By Erica C. Barnett
Going back to at least 2019 (and, really, 2015 or earlier), Sound Transit—the region’s light-rail agency—has been under pressure to end its punitive and racially biased fare enforcement policy, which subjects riders who fail to show proof of payment to fines and potential criminal charges. (The policy has effectively been suspended since the beginning of the COVID pandemic last year).
Instead of rejecting the punitive policy outright—something the legislature gave the agency explicit authority to do earlier this year—Sound Transit has spent the last two years conducting surveys, doing community outreach, and launching a pilot program that replaced uniformed security officers issuing fines with T-shirt-wearing “fare ambassadors” who give information and issue warnings to passengers who fail to pay their fare.
Last Thursday, the Sound Transit board got another update on its ongoing outreach and engagement work that reiterated similar conclusions as previous presentations: Riders want Sound Transit to advance racial equity, build trust with communities, and listen to what they have to say. Like earlier staff presentations, this one also included a timeline: The board should be prepared to adopt a new fare enforcement policy next March, and to implement a “permanent program” by June.
The presentation did not include information about what such a program might look like. In an interview with PubliCola, Sound Transit regional government and community relations director Carrie Avila-Mooney said the decision wasn’t as simple as whether to punish fare evasion or not. For example, “if you don’t do a civil infraction, we have to develop a whole different process or policy,” Avila-Mooney said. “The engagement that we’re doing right now is also different than the engagement we’ve done in the past, because we’re really trying to talk to people who have been most impacted by our past fare enforcement policy. So that takes time.”
In addition, Avila-Mooney said, “We do have farebox recovery considerations.” In August, Sound Transit staff projected that the amount of revenue the agency receives from fares would be around $34 million short of what the agency budgeted. However, Sound Transit’s assumptions about “farebox recovery”—the percentage of its budget that comes directly from rider fares—are higher than comparable agencies; Sound Transit assumes, for example, that fares will fund 40 percent of the cost of running Link Light rail, compared to King County Metro’s target of 25 percent.
Rogoff and Sound Transit board chair Kent Keel have repeatedly raised concerns about what will happen if people no longer feel compelled to pay their fare by the threat of enforcement. According to the fare ambassadors’ data, 31 percent of riders had no proof of payment in September, a number that decreased to 11 percent by October, after the ambassadors started issuing warnings for nonpayment.
This isn’t the first time Sound Transit has promised to deliver a new policy on fare enforcement, nor is it the first timeline agency staff have presented rider feedback on fare enforcement to the board. More than two years ago, after both board members and community activists raised concerns about bias and discrimination in fare enforcement (and as fare enforcement data revealed that fare enforcement officers were far more likely to ticket Black riders fare evasion), Sound Transit adopted a “fare enforcement action plan” that called for a new policy by early 2020.
Although the pandemic was partly to blame for derailing that discussion, King County Metro, the county’s bus service provider, adopted alternative dispute resolutions during the pandemic that allowed riders to avoid fines altogether.
For now, and until the Sound Transit board formally adopts a new fare enforcement policy, there will be no penalty for riders who fail to pay their fare. Fare ambassadors are trained to focus on “customer service and education,” fare engagement program manager Sandee Ditt told PubliCola, and are supposed to spend as much time with riders as they need “to help answer questions that they might have about programs that we have going on or access to different types of fare media,” such as ORCA Lift cards for low-income riders. If fare ambassadors see something that requires a response from security, “they observe and report it to security,” Ditt said.