Public Interest Transportation Forum -

"Ride Free Express" Bus and Van Pool Plan Proposed as Alternative Mass Transit Investment to Sound Transit Light Rail

Ride Free Express Serves Six Times More Daily Riders than Link Light Rail for a Billion Dollars Less Taxpayer Funding; Phase One Serves All of King County and Includes Eight New Transit Access Ramps and Lanes; Bus Riders Would Pay No Fare, and New Vanpool Drivers Would be Compensated $4,000 Annually

by John Niles, Public Interest Transportation Forum

Archived Page from January, 2001

With the endorsement of former Washington State Governors Booth Gardner (Democrat, 1985-92) and John Spellman (Republican, 1981-85), former Metro Transit Director Chuck Collins has released more details on his long-awaited proposal for a central Puget Sound region mass transit plan. Ride Free Express is designed by a team of experienced transportation planning professionals to be far superior to Link Light Rail on a number of dimensions: lower cost, higher patronage, more congestion relief, less risk, and faster time to deployment. The Collins plan boldly cuts bus fares to zero, buys and deploys 100 new express buses and 4,000 free vanpools, builds new bus access lanes, and pays for high-tech equipment that gives buses priority at traffic signals.
Ride Free Express is proposed by Chuck Collins as a straight-up replacement for Sound Transit Link Light Rail, a $4 billion project now being audited by the United States Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General, at the request of Representative Hal Rogers (R - KY), Chairman of the Transportation Subcommittee of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee.  If Sound Transit were to cancel Link and implement Ride Free Express instead, the agency would provide the central Puget Sound region with more transit capacity in more places at lower cost.
Click here for Andrew Garber's story of the announcement of this plan in the Seattle Times January 10, 2001: "New group wants free bus rides, not light rail."
Collins estimates that Ride Free Express will attract 192,000 daily new riders at a taxpayer cost of $3 per ride, compared to Link Light Rail's estimated 30,800 new riders per day at a taxpayer cost of more than $18 each. Furthermore, Ride Free Express could be operating in two years, while Link will not be operational until 2009. The plan makes the enticing and aggressive claim that about ten percent of drive-alone commuters would switch to buses or vanpools as a result of this plan. The buses and vanpools would be deployed in geographic areas where the rider response to free fares is greatest.

wpe4.jpg (20545 bytes)
Source: Ride Free Express Draft Plan document, January 2001, page 11

Link Light Rail's controversial $500 million Federal Government Full Funding Grant Agreement -- trigger for the audit by the USDOT Inspector General -- would not be required for Ride Free Express.
Download the full 38 page Ride Free Express Draft Plan (January 2001) --  516 KB PDF file. 
The Ride Free Express plan has so far been detailed for King County only (where the initial Link Light Rail line is scheduled for construction), but is said to be expandable to Snohomish County and Pierce CountyThe ridership performance forecasts for free-fare bus service is based on a 35% jump over present patronage levels, and is calculated based on the experience of other cities with no-fare programs on their buses as reported by a United States Department of Transportation Transit Ridership and Fare study. Click for Peyton Whitely's Seattle Times story, January 29, 2001, on existing free bus programs around Washington State, "Free rides: one way to curb traffic."
In anticipation of objections about free fares attracting riders who may engage in "objectionable activities," the Collins plan includes $5.4 million to double transit security levels.
As described in the full plan document, Ride Free Express takes a market-driven approach that covers the entire region:

Excerpt from Ride Free Express Plan: Traditional versus Market-driven Approach

Traditionally, fixed-route transit system plans identify a corridor with high travel volumes. Then a route is devised that serves a large number of destinations along the corridor. The problem with this approach in urban areas is that such corridors are usually already well served by buses. As a result, if a rail line is built, most of the passengers are pre-existing bus riders who are merely shifted to rail at very great taxpayer expense. When considering this reality, it isn’t surprising that only thirty percent of trips on Link are forecast to be made by new riders.

The Ride Free Express market-driven approach responds only to actual demand. It provides the means and the incentives to attract new riders where transit service has been noncompetitive. For bus riders, the means consist of more frequent service on high demand routes, new traffic signals and HOV improvements to speed service. For commuters to suburban employment destinations, the means consist of 4,000 vans, which respond only to actual demand. The market determines the routes and destinations. For all commuters, the fundamental incentive is free fare.

Ride Free Express does not attempt to predict new routes and bus service levels. As fares are eliminated, ridership counts on the buses will dictate where more service is needed. Vanpool groups will figure out the best route and schedule for their members. In this way, travel demand can be translated into 4,000 separate routes, each tailored to the needs of a particular group of commuters. In this way, Ride Free Express has the flexibility to respond to changes in this rapidly growing region.

Collins and his supporters make a modest appeal to all citizens in the Sound Transit service district: "Ask Sound Transit for a full review of light rail and its alternatives, including Ride Free Express, based on whether they cost-effectively attack traffic congestion and meet our region’s transportation needs." 

"Trains have great intuitive and romantic appeal. It is easy to get caught up in the dream, but elected representatives owe us more than a dream. They owe us prudent and thoughtful use of our money. If the right investment criteria are new riders, cost and risk, this is not a close call: Link should not be built."   Chuck Collins, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 1, 2000

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