By Erica C. Barnett
Sound Transit is running out of excuses for preserving its punitive fare enforcement policy.
Under current Sound Transit rules, anyone caught riding a Sound Transit bus or train without proof of payment can be fined up to $124, which can lead to ruined credit and criminal charges if a person fails to pay. Although the agency has suspended enforcement of these rules since the beginning of the pandemic, Sound Transit’s outgoing CEO, Peter Rogoff, has argued since well before the pandemic began that the main problem plaguing Sound Transit’s budget isn’t unrealistic financial planning (Sound Transit relies far more heavily than most transit agencies on revenue from fares) but something much simpler: Its riders are selfish.
In a presentation titled “Need for a Comprehensive Fares Strategy” during Sound Transit’s board meeting last week, Rogoff framed the agency’s approach fare enforcement as primarily a budget problem, rather than an issue of equity and access. (Several local media outlets, including the Seattle Times, did Rogoff a favor by dutifully amplifying this spin.) Riders, Rogoff argued have become increasingly brazen about taking the train without paying the $3 fare, putting the financial solvency of the agency at risk. The agency now estimates that between 10 and 30 percent of riders are “fare evaders.”
Riders on Sound Transit trains are expected to “tap” their fare cards, known as ORCA cards, when they enter fare-paid zones; the light rail system has no physical turnstiles. In response to escalating criticism of racial disparities in enforcement, Sound Transit has replaced its “fare enforcement officers” with “fare ambassadors,” a group of unarmed, vest-wearing workers who issue warnings, but not tickets, to riders who haven’t paid; they also offer reduced-fare cards to riders who make less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $27,000 a year. At last week’s board meeting, the agency issued its latest fare enforcement proposal, which would give non-paying riders up to four warnings before imposing the $124 penalty.
According to a Sound Transit spokesperson, the fare ambassador program cost $2.7 million, including $1.9 million for 24 fare ambassadors and two supervisors. The rest goes toward marketing for low-income ORCA passes, uniforms, training, and handout materials, among other costs.
For years, transit advocates have argued that fare enforcement policies are excessively punitive and unfairly target low-income people and people of color. King County Metro, the region’s other large transit agency, responded to these complaints in 2018 by auditing the system. When that audit confirmed that fare enforcement disproportionately harmed low-income riders and riders of color, the agency responded by reducing fines, creating new fine-resolution options, and removing penalties that could destroy a person’s credit or land them in court.
Sound Transit’s response to similar complaints, in contrast, has been to spend years processing the issue and proposing incremental changes, like allowing riders two warnings per year instead of one, while continuing to insist that the real problem is “fare evasion” that prevents Sound Transit from reaching its ambitious farebox recovery goal.
“Put simply,” Rogoff said last week, “our fare collection system relies overwhelmingly on an honor system. And our increasingly acute problem is that our riders aren’t honoring the system.” Because fare ambassadors spend “even more time with each passenger” than fare enforcement officers, Rogoff said, they’re only able to check 2 percent of riders for compliance. Sound Transit needs to “at least double” that rate, Rogoff continued, “because when you’ve got a situation when you have a 98 percent chance of [not being asked to show proof of payment] it just lends itself to further noncompliance. We need to get back to a place where our passengers are honoring the honor system that we’re using.”
As an example, Rogoff said he had recently been at a Mariners game and observed, to his growing horror, people who had no problem paying “80, $100 for tickets to a Mariners game, buying beers at $13 a pop, and then at the end of the game all descending on to our Stadium Station and almost no one was tapping on or buying tickets. It was troubling, and it’s something we need to rectify.”
Rogoff’s anecdote was designed to be noncontroversial: Who wouldn’t agree that people who can afford hundreds of dollars for sports tickets and beer should cough up $3 for the train? It also neatly sidestepped advocates’ consistent, clearly expressed problem with Sound Transit’s fare enforcement policy, which is that the supposedly “neutral” process overwhelmingly targets Black and brown riders—not affluent, mostly white baseball fans.
When board member Claudia Balducci asked Rogoff whether a less punitive approach to fare enforcement might lead people to see Sound Transit as a less intimidating, more welcoming transit system, Rogoff offered a brief, rambling answer about immigration enforcement before returning to his complaints about passenger behavior.
“Forty percent of the people that the fare ambassadors are encountering are refusing to even identify themselves,” he said. “You need to monitor that see how we can improve on it. Because you can’t have a first, second, third, fourth or fifth warning if we don’t know who you are. And 40 percent of the folks won’t even cooperate at that level. That’s going to make this a very, very tough slog.”
The conflict between what Sound Transit says—we want “a system where everyone taps,” and we’ll talk to them as many times as possible to make sure they can—and its insistence that fare evasion has led it to the brink of financial ruin lies at the heart of Sound Transit’s stubborn refusal to meaningfully reform its policies. This attitude has seeped into the culture of the agency at every level. You can change the name of your fare enforcement team and make them wear primary colors, but you can’t fake culture; if a transit agency views every rider with suspicion, riders will respond with mutual mistrust.
When Sound Transit sent fare enforcement officers to check children’s passes on the first day of school, before many students had a chance to pick up their free cards in the classroom, advocates protested precisely because the agency had already established a culture of mistrust; when an agency staffer put up a tone-deaf tweet to try to cool things down, it made matters worse because of that culture. When Sound Transit observes that its income from fares has declined since March 2020 and blames that decline not on the global pandemic but on riders acting badly, that also says something about its culture, and its tendency toward short-term thinking based on balance sheets rather than long-term thinking about its role as a regional mobility agency.
You can change the name of your fare enforcement team and make them wear primary colors, but you can’t fake culture; if a transit agency views every rider with suspicion, riders will respond with mutual mistrust.
Agencies are capable of changing culture, but it usually requires changes to policy as well; a fare recovery standard of 40 percent, well above the pre-pandemic industry standard, is almost certainly incompatible with the idea of transit as a public good. Sound Transit relies heavily on individual fares and public-private partnerships in which large corporations pay for their employees’ transit passes up front, but these are far from the only ways of paying for transit. And fare enforcement itself isn’t free; talk of “free transit” versus “transit that pays for itself” ignore the very real cost of the human and physical infrastructure required to ensure that riders are paying every time they board a train.
What is transit for? For Sound Transit, the answer seems to be: Transit is for generating fare revenue to expand the system. This is an answer that favors riders who can afford to pay (and a small number of those in poverty, who ride for less but not free) at the expense of those who can’t. But it isn’t the only possible approach. When King County Metro decided to stop punishing riders who don’t pay, it committed (if imperfectly) to the idea that transit is a tool for equitable mobility, not a machine to churn money back into the system.
Rogoff is leaving Sound Transit later this year after the board declined to renew his contract. This presents an opportunity: The agency, and its board, could choose another director who will focus on revenue at the expense of service and embrace the current goal of “a system where every rider pays.” Or it could select a leader who views transit as a public good, sees mobility as a goal in itself, and doesn’t view every rider as a potential suspect.