A few months back, I wrote, with much exasperation, about an irritating quirk of King County Metro policy I dubbed the “Shoreline Rule”–the requirement that, without exception, all Metro riders who want to contest a transit infraction drive or, more likely, take the bus all the way to King County District Court in Shoreline. I ended up paying a $124 fine for a ticket I believed should have been a warning, because I didn’t want to take a day off work and because I had the money and privilege to do so. Many others, of course, aren’t so fortunate.
Had I chosen to take the bus to Shoreline, Metro’s Trip Planner tells me the trip would have taken me about an hour and a half on four buses each way. For King County Council member Dave Upthegrove, the trip time from the bus stop a block from his house in Des Moines to Shoreline remains unknown–because, he says, “When I entered my home address and Shoreline District Court into Trip Planner, I got an error message that said, ‘Cannot compute due to more than three hours in transit.’
“I’m not that far out” in King County,” Upthegrove continues. “Imagine all the people in Auburn and Covington. You get out there and it’s a fairly transit-dependent population. The people who can’t pay their bus fare can’t rely on the bus.”
This week, Upthegrove introduced a motion that will amend the Shoreline Rule, eventually, to allow juvenile violators to go to court in Burien, instead of schlepping to Shoreline. According to King County Council staff, 72 percent of juvenile violations occur in South Seattle or South King County, so the Burien relocation makes sense. (Upthegrove’s legislation also recommended ending the practice of treating fare evasion and failure to pay tickets as a criminal infraction; adults can still be charged with a misdemeanor for failure to pay or show up in court.) If the county executive’s office develops the legislation and the council passes it on schedule, the Shoreline Rule, for the 200 or so kids who receive fare evasion tickets each year, will be history sometime in 2016.
The same cannot be said of adult offenders, who will still have to schlep to Shoreline to respond to tickets. Upthegrove says his intent is to eventually figure out a way to bring some “geographic equity” to fare enforcement, but that this time, he was just “trying to maintain the political support to get it passed,” because “there was some general uneasiness [on the council] about making it civil, not criminal. The idea was to put the focus on youth now and, when people see that we have real support, it could come back” and apply to adults as well.
It’s worth noting that although the council can pass legislation expressing their “intent” for fare evasion tickets to go to Burien (or downtown Seattle or Issaquah for that matter), the distribution of cases is ultimately up to the presiding judge, currently Donna Tucker, who oversees the court in Shoreline. (Neither Tucker nor King County spokesman Dan Donahoe returned calls for comment). The court is located in county council member (and Democratic Metro contrarian) Rod Dembowski’s district.
“We have the power of the purse–we fund them–but the ultimate decision rests with the district court,” Upthegrove says. “They’re independent elected officials.” Under political pressure from the council, Tucker has agreed to send juvenile cases to Burien, but adult cases–which, at about 5,000 infractions a year, vastly outnumber the juvenile cases–will be heard in Shoreline until the “political support” Upthegrove refers to is strong enough to merit reconsidering the rule for grownups.
“It’s probably trickier because of the volume [of adult infractions], but they recognize and acknowledge there’s a problem and have expressed their commitment to the county council” to address it, Upthegrove says.
For adults, though, moving all the cases to Burien could be as inequitable as the Shoreline Rule. County court records also indicate that adults who receive tickets for fare infractions are distributed fairly evenly across the county: 40 percent in South Seattle and South King County, 40 percent in North Seattle and North King County, and 20 percent in East King County. For these adults, replacing the old Shoreline Rule with a new Burien Rule would only redistribute the burden to North King County residents, forcing them to travel down to South King County to deal with tickets. (Granted, South King County riders are, according to Upthegrove, more likely to be transit-dependent, so Burien probably edges Shoreline out in terms of equity.)
A fair solution might be to hear transit-specific cases in the area in which they occur (or in a central location like downtown Seattle), but that would require rethinking and totally reworking a system in which judges oversee virtual fiefdoms defined by the type of infractions they hear, a system that, Upthegrove says, they argue “allows for more cost-efficient staffing.” That may be true for King County as a whole, but it certainly isn’t true for low-income, transit-dependent Metro riders, who face the choice of paying a stiff penalty for failing to pay full fare or spending the better part of a day traveling to and from court to plead their case.