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Tuesday, July 13, 2004 - Page updated at 01:04 P.M.
Future of monorail fares not yet decided
By Mike Lindblom
However, the agency has yet to answer a pair of basic questions about making Seattle's transit lines compatible:
What will a monorail ticket cost? And will people have to pay extra to transfer from a bus to the monorail?
The answers might help determine whether the proposed Green Line monorail can attract the hoped-for 69,000 riders a day.
Half the daily passengers are supposed to reach monorail stations on a bus, according to a 2002 ridership study and the agency assumed those people would pay a half-fare transfer fee.
Under the cheapest scenario in that study, bus users would pay $1.50 for a Metro transit ticket plus another 75 cents to continue downtown on the monorail.
The study, by URS, a national transportation consulting firm, found that raising ticket or transfer prices higher than that would generate more revenue but drive away thousands of riders.
Unless the council acts now, it will lose its leverage, he said.
"It's nuts not to have a common fare structure. Moreover, the fares should be absolutely transferable," said Compton, who endorsed the voter-approved 14-mile monorail linking Ballard, downtown and West Seattle during the 2002 campaign.
Monorail executives say it's too soon to worry about rate compatibility. The first segment, Key Arena to Westlake Center, will not open for more than three years, with the rest of the line completed two years later.
"Right now, our emphasis is on construction of the system," monorail Chairman Tom Weeks said recently. He said tickets would cost "the same as a bus."
Fare policies could someday force monorail leaders to choose between two goals: whether to attract more riders, or meet its commitment to recover all its operating costs by 2020. Besides the farebox, the Seattle Monorail Project (SMP) intends to raise money from advertising, leases by small retailers at some stations, and higher-priced party trains.
Monorail critics believe the break-even promise would wither under scrutiny, and say the city should conduct an independent investigation of monorail finances, including fares and ridership.
Peter Sherwin, spokesman for Monorail Now, said he's concerned that if the city strives to guarantee a perfect system by delving into fare policies now, that could decrease the chance of getting a rapid-transit system built.
Only one-fifth of U.S. transit systems charge for transfers. For every 10-percent boost in fares, a transit line loses an average 4 percent of riders, according to a 1991 study by the American Public Transit Association.
Portland uses a single-fare system for its trains and buses. San Francisco's Muni trains and buses share joint tickets, but riders have to pay again to switch onto the regional Bay Area Rapid Transit lines.
Vancouver, B.C., often cited as a role model by the SMP, lets people combine trips on the elevated SkyTrain, buses, trolleys and the SeaBus ferry for a single ticket costing $2 Canadian in the city ($1.46 U.S.). There are higher fees for crossing into the suburbs.
Even though most stations are surrounded by high-rise housing, about 80 percent of SkyTrain's 177,000 daily passengers combine the trip with a feeder bus. Transit leaders never considered making them pay twice.
"They'd be mighty pissed off if you said, 'Not only are you going to have to pay once for the local bus, you have to pay more on SkyTrain,' " said former city Councillor Gordon Price, an expert on urban growth issues. "If you want to get people on transit, convenience is a factor."
Sound Transit's light-rail line, the Seattle area's other proposed new transit system, plans on offering a shared fare with buses and free transfers.
Sherwin, the monorail spokesman, acknowledges that "from a rider standpoint, clearly no extra charge would be superior. On the other hand, if there was a small additional charge for using two systems 25, 50 cents that would most likely be acceptable."
The monorail agency expects to replace many express bus routes, funneling people to the trains. Ideally, feeder buses would reach the Ballard and West Seattle monorail stations every 10 to 15 minutes, said Jim Jacobson, Metro deputy general manager. At times, Metro has questioned whether enough money will be available.
No new park-and-ride lots are planned along the monorail route. Instead, monorail board members selected station sites where buses can easily drop off people. They have required potential builders to design fare cards or "smart cards," to fit with the regional system.
Typically, transit agencies get rid of transfer fees when the smart cards arrive, cutting the costs to draw more riders, said Chung Chung Tam, a Chicago transit official who heads the American Public Transit Association's revenue committee.
Tam also said that, in some cities, transfer fees won't harm ridership if the rail system provides a significant time savings.
Bus rider Kate Endle, grasping a hand rail as her bus from West Seattle sped down the Alaska Way Viaduct, said she's willing to pay a surcharge, but only if a monorail speeds up her commute.
"It would have to be a lot faster than a couple minutes."
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or email@example.com
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