Tickets or Passes, Please! Sound Transit, Citing Damage Caused by Homeless Riders, Will Resume Fares and Enforcement

Modes of service | Sound Transit
Image via Sound Transit

Sound Transit, the regional transit agency, announced this morning that it will resume charging fares on Link Light Rail and Sounder trains on June 1. Fare enforcement officers will begin riding trains again and “educating” riders about the reintroduction of fares and providing information about how to access reduced-fare ORCA Lift cards starting tomorrow, May 19. Starting in June, fare enforcement will begin again. Officers are supposed to “follow social distancing guidelines” when checking fares.

A temporary “recovery fare” of $1 for Link trains and $2 for Sounder will be available through an app called Transit GO Ticket and at fare machines for one month.

According to a press release, “riders taking repetitive trips without apparent destinations” have been “associated in part” with “a dramatic increase in unsanitary conditions, rider complaints and incidents of vandalism after fares were temporarily suspended in March.” In other words: Homeless people riding trains for free have trashed our trains and made other riders uncomfortable.

“Beyond providing money to support transit operations, the resumption of fares will also allow Sound Transit to increase safety and security for essential riders,” the announcement says.

The notion that some riders are “essential” and others are effectively joyriding ignores the fact that, during COVID, most of the places that homeless people are allowed to be during the day, including libraries, community centers, day centers, and even many feeding programs, have shut down. Non-“essential riders” ride buses and trains because they have nowhere else to be, which is a symptom of the unaddressed crisis of homelessness, not the essential maliciousness of people experiencing homelessness.

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In an email following up on today’s announcement, Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick emphasized that complaints about, and hygiene issues related to, non-destination riders were among the primary reasons for the decision to reinstitute fares. “For the four week period ending on April 26, we recorded 293 biohazard incidents and 59 vandalism/graffiti incidents on Link. … On a per-passenger basis, biohazard incidents skyrocketed by almost 1700 percent while vandalism/graffiti incidents increased more than 1400 percent.”

Using “per-passenger” numbers as a “skyrocketing” metric is misleading. Because ridership has dropped, according to Sound Transit, by 85 percent, it would be more useful to look at increase in incidents rather than the number per rider. Sound Transit was unable to provide 2019 incident data by the end of the day on Monday. But extrapolating from the numbers that they did provide, a 1700-percent increase in incidents per rider suggests there were about 113 biohazard incidents last April, compared to 293 this year, and about 22 graffiti and vandalism incidents, compared to 59. Both numbers more than doubled, but neither increased anything like 1400 or 1700 percent.

This framing presents public transit as something that should be accessible during a pandemic to people who are “heroes,” like health care workers, and not people who are using it for “inessential” purposes, like staying warm and dry.

“The frequency of these incidents are unacceptable by any measure,” Patrick continued. “Our first obligation as the region’s transit provider in these times is to provide a safe, secure, and sanitary trip to passengers who are taking truly essential trips. This includes the many health care workers who are heroically traveling to our health care facilities on light rail to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.”

This framing presents public transit as something that should be accessible during a pandemic to people who are “heroes,” like health care workers, and not people who are using it for “inessential” purposes, like staying warm and dry. This judgment might seem fair if Sound Transit were comparing nurses to, say, school kids hopping the bus to hang out with their friends across town, but it gets a lot dicier when the people being deemed non-“essential riders” are riding because their other option is sitting on.a sidewalk in the rain. Libraries, community centers, and food courts aren’t homeless shelters either, but they do routinely provide places for people experiencing homelessness to go during the day. Now that those places are closed, people are turning to buses and trains for daytime shelter—and being told they are ruining it for everybody else.

In an ideal world, of course, no one would use public transit (or libraries, or community centers) as shelter, because everyone would have a place to live or at least a place to be. In this less-than-ideal world, there are more than 12,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County alone, and no matter where they are, there will be someone complaining that they’re causing problems or just taking up space. King County Metro has also seen an increase in these “nondestination” riders, and a rise in complaints. But while Sound Transit has responded by reinstating fares, reinstituting enforcement, and explicitly trying to drive away riders taking “repetitive trips with no apparent destination,” Metro has acknowledged that homeless people are riding transit in greater numbers because they have nowhere else to be.

“I’m not going to deny that the non-destinational riders present a challenge, especially when that group is seeking to use our buses as a shelter,” Metro general manager Rob Gannon told me earlier this month. “That is a challenge that is not unique to transit systems. That is a pervasive challenge of homelessness, and the lack of services that are currently available is exacerbating that situation.”

Jeff Switzer, a spokesman for King County Metro, says the agency “is still evaluating the best time to reintroduce fares and has not yet landed on a date.”

