OPINION: No One Should Go to Court Because They Can’t Afford a Transit Ticket

by Rich Stolz and Anna Zivarts

Following years of local advocacy and heightened scrutiny by the movement for Black lives around enforcement practices, Sound Transit has announced a new approach to fare enforcement on public transit: the fare ambassador pilot program. This pivot from a punitive system to a supportive one is long overdue. Sound Transit and other agencies must see this process through and fully divorce its transit fare system from the court system. Failure to pay for a transit ticket — whether due to poverty or misunderstanding — should never place transit riders at risk for devastating legal, financial, or physical harm.

Sound Transit rider surveys found that among those who could not produce proof of payment, the vast majority either forgot to tap their card, had a problem with their ORCA card, or were worried about missing the train. Low-income riders also reported not being able to afford fare — suggesting that providing resources and support helping riders to pay will address most of the problem. However, as written, Sound Transit’s policies still keep pathways open for a rider to end up at the courthouse, where the consequences can spiral far beyond the “crime” of an unpaid train ticket. Survey data confirmed that People of Color, immigrants, and people with disabilities are more likely to be caught up in this system and can experience especially severe impacts. 

People with disabilities may lack the necessary accommodations to respond to or contest a ticket or criminal summons. We are also more likely to lack transportation access to be able to travel, in-person, to an administrative office or court. And people with intellectual disabilities may have trouble navigating the system, resulting in compounding fines and fees.

For immigrants, the impacts can be life altering. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can access information from the courts to flag, arrest, detain, and deport people. While a court visit to resolve a citation may be an inconvenience for some, for many immigrants it can mean permanent separation from their families. 

The public’s investments in our transit network have the potential to transform the prosperity, health, and sustainability of our region for the better — and a primary duty of our transit agencies is to ensure the greatest number of people can benefit from these investments. On the other hand, continued court involvement will result in disproportionately harmful outcomes and perpetuate larger social inequities. Sound Transit now has a meaningful opportunity to fully live its commitment and obligation to creating a transit system that doesn’t uphold inequalities and in fact increases opportunity, access, and mobility. 

The Sound Transit board will vote on a policy this Thursday to reform fare enforcement. Please sign this action alert to tell the board to keep fare enforcement out of the court system. 

Rich Stolz has served as OneAmerica’s Executive Director since August 2012. During his tenure, OneAmerica has cemented its status as one of the most effective organizing, advocacy, and civic engagement organizations in Washington State. Rich was born in Seoul, South Korea. Rich’s family moved to the United States when he was three, and he was raised by his mother in Redwood City, California. Rich has committed his career to social justice and human rights organizing and activism.

Anna Zivarts directs the Disability Mobility Initiative Program at Disability Rights Washington, where she is working to build transportation and mobility systems that are accessible, equitable, and address our climate change and public health crisis. She was born with nystagmus — a genetic condition that means her eyes are always shaking. This reduces her visual acuity — she’s not legally blind but can’t drive, recognize faces across the room, or read most signage. Anna believes in organizing and the power of stories to change narratives around disability, labor, and mobility. 

Featured image is attributed to Atomic Taco under a Creative Commons 2.0 license (CC BY-SA 2.0). 

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