Columbia City Station light rail platform Image by SeattleDude via Wikimedia Commons.

Legislation Eliminates One Objection to Sound Transit Fare Enforcement Reform

by Erica C. Barnett

(This article was originally published by PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.) 

Legislation that would make it easier for Sound Transit to adopt a fare enforcement system that does not involve the court or criminal justice system is coasting through the state Senate after passing the House on a near-unanimous bipartisan vote.

House Bill 1301, originally sponsored by Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34, Seattle), gives Sound Transit the authority to create an “alternative fare enforcement system” that could include resolutions other than fines for people who fail to pay their fare. The State Senate Transportation Committee voted unanimously on Tuesday to move the bill to the Rules Committee, the final step before a floor vote.

Sound Transit director Peter Rogoff and some Sound Transit board members have resisted reforming the agency’s fare enforcement procedures, arguing that removing penalties — which include steep fines that, if unpaid, can lead to criminal charges — would lead to revenue shortfalls as people simply stop paying fares. And although the agency has instituted some reforms in the wake of the pandemic, negative press, and data showing that fare enforcement disproportionately impacts Black riders, the changes it has made so far fall far short of King County Metro’s proactive approach, which focuses more on harm reduction and access than punishment and fines.

Advocates, who have pointed to King County Metro’s far-reaching fare reforms as a local best practice, have long been skeptical of the claim that Sound Transit is powerless to keep fare enforcement out of the court system but say they’re happy to see the issue resolved beyond any doubt.

“They [Sound Transit] kept insisting that they couldn’t do what Metro was doing [to decriminalize fare nonpayment], and one of the excuses they started giving us was they were bound by Sound Transit’s authorizing legislation to use the court system for citations,” said Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union. “So that’s what this legislation takes care of.”

“There’s a law-and-order mentality that’s more pervasive in Sound Transit than at Metro, both among agency staff and the board,” Wilson added. But the ongoing suspension of fare enforcement by both Metro and Sound Transit creates time and breathing room for the two agencies to come up with compatible, or even joint, fare enforcement plans.

“People of Color, immigrants, and people with disabilities are more likely to be caught up in this system and can experience especially severe impacts,” Transportation Choices Coalition policy director Kelsey Mesher said. “No one should end up in court because they can’t afford a transit ticket.”

“Nobody’s saying this is a bad idea. No interest group, no police union, or anyone is saying the fare enforcement system is working well as it is.”

— HB 1301 sponsor Joe Fitzgibbon

Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick characterized the bill as one step in an ongoing “transition in how we approach fare enforcement.” For the next year, as part of a pilot program aimed at testing out potential long-term changes, Sound Transit isn’t issuing citations and has replaced private security guards with “fare enforcement ambassadors” who work to educate people about how and when to pay their fare and how to access low-income ORCA cards, among other changes.

But state law, according to Sound Transit, has historically forced the agency “work with the courts to hear, adjudicate, and enforce citations,” Patrick said. “This bill would add an option to use civil hearings officers and allow for flexibility in citations amounts and allows the Board to use their discretion to creatively design a fare enforcement and citation process that is effective and fair.”

In past legislative sessions, Sound Transit has faced opposition from Republicans, who have sought to limit its taxing authority, argued that the tax the agency relies on is unconstitutional, and attempted to restructure its board as an all-elected body. Given Republicans’ tendency to try to futz with the agency’s governance and taxing authority, Sound Transit officials have generally tried to stay under the radar in Olympia. But Fitzgibbon, the bill’s sponsor, said that “even people who don’t love the agency recognize that this would be a better process” than the current one.

“Nobody’s saying this is a bad idea. No interest group, no police union, or anyone is saying the fare enforcement system is working well as it is.” And, Fitzgibbon added, strong Democratic majorities in both chambers “just would never accommodate any kind of threat to the agency” itself. Bolstering this point, the bill passed the House almost unanimously before sailing through the Senate Transportation Committee.

Members of the Sound Transit board, which must vote to approve any changes to fare enforcement, are another story. Although some board members — including King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, who proposed the legislation to Fitzgibbon in the first place — support decriminalizing fare enforcement, others, like board chair Kent Keel, believe the threat of punishment has a deterrent effect.

“Our goal is that they never go back to issuing citations through the courts,” Transit Riders Union leader Wilson said. “Ideally, we would like for there to be no fare enforcement, but we realize that’s going to be a hard sell politically, so in the meantime we want to decriminalize fare enforcement and … have a common policy” so that riders don’t have to shift their expectations depending on which transit system they’re riding.

Erica C. Barnett is a feminist, an urbanist, and an obsessive observer of politics, transportation, and the quotidian inner workings of City Hall.

Featured image by SeattleDude via Wikimedia Commons.

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