18 thoughts on “Tickets or Passes, Please! Sound Transit, Citing Damage Caused by Homeless Riders, Will Resume Fares and Enforcement”

  1. My own term as a Ballardite, which I’d prayed to be lifelong, came to an unexpended end when developer John Goodman answered an offer from my Lockhaven neighbors and I to essentially combine and buy our rental homes from him, with a curt statement that his business plan was no business of ours.

    Resulting really quick glance at Seattle rents thundering on the launch pad like Canaveral left me grateful on my knees that I knew about Olympia. However, the years have left me with some subsequent reminders that rental property is a business and not a charity.

    Olympia’s Intercity Transit started the year by eliminating fares completely, which in no way made service “Free.” The balance sheet itself showed that fare money cost more to collect than it brought in. So we citizens voted a single-purpose tax to pay for transit. Seattle’s loads being heavier and service area wider, it’s not wrong for transit there to collect fares.

    And mandatory that through both fares and taxes, the transit system start hiring the psychiatrically-trained ward staff they need to augment security aboard and around its vehicles. You can help by following my lead to demand that your State representatives put Western State Hospital back in the condition both transit and the rest of Washington require.

    But one Ballardite to another- long as I’ve still got a monthly pass on my ORCA card, Ballard’s not getting off that easy- I’m damned if I’m going to start carrying my card wrapped in my rental agreement to prove I’m Non-Homeless. Bercause, face it old buddy- unless we’ve got Jared Kushner for a relative, basic citizenship in our country is already a form of Homelessness.

    Mark Dublin

  2. Thank you for following up on this topic. I keep having to remind myself that everything that was happening before the C-19 virus came to visit is still happening, and that everything we need to work on, including our homelessness crisis, still needs to be addressed.

  3. Homeless people riding transit here wasn’t the problem, homeless people damaging transit was the problem.

    1. Actually, the problem is not enough low-cost/affordable housing and support services, including extensive mental health resources.

      1. Sound Transit’s charter is to provide regional mobility, not mobile homeless shelters. If their infrastructure for providing that mobility is damaged or destroyed by anyone, they cannot fulfill their charter. Just because the city, county, state and federal government are failing at their responsibilities doesn’t mean ST has to let their system be trashed.

      2. No, actually that isn’t the problem when it comes to transit. Transit is for getting people to where they need to go with as much speed and comfort possible, not to provide a place for them to put other passengers in danger. Transit isn’t and never was intended to be a substitute for housing or mental health treatment.

  4. Thank goodness. Anyone against this sensible reengagement is someone who hasn’t used the train since March. The rider experience was breathtakingly bad at times. I simply gave up even chancing it, and I’m a transit geek! Almost 100% cyclist or pedestrian (rain or shine) at this point.

    Continuing on this insane path would be a great way of eroding confidence (votes and money) in our community’s public transit lovefest. It is incredibly dangerous, considering how tenuous public support of transit is, to conflate the housing needs of a challenged population and the technocratic crafting of efficient (and clean and safe!) transportation.

    Additionally, the issues are not being driven by the unhoused working poor (I know people in that group, and they are indistinguishable from anyone else in public). In contrast, the person wiping feces on the wall or rubbing their genitals center stage is not someone a transit vehicle, agency, or the public should have to deal with, or was designed to do.

    1. I second your comments. Enforcement is needed and payment for services expected. Vandalizers should be trespassed from using the system.

  5. Transit agencies reluctant to lob criticism at their funding source. ground-breaking

  6. This is one of the best articles I have EVER read!!!!! Thank you for using your gift to help the homeless in our city.

    1. The essential workers that use transit to get to work, and the transit drivers and employees are the ones you need the help here. The vandalizers should be trespassed from the system.

      1. I’m a Ballardite too, who was lucky enough to find quarters here in Olympia when developer John Goodman answered a request from my Lockhaven neighbors and me to buy the property he’d thrown us out of, with the news that his business plan was no business of ours.

        Having driven for Metro and ridden Sound Transit for years, my original ORCA card has always carried a fully-prepaid monthly pass. While Olympia’s Intercity Transit’s own accountants discovered that cash fares cost them more than the fares brought in, I can believe that ST might need money now, so yesterday’s drive to Tacoma Dome to buy my June pass was no imposition.

        I’d be willing to pay an even higher fare to help pay for the specially-trained transit oriented ward staff I think is needed to deal with present public health conditions. I’m also onto my State Legislators to fund Western State Hospital back to the point where it can save the Department of Corrections from going under.

        But one Ballardite to another, would advise you not to make me start carrying my ORCA card around wrapped in my rental agreement to prove I’m non-Homeless. Because in 5/22/2020 America, unless you’ve got a relative named Jared Kushner, US residency and citizenship themselves are a form of being Homeless.

        Mark Dublin

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