by Erica C. Barnett
(This article originally appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
This Thursday, April 7, Sound Transit’s executive committee will take up a proposed new fare enforcement policy that would reinstate fines of up to $124 and impose legal penalties against riders who repeatedly fail to pay their fares. The new policy, if adopted, will go into effect on Sept. 1.
The transit agency, which operates Link light rail as well as regional buses and Sounder commuter trains, has been working on a new fare enforcement policy since before the pandemic, after an internal review showed that despite its supposedly neutral fare enforcement strategy, the system disproportionately penalized Black riders.
During the pandemic, Sound Transit briefly eliminated fares, then reinstated them along with a new “fare ambassador” program that focused on education and engagement, replacing uniformed security officers with Sound Transit staffers in vests and regular clothes. The program is currently understaffed and has been ineffective at getting riders to pay their fares; during a recent Sound Transit board meeting, staffers said fares account for just 5% of the agency’s budget, down from a 2017 high of almost 40%.
The new policy includes a number of reforms designed to reduce the punitive nature of Sound Transit’s old fare enforcement system. For example, it provides a number of alternatives for resolving an unpaid fare, including reduced-fare cards for very low-income riders, and it ends the policy of suspending people from the system if they have unpaid tickets or multiple infractions. Under the new policy, riders will get two warnings in a 12-month period, followed by a fine of $50; fines will only rise to $124 after the fifth time fare checkers catch a rider without proof of payment, and anyone under 18 will be exempt from legal penalties.
Still, the new policy preserves many of the elements of the old fare enforcement policy many transit advocates found objectionable, starting with the reinstatement of fare enforcement by on-board staff.
According to the policy, fare ambassadors will essentially become plainclothes fare enforcement officers, “issuing fines and citations” to riders who fail to show proof of payment. Riders who repeatedly fail to pay their fare (or “tap” their prepaid transit pass correctly) can still wind up in court facing a civil infraction, and unpaid fines will still go to a collections agency, which can lead to garnished wages and a cycle of debt. And it remains unclear how, or whether, the new policy will address the stark racial disproportionality that plagued the pre-pandemic system.
King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, who sits on the Sound Transit board, plans to introduce two amendments Thursday that would take away Sound Transit’s ability to send riders to court and send unpaid fines to collections. McDermott said the changes would address the agency’s “disproportional response” to fare evasion by a very small number of riders — perhaps 100 a year.
“The policy that’s before us now is light years better than what we were doing three years ago,” McDermott said. “Removing collections and the courts are the final two pieces.”
For years, outgoing Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff has argued that without fare enforcement, “fare evaders” will take advantage of Sound Transit’s gate-free entrances and ride for free, cutting into agency revenues and producing an unsavory environment on trains. The new fare enforcement plan incorporates those fears, keeping most of the old fare evasion policy intact while introducing modest reforms that will help some riders avoid fines and other penalties.
King County Metro reduced its maximum fine to $50 and stopped issuing civil infractions for nonpayment in 2019; however, Metro does reserve the option to ban riders for short periods and pursue criminal trespassing charges if a person is caught riding the bus while their right to ride is suspended. In the first year Metro offered alternatives for resolving tickets for unpaid fare, few people used them — just 403 people, or about 10%, resolved their tickets using any method, including options such as loading money onto a low-income ORCA fare card, and Black riders were overrepresented among the people who received warnings or tickets.
Erica C. Barnett is a feminist, an urbanist, and an obsessive observer of politics, transportation, and the quotidian inner workings of City Hall.
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