Free Transit Off the Table, Sound Transit Says, Defending Its Fare Enforcement Policies

Sound Transit staffers emphasized that the agency would not consider eliminating fares or fare enforcement in light of recent controversies about its fare enforcement policies, saying that “high fare payment rates and compliance rates” was key to the agency’s financial stability. (Sound Transit has a higher fare recovery rate than many other transit agencies, and fares from Link Light Rail totaled about $41 million last year.) The emphatic rejection of free fare came during a  “process update” on a recent rider survey about fare enforcement at the agency’s executive board meeting this morning. Staffers said they were still analyzing the survey results and couldn’t provide any details yet about the survey findings or how the agency plans to address the fact that black riders are far more likely to receive tickets for nonpayment than other groups.

Sound Transit often points to its method of checking riders—from the outside in, checking everyone on the car—as an inherently unbiased model because, in theory, it prevents fare officers from singling anybody out. The agency frequently displays a slide of a train marked with arrows to demonstrate the method during presentations on fare enforcement. They used the slide (below), for example, after advocates raised concerns that fare enforcement officers were intimidating kids on their way to their first day of school. That day, the agency issued (and later voided) more than a dozen formal warnings to kids under 18 for not presenting proof of payment—the precursor to a $124 fine. (Once you get a warning, it starts a 12-month clock; if you get caught without fare again in those 12 months, you get an automatic $124 ticket along with the potential for criminal charges if you fail to pay).

At the time, staffers cautioned behind the scenes that the issue advocates were raising about fare enforcement wasn’t the method officers used, but the outcomes for low-income people and people of color. At the public meeting this morning, however, they focused on the method. “This practice has been cited by Transit Center as a good practice for reducing potential discrimination and profiling in our fare enforcement interactions,” said Rhonda Carter, Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff’s chief of staff.

Committee vice chairman Paul Roberts asked whether Sound Transit had looked at other transit systems to see how they dealt with the fact that some people can’t pay their fare. Metro, for example, recently 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. Carter responded that Sound Transit’s “practice for how we check fares is seen as a model for how to do this work equitably,” and that often, “other agencies will come to us” for advice on how to do it right.

Support The C Is for Crank
The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

ing County Executive and Sound Transit board member Dow Constantine brought up a letter his office received from a parent whose daughter, a Seattle school student, had received two $124 tickets for “fare evasion” despite the fact that she has a free ORCA pass. Fare enforcement officers frequently give “evasion” tickets to people who have simply failed to properly “tap” their cards, have tapped twice, or didn’t tap at all but have fully paid free ORCA passes. Under Sound Transit policy, anyone who fails to show proof of payment four times is referred to the King County Prosecutor’s office for a misdemeanor criminal charge. Policy director Carrie Avila-Mooney said Sound Transit has suspended that policy temporarily while the review is ongoing.

Rogoff said he had responded directly to the child’s parents, “in part because we obviously had great empathy for the child who was very concerned about what happened, but more importantly, the parents really did come forward with some thoughtful proposals. A lot of people complain but have no thoughtful proposals. They really thought about it and, indeed, some of their ideas are on the list.” He did not specify which ones.

While reducing fare enforcement or eliminating fares is off the table, Sound Transit is considering a few other options to address disparity in fare enforcement, including “Expand[ing] and target[ing] communications and marketing about how to access and use valid fare media,” flipping the calendar on warnings at 6 months instead of 12, replacing Securitas fare enforcement officers with in-house staffers, and moving fare enforcement from the trains to station platforms. They’re also considering some of the policies Metro has already adopted, such as reducing fines and giving low-income people alternatives to fines or charges.

Sound Transit will hold an open house at El Centra de La Raza, 2524 16th Ave S, from 6-8 pm on February 19 to provide more information about the survey findings.


3 thoughts on “Free Transit Off the Table, Sound Transit Says, Defending Its Fare Enforcement Policies”

  1. There seems to be a theme of people asking Sound Transit for expensive things with no plan to actually fund it.

    Removing fees to a transit agency is generally going to increase the operating budget by about 50%. That’s not impossible, but would mean raising taxes. ST doesn’t have the authority to raise new funds on their own as far as I know.

  2. I’ve brought this up personally twice with ST, once describing how the new low-income fare program is class discriminatory and again how their own equipment failures create adversarial problems with security. They did not want to face their failings.

Comments are closed.