Sound Transit Board Members Raise Concerns About Punitive Fare Enforcement Policy

Sound Transit board members, including King County Council members Joe McDermott and Claudia Balducci, are raising questions about the agency’s fare enforcement policy, which—unlike King County Metro’s revised fare enforcement rules—can still result in a criminal record and potentially jail time for people who are unable to pay their fares.

During last week’s Sound Transit board meeting, both McDermott and Balducci pointed to Metro’s recent overhaul of its fare enforcement policy, which reduced fines for fare evasion, eliminated the possibility of criminal charges for nonpayment, and created multiple new avenues for addressing fare evasion tickets, including enrollment in the ORCA Lift low-income fare program. The last item is important because an audit of Metro fare enforcement last year concluded that the overwhelming majority of “fare evaders” on RapidRide were homeless or low-income; poverty, not disregard for the law, was causing people to attempt to ride for free.

“Sound Transit has one of the transit industry’s lowest (if not the lowest) fare evasion rate and has since the inception of the fare enforcement program. Also, more than 93% of our riders surveyed feel safe while on our rail services. Both of these are directly attributed to our fare enforcement program.” – Talking points developed by Sound Transit’s public safety director

The audit, released last April, found that the most common reason for fare evasion was lack of money to pay fare, and that the overwhelming majority of fines were never paid, despite the threat of criminal charges and the possibility that unpaid fines would be sent to collections. (Sound Transit still has what I dubbed the “Shoreline Rule,” which requires riders who receive tickets for fare evasion to drive or take the bus up to Shoreline if they want to contest their tickets—a significant burden for people who are transit-dependent and those who can’t take off work for several hours to contest a ticket during the work day. King County eliminated the Shoreline Rule back in 2015).

“We’re really proud of the work we’ve done in King County on fare evasion, because … it’s unclear that that policy actually increases fare compliance and we know that it has some downstream negative impacts and disparate impacts,” Balducci said, adding that the point of fare enforcement should be to ensure that “people pay when they can, and that [for] people who can’t pay, who rely on our services, that we’ll find a way to address that need other than sending them to court and ultimately collections and, at some point, jail.”

Rogoff, who has argued that Sound Transit’s fare evasion rate is low precisely because people know they may incur substantial ($124) fines, said that while problems like the Shoreline Rule are “low-hanging fruit,” a complete overhaul of the agency’s fare enforcement policy would threaten the agency’s current high compliance rate. “The challenge is, I think, to have a policy that is meaningful and inclusive … but also to make sure that we [preserve] what is currently a high level of fare compliance” compared to cities with “open systems.” Rogoff also noted the current system only “criminalizes” fare evasion after the fourth offense in a calendar year.

Sound Transit’s fare enforcement talking points argue that implementing Metro-style rules that give low-income riders alternative avenues to resolve fare enforcement charges would be a “demeaning” “form of bias and discrimination” and would force fare enforcement officers “to make a judgment call based on appearances and/or through the use of invasive questioning.”

Rogoff’s statements last week are consistent with talking points developed by the agency late last year, which I obtained through a records request. The talking points, which the agency’s Director of Public Safety, Ken Cummins, provided to Rogoff in November, also explicitly connect fare enforcement, which is conducted by uniformed officers, with a sense of “safety” among light rail riders—suggesting that the presence of officers cracking down on fare evaders improves the perception of safety on trains. “Sound Transit has one of the transit industry’s lowest (if not the lowest) fare evasion rate and has since the inception of the fare enforcement program,” the talking points say. “Also, more than 93% of our riders surveyed feel safe while on our rail services. Both of these are directly attributed to our fare enforcement program.”

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Given that, according to Metro’s audit, fare evasion charges disproportionately target low-income riders and people experiencing homelessness, it’s easy to see how “safety” might be conflated with cracking down on certain categories of people. Sound Transit, and Rogoff in particular, have responded to concerns about equity in fare enforcement by pointing out that the agency’s fare enforcement officers check everybody on the train rather than singling out certain riders. This point showed up in both the talking points—which called the policy of universal checks a way to “ensure fairness and equity”—and in communications between Sound Transit’s communications staff and the fare enforcement division after the initial Metro audit was released, in anticipation of criticism or questions about fairness  The talking points, which you can read in full here, go on to argue that implementing Metro-style rules that give low-income riders alternative avenues to resolve fare enforcement charges would be a “demeaning” “form of bias and discrimination” and would force fare enforcement officers “to make a judgment call based on appearances and/or through the use of invasive questioning.”

Balducci says that Sound Transit’s go-to-talking point—”‘We enforce on the whole car; we do it to everybody—therefore you’re not going to see bias in terms of picking on certain types of people'”—misses the point. “That wasn’t entirely the issue we raised,” she says. “The issue we raised was that with the people we do find (evading fares), there could be a better approach.”

8 thoughts on “Sound Transit Board Members Raise Concerns About Punitive Fare Enforcement Policy”

  1. A portion of our society is expected to obey the law. Another portion of our society is not expected to obey the law. What could go wrong?

    1. A portion of our society can afford to obey the law. Another portion of society has to break the law in order to make basic essential trips. Or they’d have to spend hours walking miles every day like people did over a century ago. The shift of wealth to the rich since the 1970s and the rising cost of housing, healthcare, education, and transit fares has made it increasingly hard for people to make ends meet, which is why you’re seeing so many low-income people evading fares. You can’t just say “everybody should obey the law” without looking at whether that particular law is an undue burden on some people, or worse yet ignoring their concerns and saying they don’t exist.

  2. The best thing ST could do for fares and accessability is to simplify their systems. Light rail is a convoluted mess. Do transfers work? You can’t load an orca card on a bus without a delay, or online without a delay, you can’t use Transit Go to get an ST bus ticket, you have to pay different amounts at different times… so sure, if you are a daily commuter with one route and a monthly pass, ST probably is great, but if you are trying to figure it out on the fly, you probably will end up with a warning or ticket just because the whole thing is stupidily confusing.

    I mean, clean stations are great, but if the service is actively abusing good faith customers, then that’s not the point of PUBLIC transit, is it?

  3. The high quality of ST services and stations is clearly reflected in their approach to fare evasion (and security in general). I use both Metro and ST Link each day, and light rail service is far superior. If one doesn’t get a reduced fare ORCA/free social service tickets after their 3rd non-penalized infraction, how could you possibly blame ST?

    1. The issue is that some people can’t afford even ORCA Lift’s discounted fare or don’t qualify for it. There’s also the issue of short-term visitors who can’t get Lift or go through the process of obtaining it but may be low-income too. Free social-service tickets are not a total solution because people can’t get enough for all their trips, and going to an office repeatedly and maybe getting tickets if they have any that day can also be a burden.

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