Sound Transit staffers presented new data on fare enforcement at Thursday’s Rider Experience and Operations meeting, which showed that despite the agency’s purportedly neutral fare-enforcement policy, black riders were far more likely to receive citations and warnings than white or Asian American riders. African Americans made up just 9 percent of riders on Sound Transit’s Link Light Rail and Sounder trains, but represented 21 percent of all tickets and warnings—more than double their representation among Sound Transit’s ridership. White and Asian American riders, conversely, received proportionally fewer tickets than their ridership would suggest.
The race of a rider is determined by fare enforcement officers. Sound Transit public safety director Ken Cummins told me yesterday that if a person’s race “is not obvious,” a fare enforcement officer is supposed to “tactfully” ask the person how they prefer to be identified.
The issue of fare enforcement was in the news last month, when Sound Transit officers were seen checking fares and scanning the IDs of students on their way to collect their free ORCA passes on the first day of school.
Sound Transit frequently touts its use of “equal treatment” in fare enforcement using the following slide, which shows that fare enforcement officers enter trains in a specific pattern and check fares until they come to someone who hasn’t paid:
But the glaring racial disparity in Sound Transit’s new fare enforcement stats led some public commenters to argue that “equal” treatment doesn’t necessarily lead to equitable outcomes. Kelsey Mesher, advocacy director for the Transportation Choices Coalition, noted that “communities of color and low-income people have different relationships to policing and enforcement.” What may seem like a friendly interaction with a uniformed officer to a white rider may look entirely different to someone whose community has a history being targeted by police, she said.
The current fine for failing to pay fare on Sound Transit buses and trains is $124, and failing to pay it can result in criminal charges and cascading debt. In contrast, King County Metro recently reduced fines for nonpayment, eliminated the possibility of criminal charges, and created multiple new avenues for addressing fare evasion tickets, including enrollment in the ORCA Lift low-income fare program.
Sound Transit didn’t provide a detailed breakdown of ticketed riders by income or primary language, or detail what percentage of “ticket or warning” actions by fare enforcement were warnings vs. formal citations. However, an audit of Metro fare-evasion infractions showed that low-income riders and people experiencing homelessness were far more likely than other groups to be cited for fare evasion, and that the primary reason people failed to pay for bus rides was because they couldn’t afford the fare. Sound Transit maintains that in order to keep their fare recovery much higher than industry averages, they need to inspect about 8 percent of all riders for proof of payment—”the sweet spot” that keeps evasion below 3 percent, according to Cummins.
Sound Transit is considering a number of strategies for addressing concerns about aggressive fare enforcement and excessive punishment for unpaid fares, including providing “on-the-spot information about ORCA Lift” and allowing people to work off their fines through community service, but getting rid of fines for nonpayment isn’t amongthem. Seattle City Council member Debora Juarez, who sits on the Sound Transit board, seemed to suggest Thursday that maybe it should be. She compared the cascading consequences of fare evasion fines to the city’s old policy of impounding the cars of people whose licenses had been suspended over minor infractions, such as unpaid parking tickets, which often pushed them further into poverty. “When it comes down to the ability to drive, the ability to have transportation, those are basic… rights,” Juarez said.