After a fare-checking incident on the first day of school led to widespread criticism of Sound Transit’s fare-enforcement policies, the agency said it would reconsider how it checks and enforces fare—just as soon as it could complete an in-person rider survey, an onboard rider survey, and a series of focus groups to determine what issues riders were most concerned about and the reasons people engage in “fare evasion” on Sound Transit trains. (“Fare evasion” is a term that suggests intent, or even theft, but it includes many situations where the “evasion” is unintentional, such as when a person buys an unlimited monthly pass but forgets to “tap” her card before boarding; hence the scare quotes)
For the onboard surveys, staffers shadowed fare enforcement officers until they caught someone without proof of payment, then gave them a survey about why they didn’t pay. The most common responses were that the rider forgot to tap their card, that their card didn’t work, or that they “couldn’t find where to tap.” This finding, according to the survey, “provides further support for the finding that most riders are able to pay but occasionally fail to do so for a myriad of reasons.”
The comment seems aimed squarely at advocates who have argued for free or reduced fares on the grounds that people who avoid fares typically do so because they can’t afford them. Those advocates expressed frustration last year after Sound Transit adopted a wait-and-see policy toward any changes to fare or fare enforcement, pointing out that a 2018 audit of King County Metro showed that a large number of riders who failed to pay did so because they couldn’t afford the fare. (In comparing the two surveys, it’s worth noting that Sound Transit’s survey included a bewildering array of 14 possible reasons for nonpayment, plus “other”—nearly twice as many options as King County Metro’s 2018 survey). If it turns out people could pay if they wanted to, but don’t, that would create a new bulwark against calls to make the system more affordable or accessible to low-income people.
The on-board survey did find that people making between $0 and $50,000 were the least likely to pay, but the report doesn’t break that number down further, making it hard to draw conclusions about different groups within that broad income category. Currently, people making less than 200 percent of the poverty level, or about $25,000 for an individual, are eligible for discount fares through the ORCA Lift program.
The King County Auditor’s independent review of Metro’s fare enforcement policies led to changes such as reduced fines for fare evasion and the creation of new avenues to address fare evasion tickets, including enrollment in ORCA Lift. Sound Transit is considering similar changes, but has rejected proposals to make its service free, and has resolutely defended its fare-enforcement practice of checking all riders on each car for fare, despite the fact that this practice has still resulted in racially lopsided enforcement.
The agency released the results of the surveys and in-person sessions last week, and held a listening session to talk about some of the proposals that emerged from the process at El Centro de la Raza on Wednesday night. The meeting was unusual for a “roundtable” style public meeting in a couple of respects: First, agency staffers kept the initial presentation short. Second, participants got a chance to rotate among six different tables to discuss a total of three separate topics instead of just one. Finally, because the public comment came at the end of the meeting, after everyone had spent an hour throwing out ideas, it was actually informed by the discussion, rather than rehearsed and packaged in advance.
Participants made a number of suggestions—beyond just “make transit free”— for improving the system, including:
• Adding a racial equity lens to the slate of proposals, which currently do not mention race at all.
• Making sure that fare enforcement officers communicate the true gravity of a “warning,” which is the last stop before a $124 ticket.
• Setting up machines where people can pay on board, which many other transit systems already have.
• Simplifying fares so that riders don’t accidentally pay the wrong amount because they fail to tap their cards when they get off a Sounder or light rail train.
• Setting a maximum amount that a rider has to pay per moth, like Portland’s Tri-Met system does.
• Reducing fines for nonpayment to $44, the same amount as parking tickets. (Asked why Sound Transit was considering a reduction to $50, but not lower, a staffer responded that they were following Metro’s lead; another chimed in that the amount was supposed to create a disincentive to break the rules, raising the question: Why do people who drive need a smaller disincentive?)
One proposal would give a 50 percent discount to people who paid their fines early—an option that may not be available to someone struggling to scrape together $50 by the payment deadline.
• Giving riders without fare the option of paying the maximum possible fare on the spot in lieu of a ticket.
• Replacing fines, which are paid to the courts, with preloaded ORCA cards; if a person owed a penalty of $50, for example, they would pay $50 for an ORCA card valid for future trips.
A participant in one of the small-group discussions on fare resolution pointed out that some of Sound Transit’s suggested “reforms” would still disproportionately impact people unable to pay. For example, one proposal would give a 50 percent discount to people who paid their fines early—an option that may not be available to someone struggling to scrape together $50 by the payment deadline. Another would subject people who failed to pay their fines to a one-week suspension, during which they’d be barred from using the system; if a person rode the train during that week (because, for example, they still had to get to work), they could get a citation for trespassing, which could lead to criminal penalties.
Who know what Sound Transit will do with any of this. Public outreach workshops can often seem pro forma, or act as a pretext to justify decisions that have already been made. Sound Transit may well take the piles of Post-Its generated at Wednesday’s event and use them in a report that never results in a single meaningful policy change beyond the ones Sound Transit has already agreed to consider.
But I hope not. Sound Transit’s posture toward complaints about fare enforcement has been reflexively defensive (exhibit A: A slide during Wednesday’s presentation that emphasized the importance of “sound financial stewardship, as indicated by high fare compliance”), even as community members have pointed out that there are other ways to measure system performance besides how much fare revenue the agency takes in. For example, there is the question of whether riders feel safe from intimidation, harassment, or racial profiling—which a separate series of “community conversations” Sound Transit conducted (scroll down to page 135 of this document) indicate many do not. I left Wednesday night’s meeting impressed by riders’ surfeit of good ideas for improving the system they use every day. I hope Sound Transit actually listens to what they have to say.