the error.
Read more of the Dec. 27, 2023–Jan. 2, 2024 issue.