Seattle transit system struggles as riders refuse to pay


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Seattle’s Link Light Rail is a profiteer’s paradise.

There are no turnstiles, so passengers are expected to either purchase a ticket or use their prepaid card. But so few passengers pay, fares currently only cover 5% of the system’s operating costs, a fraction of the 40% mark that Sound Transit has set as a requirement.

At a recent Sound Transit Board meeting, the outgoing CEO summarized the situation. “Our fare collection system is very much based on an honor system,” said Peter Rogoff, “and our growing problem is that our passengers are not honoring the system.”

By one measure, as many as 70% of all passengers are free riders. But even that is only an estimate as there is almost no tariff enforcement. Sound Transit cut fare enforcement officers after a study found people of color were disproportionately fined. Instead, the system now relies on rate ambassadors. There are only a handful for the entire light rail system, so riders will rarely encounter them. They currently only hire 2% of all runners.

The Chinatown-International District light rail station in Seattle.
(Google Earth)

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When fare ambassadors board a train, they ask passengers if they have paid for their ticket. Most did not. But instead of getting fraudsters off the train, fare ambassadors ask a series of questions starting with a request for identification. Around 76% of free-riding passengers refuse to produce a valid ID, making it impossible to issue a warning.

Sound Transit allows two warnings even before the first fine is issued. But with so few people providing ID, fines are rarely issued and even more rarely paid.

Rate Ambassadors may not have many fraudsters to pay, but they collect data about them. They ask non-payers for their address, race and sex.

King County Council member Reagan Dunn sees the lack of tariff enforcement as part of a larger problem.

“What we’re seeing here in Seattle is the systemic decriminalization of everything from fare clawbacks to failing to register as a sex offender, and using the pretense of fairness and justice social so there’s no enforcement,” Dunn said, “And what you get is higher crime and more escape.”

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There are a few other light rail systems that rely on the honor system, including those in Portland, Denver, and Dallas. But they all impose heavy fines on fraudsters the first time they are caught. Most Sound Transit Board members seem unimpressed with the poor performance in fare collection. Claudia Balducci is among those supporting the fare ambassador’s light touch.

“People feel more welcome in our system and are less afraid to use it because they are less fearful of tariff enforcement,” Balducci said.

But, the lone Republican on the Sound Transit Board says taxpayers who shelled out more than $168 billion for the system are getting ripped off.

“It has to be safe, secure, reliable and durable, otherwise it’s the biggest waste of money we’ve ever seen,” said Bruce Dammeier.

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Sound Transit collects money from virtually everyone in Pierce, Snohomish and King counties. Those who live inside the special tax district must pay additional property tax and much higher fees for their car tabs. Depending on the blue book value of the car, registration can easily cost between $200 and $300 more each year. And everyone pays an extra 1.4% on their sales tax to fund Sound Transit.

Tax revenues continue to rise while tariff revenues continue to plunge. In 2019, Sound Transit raised $96 million from users. In 2020, he only received $30 million from the runners. This is partly explained by a drop in ridership at the height of the pandemic. But in recent months, ridership has rebounded, but fare collection has not.


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