John & Shari: Sound Transit needs a change at the fare box to survive

Jan 31, 2022, 11:21 AM

light rail, Sound Transit...

Light rail pulls up to the Mount Baker station where passengers are waiting. (Photo courtesy of Sound Transit/Facebook)

(Photo courtesy of Sound Transit/Facebook)

Sound Transit, according to its CEO, is financially unstable.

“Surprisingly, when you don’t collect fares, you don’t enforce the fares, and no one is riding, you don’t make any money,” said KIRO Newsradio traffic reporter Chris Sullivan on the John Curley & Shari Elliker Show. “[Sound Transit] is in a really bad spot right now in terms of going forward with funding.”

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Host John Curley explained that there was a 76% reduction in people riding the bus and using public transportation when the pandemic hit and people were staying at home.

“So (Sound Transit) lost there in 2021, but they were also not doing well overall when it came to fare box collection,” he noted. “They depend upon that.”

“It’s that, and it’s one of the most upside down basic funding models of any transportation system in America, where almost all of it comes from sales tax revenue as opposed to subsidies coming in elsewhere, plus the fare box — so all that together is supposed to cover it,” Sullivan said. “And when you go into a recession or global pandemic and no one’s buying anything, there goes your sales tax revenue and there goes your fare box.”

Sullivan says Sound Transit hasn’t been great at fare enforcement in the past, and now the agency has stopped enforcement altogether.

“They don’t ask anybody [for] proof of payment,” he said. “They’re in a world of hurt of being able to figure out how they can get the money back at the fare box, but they’re in a position where they don’t want to ask anybody if they’ve paid, and there’s no way to really force them because they aren’t enforcing it right now.”

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Host Shari Elliker — who lives in Washington, D.C. — asked why there isn’t a system where you have to pay to be able to enter into the area, like a turnstile.

“Because it’s all open air platforms, and anybody can walk up and get right on,” Sullivan replied. “Basically, right now, it’s on the honor system. There are no turnstiles.”

“That’s a decision they made on the front end,” he added.

The fare enforcers have been removed as of last year, and now fare ambassadors instead give a pamphlet to people who don’t have proof of payment about how they can get a free ride legitimately, or how to get a low-fare ORCA card.

“They’re asking themselves to fail at the fare box. I don’t understand it either,” Sullivan told Shari. “But that the system as it’s set up. I know it’s very odd for people who are used to the mass transit on the East Coast, and you get here and it’s an entirely different situation.”

Listen to John Curley and Shari Elliker weekday afternoons from 3 – 7 p.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

John Curley and Shari Elliker on KIRO Newsradio 97.3 FM
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John Curley and Shari Elliker

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John & Shari: Sound Transit needs a change at the fare box to survive