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Originally published August 12, 2009 at 1:46 AM | Page modified August 12, 2009 at 6:01 AM

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Link's ticket system confounds light-rail riders

Sound Transit's unfamiliar payment system, frequent machine freeze-ups, language barriers and the region's uncoordinated transit policies are forcing thousands of riders to make an extra effort to pay. Despite the problems, deliberate fare dodging appears to be low.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Ticket tips

Give yourself time: If you haven't used the ticket machines before, get to the station early.

Buy round-trip Link tickets: They're valid all day, so you need visit a machine only once.

Get ORCA fare cards by machine: It's much easier to buy the new ORCA regional fare cards — for Puget Sound-area ferry, train and bus travel — from a Link ticket machine, instead of applying online or in person at King County Metro Transit's two downtown service centers. But do check orcacard.com for background info.

Buy advance tickets: Instead of waiting in line to use ticket machines on game days, buy a Link or Sounder commuter-train ticket, or an ORCA card, several days early.

Hang on to bus transfers: If you pay a cash bus fare, that also fully covers Link fare within two hours. So if you make a combined bus-rail trip, flash a paper bus transfer (or South Lake Union streetcar ticket) when a security guard checks fares aboard the train. You can also flash train tickets to ride the bus.

Downtown trips cost money: Train rides between Westlake Center, University Street, Pioneer Square and the International District/Chinatown require $1.75 adult fare, despite the fact daytime bus rides in the downtown tunnel are still free. (Yes, it's inconsistent.) Pass holders are already covered for train hops, though. — Mike Lindblom

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The first time she tried Link light rail, Jennifer James boarded without paying.

She didn't notice a ticket machine inside Seattle's downtown transit tunnel. When a security guard asked for proof she had paid, she promised to buy a ticket at the end of her ride.

In Tukwila, a Sound Transit helper showed her how to work the machine, but the ticket wouldn't come out.

"He said that it malfunctioned about a third of the time that day, and told me to forget it," James, a well-known anthropologist and speaker, wrote in an e-mail. "The view of Mount Rainier from the train was well worth the ticket price if I had gotten one — awesome."

In light rail's fourth week, many riders find themselves confused.

An unfamiliar payment system, frequent machine freeze-ups, language barriers and the region's uncoordinated transit policies are forcing thousands of riders to make an extra effort to pay their fare.

Despite the problems, deliberate fare dodging appears low. And Sound Transit is trying to pounce on flaws as they emerge.

"I think it's expected when you have any new transit system, there's a period of learning," spokesman Geoff Patrick said. "People are getting the hang of it."

As of last Thursday, security officers had issued zero citations on Link, said Brian Brooke, smart-card-program manager. That leniency will go away over time, Patrick said.

Screens in Tukwila started freezing as soon as paid Link trips began Monday morning, July 20. Within minutes, technicians were rebooting machines and working on a software patch.

Transit officials blame malfunctions on the difficulty of programming the same machine to sell both regular tickets and the new ORCA regional fare card.

Two weeks later, two of four machines in Tukwila froze during a 6 p.m. Monday rush. And Before the Sounders FC game last Wednesday, a screen froze on fans Joy Wyrick-Bergam and Ang Legg, they said, and then they somehow accidentally bought two round-trip tickets each.

Machines tend to freeze when coins are used, when orders are canceled or someone stops midorder and no commands occur, and during certain ORCA transactions, Brooke said.

Still, reliability was 95 percent last week, said Michel Danon, chief information officer. New software, covered under warranty, arrived Thursday, he said.

In some spots, there's another problem: West-facing screens have gone dark when overheated. A sun canopy was installed at Beacon Hill, and remedies are being studied for the Columbia City and Othello stations, Brooke said.

No fare gates

Link doesn't use fare gates. Instead, the security guards or police randomly check fares aboard the train, similar to what's done on Sounder commuter trains.

"My sense is people are taking great pains to pay their fares," Brooke said.

Sound Transit's financial plans conservatively assume 5 percent fare evasion, he said. The agency has a secret goal that is lower.

Gates cost millions to install and maintain, and they take up space.

So if a transit agency can keep fare-dodging under 2 percent, barrier-free collections are certainly the way to go, said William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association. While visiting Seattle recently, he was delighted to be fare-checked twice in four train rides.

Vancouver, B.C., and Portland have faced serious evasion problems — to the point that Vancouver is spending $100 million to add gates, and Portland increased its enforcement.

Seattle riders are sometimes hopping trains downtown without a ticket. Understandably, people assume they're free, because downtown bus rides are free until 7 p.m.

A group of eight Sounders FC fans got off in the Chinatown International District instead of at Stadium Station, thinking they'd be legal if their unpaid trip ended inside the ride-free bus zone.

Another trio knew the train was $1.75 but skipped the ticket machine at Westlake Center and rushed onto Link, agreeing to "take a chance" of getting a $124 citation. It turned out they were legal, because they had reached Westlake by bus and paid for the ride.

Multiple choices

Ticket machines let riders tap a destination name or select, for example, whether they want to pay for a later trip or travel on Sounder.

"It was really simple to use," said Chris Jones, here from California for an information-technology job interview.

But for those unfamiliar with transit fares or Seattle neighborhoods, the decisions take time — four minutes for one couple at Tukwila.

In response, Sound Transit added two ticket machines there during week two, for a total of four machines. And before the Sounders-Barcelona game, three attendants helped ticket buyers who waited in a line up to 65 people long — rather than evade.

To save seconds, machines are being reprogrammed to remove a redundant screen that asks people to confirm the amount they're about to pay. People put their money in too early, get stuck, and "that's a major cause of frustration," Brooke said.

Screen options in Chinese and Spanish are planned but can't be installed until the entire sequence of commands in English is debugged and runs smoothly for a while.

Steven Mai, boarding at Othello Station, had another suggestion: "Most of the people here are Vietnamese. If they want people to ride the trains, they ought to have Vietnamese language."

He had repeatedly pushed a Sounder train icon on the screen instead of his Link destination. When someone helped him, the machine froze.

Mai's family rode downtown without tickets, but he paid successfully a few days later.

Adding languages creates more cost and more risk of software errors, so Link will use only three, said Brooke, English, Spanish and Chinese.

Coping with chaos

Fortunately, Sound Transit ditched a complicated plan to make bus riders buy an "upgrade" ticket of maybe 25 to 50 cents to transfer onto trains, whenever train fare is higher than the fare for the bus leg of the trip.

Instead, any bus fare will count as full train fare through Dec. 31. Besides simplifying things, a "positive experience" can help train ridership long-term, Brooke said.

Vancouver and Portland each use simple, zone-based fares in a combined regional system.

On Jan. 1, the prepaid ORCA card will replace some 300 paper transfers and local passes.

The new $43 million smart-card system is supposed to work for seven transportation agencies, to automatically divine — and boost when transferring — what your fare is. After hours, the backroom computers will sort through a half-million daily transit rides, to divvy money among governments.

You won't have to think. Just pay.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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