Photo depicting the outdoor Columbia City light rail station, where a female-presenting individual carrying a shoulder bag and reusable grocery bag, taps a card at a yellow fare collection device. Another individual in a black coat, carrying their ORCA card, walks past.

Sound Transit Searching for Equitable Fare Enforcement Solutions

by Lizz Giordano

Two years after Sound Transit acknowledged that internal data showed Black and low-income riders were more likely to be cited and punished for failing to pay on trains, the agency is still searching for a solution for fare enforcement equity.

According to 2018–2019 rider surveys and enforcement data, 9% of light rail and Sounder train riders were Black but accounted for 21% of the people cited or fined by officers. And nearly 60% of the riders cited had a household income of less than $50,000.

It’s a crime of poverty that disproportionately impacts Black and Brown people and people who are homeless, said Katie Wilson, general secretary for the Transit Riders Union; people aren’t paying largely because they can’t afford the fare.

“If you don’t have the money, being threatened with fines and criminal charges does not mean you suddenly have the money to pay your fare,” Wilson said. “It just makes your life miserable and potentially dissuades you from using transit and may mean you aren’t able to get where you need to go.”

Before COVID-19, Sound Transit estimated the average fare evasion rate to be 2.4% on light rail and 1.39% on Sounder trains. Riders were given a warning the first time they were found on the train without paying, followed by $124 citations handed out through the court system.  . 

In 2019, inspecting about 8% of riders, the agency issued 50,870 warnings and 4,438 citations, said Rachelle Cunningham, a spokesperson for Sound Transit through email, but does not track how many were paid since the fines were handled through the district court. Payments collected through these fines also remain with the district court. 

“We are required to collect fares, which cover a portion of the cost of operating our services,” said Cunningham. “In 2019, Sound Transit had $97 million of farebox revenue, which paid for approximately 30% of its system-wide operations cost.”

In September, Sound Transit stopped issuing tickets as the agency launched a pilot program through mid-2022 shifting away from fare enforcement officers to “fare ambassadors.” Their role is to educate riders that don’t pay, including on subsidized options. 

A recent online survey found respondents wanted the agency to decriminalize fare enforcement, forgive fines for people who add funds to transit cards, or enroll in low-income payment programs.

King County Metro Transit followed this route and saw the resolution rate of citations jump from less than 4% to 10%, according to a recent annual report

Before King County Metro Transit reshaped it’s fare evasion policy, the bus agency shared an enforcement process with Sound Transit. Metro checks fares on the expanding Rapid Ride lines where riders tap card readers at bus stops before boarding the bus. 

Metro overhauled its policy following a 2018 County audit that found nearly a quarter of fare enforcement tickets went to people who were experiencing homelessness or housing instability, many of whom qualified for a subsidized fare program. And a vast majority of all citations went unpaid.

“Part of the impetus for the many changes we implemented was seeing that many low- and no-income riders would have growing fines and would be sent to collections,” Jeff Switzer, a spokesperson with Metro, wrote in an email. “In turn, collections from fare violations could create barriers and even prevent a person from getting into housing 1–2 years later.”

The agency began processing tickets in-house, removing citations from the court system, while also allowing people to resolve violations by loading money onto their ORCA card, enrolling in a subsidized fare program, or by performing community service. 

Now about 65% of people stopped for failing to pay on board Metro buses, add funds to their ORCA cards, or enroll in a reduced fare program, according to the agency.

The ability to pay cannot be a barrier to using transit, added Switzer. 

Metro has yet to resume fare enforcement, even after fare collection began again following a pause during COVID-19. The agency is once again examining its fare enforcement and security practices impacts on People of Color through its SaFE Reform Initiative.

Sound Transit’s fare enforcement process was very punitive, said Gregory Davis, Rainier Beach Action Coalition’s (RBAC) managing strategist. He said the youth he works with at RBAC would tell him they’d see fare enforcement officers’ demeanor change when someone was found to have not paid. 

Their chest would puff up and the officer would get really defensive, Davis said. “They acted as if the person was infringing on their private property rights.”

He wants to see whoever checks fares in the future act with respect and conduct themself as an ambassador rather than an officer, referring to the new name given to fare inspectors for a pilot program. 

“What kind of training are they getting in regards to bias?” Davis questioned. “Are they engaging people in a way that is based on some decency?”

Sound Transit’s new pilot program with fare ambassadors is set to run through the middle of 2022. New fare enforcement policy recommendations are expected to come before the agency’s board early next year. The agency is seeking input from riders through an online survey.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of the story incorrectly reported that an unpaid citation could lead to a criminal charge. 

Lizz Giordano is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Seattle’s Rainier Valley focusing on transit and housing. She can be reached on Twitter @lizzgior, and more of her work can be found on her website.

📸 Featured Image: A rider taps their ORCA card at the Columbia City light rail station. (Photo: Lizz Giordano)

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