A $3 flat fare is moving forward for the entire Sound Transit light rail network, a move that turns the current fare structure on its head. (Ryan Packer)

Sound Transit’s rider experience and operations committee voted 5-1 on Thursday to recommend that the agency adopt a flat $3.00 fare for the entire Link light rail system, to be instituted with the launch of service to four new stations as part of Lynnwood Link next fall. The recommendation goes to the full Sound Transit board for a final vote Friday, December 15. That body will have to decide whether to adopt the $3.00 fare or to instead go with a $3.25 fare, an option that provides a greater boost to the agency’s financial plan and debt capacity.

A previously discussed $3.50 fare is off the table after being too steep of a hike from current rates, which are distance-based and start at $2.25 per ride. The agency projected that option would generate a 9% reduction in Link ridership.

A flat fare system asks riders who currently take shorter trips to pay more per trip in order to reduce costs for riders traveling longer distances, as the light rail network begins to stretch out regionally. With an extension planned to Federal Way in 2026, and then eventually Tacoma and Everett in the 2030s, a flat fare system is attractive given Sound Transit’s board governance structure, in which elected officials representing places like Fife, Auburn, and University Place are given equal weight at the board table. Even as they raise fares overall, boardmembers can pitch flat fares as a deal to riders in Pierce, Snohomish, and South King counties, since those riders tend to ride longer distances and pay higher fares under the existing system.

Seattle, where a majority of short trips currently take place, was not represented at all at Thursday’s meeting, with Seattle City Council President Debora Juarez absent. At the meeting, the issue of whether to pursue something other than a flat fare for Link was not debated, with $3.00 or $3.25 being the only options seriously considered. Zone-based fares, in place at many other expansive transit agencies, were not advanced as an alternative after the board failed to express any interest in exploring them.

Nearby Vancouver, British Columbia’s TransLink, which operates over a much more compact geographic area than the future Link network, has fare zones in place, along with cities like London, Berlin, and Zurich.

As the staff recommendations advanced to a final vote, staff and board alike emphasized factors like the simplicity of a flat fare system and the allure of getting rid of the current need to tap off at the end of trip to avoid paying the highest fare over the negative impacts to riders making shorter trips. Staff stressed regional integration and alignment with other regional transit fares, with a potential increase to fares at agencies like King County Metro (currently at $2.75) and Community Transit ($2.50 for local service) strongly implied as a factor to be considered. King County Executive Dow Constantine noted that King County Metro’s financial plan soon calls for the adoption of a $3.00 fare, and it sounds like the King County Council will be queuing that up.

With two-thirds of riders who complete their trips and who pay the full adult fare currently being charged $2.25 or $2.50, the change could represent a sizable increase compared to current Link fares. Sound Transit’s blunt ridership forecasts expect 3% of current riders to choose other options with flat $3.00 fare.

A majority of current riders on Link are paying fares associated with short trips, with only 13.5% of riders paying $3 or more. (Graphic by Ryan Packer)

In a public survey Sound Transit conducted on the change, 51% of current Link riders opposed moving toward a flat fare system, with flat fares slightly more popular among people who don’t currently use Link but are expecting to in the future when it reaches them. An official public hearing on the change in November saw just two speakers in attendance.

“For me the equity arguments are the most compelling,” King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove said, speaking in favor of the $3.00 fare and blunting the potential impact on riders. “Some people are going to see an increase — minimizing that increase for the time being … this is, as has been said before, a building block in which this board can always adjust in a future year.”

Committee chair and Tacoma City Councilmember Kristina Walker also touted the simplicity of the flat fare as the only option worth pursuing, and spoke in favor of the lowest rate possible. “This is the least increase for our riders, and we’re here to improve the rider experience on this committee.”

Lynnwood Mayor Christine Frizzell was the only vote against $3.00, citing the potential impact on Sound Transit’s finances. Compared to the agency’s current finance plan — which does assume a $0.25 increase to Link’s current base fare — a $3.00 fare generates less revenue, hurting the agency’s debt capacity and coverage, which could delay project timelines down the road. Moving forward, Sound Transit currently assumes Link fares will go up by a quarter every four years, but that may need to be reassessed if farebox recovery rates at the agency aren’t met.

Transportation advocacy organizations around the region backed up board members who support a flat fare, bolstering their arguments that a simple fare structure is a more equitable one. In late October, a number of transportation advocacy organizations, including Transportation Choices Coalition, Commute Seattle, Move Redmond, and Cascade Bicycle Club, wrote a letter to the Sound Transit board as well as CEO Julie Timm, supporting the lowest possible flat fare.

“We strongly support increasing access to regional opportunities through affordable transit fares,” the letter stated. “At the same time, we recognize the agency’s need to utilize fare revenue to sustain and improve your growing transit system and maintain service quality. In this context, we support a flat fare structure that provides passengers with straightforward and predictable pricing and offers clarity and budgeting ease for your organization. We recommend starting at $2.75 to align more closely with King County Metro and other local transit services.”

With the launch of Lynnwood Link next fall expected to bring overcrowding levels between stations north of downtown Seattle to unprecedented levels, Seattle residents who currently use Link for short trips will have other incentives to choose local buses in addition to higher fares. Ultimately, the fare debate highlights the conflict between Link as an intracity high-capacity transit network and an intercity commuter rail system, with the simplicity of flat fares proving much more alluring than the task of trying to figure out which riders to incentivize to grow the system and the region long-term.

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Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill and has been writing for the The Urbanist since 2015. They report on multimodal transportation issues, #VisionZero, preservation, and local politics. They believe in using Seattle's history to help attain the vibrant, diverse city that we all wish to inhabit. Ryan's writing has appeared in Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, Bike Portland, and Seattle Bike Blog, where they also did a four-month stint as temporary editor.