Free Passage: Sound Transit holds off on charging for downtown Link light rail service

Tacoma Deputy Mayor and Sound Transit Board Member Jake Fey announced Tuesday that Sound Transit will not move ahead on a plan to begin charging passengers to ride Link light rail in downtown Tacoma next year.

“That will be off the table, so we won’t have to worry about that issue,” said Fey during Tacoma City Council’s noon study session. “We have to take a harder and deeper look at whether it is a good idea to charge for Tacoma Link and at what point in time to do that.” Part of that examination involves how downtown parking meters installed last month, and the plans to install a new station near South 11th Street and Commerce next year, impact current Link ridership. Still, Fey said the rationale long-term is that the system will need to pay for itself. “It’s got to produce more revenue than it costs to install the system to collect the revenue,” he said. “Timing is everything and we want to make sure we have a very strong justification” for charging Link light rail passengers, he added.

Fey spoke during a presentation of Sound Transit’s 2011 budget by Sound Transit officials.

FORECAST SHOWS 31 PERCENT REVENUE DROP

In September, Sound Transit announced revenues currently expected through 2023 are $3.9 billion, or 25 percent, lower than forecasted in 2008, requiring “difficult choices” during the 2011 budget process.

One of those difficult choices was a proposal to charge for Link light rail service in downtown Tacoma. The 1.6 mile line connecting Tacoma Dome Station to the Theater District is currently free for passengers. According to the proposed 2011 Budget and staff presentation summarizing the proposed project and service adjustments (available online at http://www.soundtransit.org/Documents/pdf/about/financial/2010/Proposed2011Budget.pdf — see pages 38 to 41), the Tacoma Link budget for next year shows an increase from $4.19 million in 2010 to $4.23 million in 2011 (excluding depreciation). The largest driver of increased cost is the assumption that Tacoma Link will begin charging fares in June 2011. This results in new fare collection and enforcement costs. The report adds that there is an “assumption that the [Sound Transit] Board will approve fare collection on [Tacoma's Link light rail] — a previously fare-free service.”

According to a statement released last month by Sound Transit, the agency receives the bulk of its funding through sales tax revenues and a smaller percentage from the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax and car rental tax within King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties. The recession has meant a 31 percent overall drop in forecasted revenues, including 26 percent in Pierce County.

According to Sound Transit, a final 2011 budget is scheduled for adoption in December, along with a Transportation Improvement Program and Service Implementation Plan that guide investments beyond 2011.

TACOMA LINK FREE (FOR NOW)

“It is an underlying policy that has been in effect since 1999 that we do charge fares for service, with some exceptions,” said Ric Ilgenfritz, Executive Director for the Office of Policy, Planning and Public Affairs at Sound Transit, during Tuesday’s study session at City Hall. “When ORCA [One Regional Card for All] was put into place, the exception that qualified Tacoma Link as a free service went away. I think we’re going to get good direction on that and work closely with the city and not do anything rash.”

Tacoma City Councilmember David Boe commended Fey and the Pierce County colleagues who voiced their concern over the Link fare proposal. “I know from an economic development standpoint that one-dollar fare was going to be problematic on its own,” said Boe. “Looking at creative ways to pay for that system is something I support.”

Councilmember Ryan Mello agreed. “It’s not a good time,” he said. “Maybe there is an opportunity in the future for [implementing a Link light rail fare] to make more sense, but not now. For a number of different reasons, it’s not appropriate.”