Sound Transit Keeps Punitive Fare Enforcement Options on the Table

Sound Transit board member Joe McDermott, legislating from his basement bunker

by Erica C. Barnett

A committee of the Sound Transit board passed a proposal to temporarily suspend citations for fare nonpayment while it conducts a “fare enforcement ambassador pilot” program, but rejected a proposal to decriminalize nonpayment completely after board chair Kent Keel argued that without criminal charges as a deterrent, some miscreants will avoid paying fares as a way to “get one over” on Sound Transit.

The proposed change was part of a motion from Sound Transit board member Joe McDermott directing Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff to recommend improvements to the agency’s fare enforcement policies by 2022. McDermott’s original motion would have said that the agency “must” recommend some of those changes, which also included lower fines and more warnings before fare officers issue a citation; Keel’s amendment changed the language to say that staff “should” include those recommendations in a list that may also include “alternate approaches resulting from community engagement and pilot program findings.”

Keel’s arguments came out of his own personal experience, but they also echoed an unusual memo Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff wrote at Keel’s request last week, laying out the “staff” case against taking fare nonpayment out of the criminal justice system. The memo reads, in part: “Most importantly, the staff is concerned with directives in section 3 that seek to predetermine the outcome of our community engagement and pilot program by dictating the measures staff “must” recommend to the Board at the conclusion of the process. Rather than specifying details that the future recommended policy must include, staff suggests in section 3 to replace “must” with “should consider.” 

This is extremely similar to the language Keel added to the suggesting close coordination between the Sound Transit board chair and the agency’s director—who has frequently raised objections to proposals that would reduce penalties for nonpayment—on a matter of contentious, hotly disputed policy.

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McDermott told PubliCola he saw the memo over the weekend, but was blindsided by Keel’s introduction of an amendment adopting Rogoff’s recommendations. “I wasn’t surprised to hear [Keel oppose decriminalization]. I understand that he believes civil infractions and possible court involvement are central elements of fare enforcement,” McDermott said yesterday, but “the language, and that it was written as an amendment—I didn’t know about that until today.”

Before the committee voted, Keel said that his own experience “as a young Black male” made him understand that a lot of people will try to “get over” on the system if there are no penalties for doing so. “There is a growing group of people that are just trying to get over,” he said, and other people who would ordinarily pay their fare see that behavior and follow suit. Judges and juries, he continued, could tell the difference between people who truly couldn’t afford to pay and those who are “just trying to get over.”

Keel also questioned whether Sound Transit had bothered to talk to anyone in the communities Sound Transit serves to see if they agree with the policies McDermott was, in effect, endorsing. “My take on it is we’ve talked, and letters, and back and forth, but we haven’t done the due diligence around, does what we’re saying work in practice,” he said.

At this point, Rogoff could have pointed out that Sound Transit’s own extensive outreach over the last two years has concluded that confusion, not malice, is the primary reason people don’t pay their fares. He could have also pointed out that—according to Sound Transit’s own surveys and focus groups—there is broad support for decriminalizing nonpayment. He could have even noted that the board was poised to vote on the same pilot program and policies nearly a year ago, at its meeting in March, but decided to put it off because of pandemic-related restrictions on government actions.

Instead, he agreed with Keel’s arguments, saying that Sound Transit needed more flexibility to come up with policies based on what happened during the pilot program. In a year, after the agency has “run the play” on the policies, the board could revisit whether taking nonpayment out of the criminal courts is a sound idea, Rogoff said.

As CEO, Rogoff has consistently pushed back on efforts by both board members and agency staff to reduce the penalties for nonpayment, arguing that without the threat of criminal prosecution, people will have no incentive to pay their fares. Sound Transit has been debating this for years, with Rogoff leading the charge against loosening restrictions on fare enforcement. Meanwhile, King County Metro has taken the opposite tack, reducing fines to a maximum of $50 and providing a long list of alternative fare resolution options, including community service and loading money onto an ORCA card.

This debate isn’t going away. If Sound Transit’s board comes back in 2022 and decides against the reforms community members have consistently requested, it will be setting itself apart from the region’s other major transit agency—creating a punitive sub-system where fare collection is more important than mobility.