Monday, March 21, 2016

Compass Card and Voting No: Looking to Seattle for Solutions

In the Puget Sound region, where Seattle is located, transit service is provided by counties, municipalities, and the regional transportation agency Sound Transit.

Sound Transit's creation came out of a decades long desire to build a regional transit network. Washington State passed legislation which allowed local taxes to pay for regional transit, but only with voter approval of these taxes.

In 1995, voters in Snohomish, Pierce, and King rejected the first $6.7 billion transportation plan with a 53.5% No vote. The Sound Transit board worked on a pared-down $3.9 billion plan which voters approved by 56.5% in 1996. This enabled the construction of a regional bus network, commuter rail, and the start of a light rail network.

In 2007, the Sound Transit board prepared another package of transit improvements for voter approval. It was rejected. The board proposed a different set of improvements in 2008. That $7.8 billion dollar plan passed with 58% support.

People in Metro Vancouver voted no last year to the transportation package put forward by mayors in our region. Just because people voted no in 2015, doesn’t mean that people will vote no forever. Both of Sound Transit’s transportation plans were rejected, tweaked, and then approved.

If voter approval for transit funding is the new normal in Metro Vancouver, perhaps our region needs to look to our neighbours in the south for guidance on how to pass transportation funding packages.

Besides funding transit project, and delivering regional bus, train, and light rail service, Sound Transit also runs the ORCA Card program. This smart card, which is similar to TransLink’s Compass Card, allows people in the Puget Sound region to have one-card access to all the transit systems in that region.

Sound Transit’s rail services requires you to tap on and tap off, just like TransLink. Unlike TransLink, Sound Transit has designed a barrier-free system; there are no fare gates. If you forget to tap out in Seattle, you get charged the maximum fare.

One of the major criticisms of the Compass Card in Metro Vancouver, and one of the reasons for its delay, was that people were forgetting to tap out.

People in the Puget Sound region have figured out how to tap on and off when using transit in their region. Now that the Compass Card has been in service for a few months in Metro Vancouver, TransLink riders also seem to understand how to tap on and off as well.

Now one of the things that TransLink wants to do is have people tap on and off when using the bus. While this is easy at most stops, on most routes, a bottleneck would be created at busy stops and along busy bus routes if people are required to tap off.

In King County, ORCA Card readers have been installed at busy bus stops, and along B-Line style bus routes. If TransLink wants to have people tap on and tap off of buses, they should look installing curb-side Compass Card readers at busy stops in our region.

I took these pictures when I was in Seattle last week.

A RapidRide bus stop in Seattle. RapidRide service is similar to B-Line service in Metro Vancouver. Select image to enlarge.

Tap your ORCA Card at the curb. An ORCA Card reader in Seattle. Select image to enlarge.

While there are some real issues around transit funding and service in Metro Vancouver, it is encouraging to see that other regions have gone through similar situations, and have come out better.

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