Sound Transit CEO Blames “Fare Evaders” for Pandemic-Era Budget Crunch

Graph showing Sound Transit's farebox recovery targets for light rail

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.”
Graph showing Sound Transit Fare recovery assumptions

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.

15 thoughts on “Sound Transit CEO Blames “Fare Evaders” for Pandemic-Era Budget Crunch”

  1. It seems a bit silly to blame Sound Transit (or any other transit agency) for being focused on fare recovery as part of its budgeting… when that is what elected officials are usually expecting from them. King County Metro didn’t magically come up with a better fare policy. It was empowered to do so by the King County Council, which has adopted newer guidelines and policies to focus on equity. So, the discussion about “free transit for all” vs. “fares” is pretty critical. Otherwise, you’re simply arguing AGAINST transit by asking them to give up one of the few revenue sources they have.

    There is also a bigger question of whether or not transit agencies should bear a heavier burden of trying to address systemic racism or not. Anecdotally, at least, Sound Transit has gone ridiculously overboard to ensure that its actual enforcement of fares is not discriminatory in practice (despite the ridiculous mistake with students on the first day of class). But if the problem is that low income or minority or youth or other groups are disproportionately unlikely to be able to afford fares, then the answer can’t simply be to stop checking for fares at all. It’s not progressive to just ignore systemic discrimination by not enforcing some rules or fees for some people. As Rogoff is poorly pointing out, the inevitable result of that will be that no one will follow the rules or pay.

  2. The cost of collecting fares is also not included in the reported fare recovery rate, which is revenues/allocated costs for, in this case, light rail. However, some of the costs in the denominator are these costs to collect fares, which should rightfully be deducted from the numerator and include things like: 1) Costs to acquire, maintain, and collect information from ORCA machines; 2) For buses: costs to acquire, maintain, transport cash (armored car service), count cash, separate and apportion tickets to their applicable agency; 3) ORCA system costs (fare media acquisition/storage/distribution, programming of system for each agency’s fare policies, fare allocation between agencies for shared trips, troubleshooting, equipment maintenance, other backend operations, commissions for sellers, customer service staff, etc.); 4) fare policy staff and management, who discuss regional fare policies with their counterparts in other agencies; 5) fare ambassador staff and management; 6) data analysts and managers to report on revenues; 7) for buses, dwell time for the vehicle sitting and waiting for on-board payment, plus the fumes

  3. They need to install turnstiles so that you have to pay to enter the trains. Too many are. Or paying because they know there’s no enforcement. Those who don’t pay also tend to be less considerate or others and following the rules because they’ve not paid for the ride so why should they care? Riders who paid the fare tend to be more civil since they’ve paid something and want to see that they get their moneys worth.

    1. Turnstiles are the only answer. Not only would they block non-payers, but would prevent street people from damaging elevators and escalators. If you can’t pay the full fare, then at least take the time to register for a low-income discount fare card. Most people will pay fares in an honor system, but some won’t if they don’t think there will be any penalty for not doing so. It’s human nature.

  4. I see that ST’s assertion is big on anecdotes but rather thin on data. There’s no evidence that this is true, and I am pretty sure that if they had any ST would have been happy to roll it out for us.

    Much Ado About Nothing

    1. We should do exactly what you want: Make the trains as free as the busses so that smelly, drugged-out, insane people can ride around in circles for free all day threatening the other riders who are just trying to get to work and back home (Progressivism). That would be good payback for Seattle citizens having voted for Progressives, Socialists, and Communists. You almost got everything you wanted. I can only assume you are happy about it. I have noticed that we tend to agree on many important issues. Thanks for your contribution to my entertainment. Steve Willie.

  5. I have a simple solution to the problem: turnstiles. Just as “locks and fences keep good people honest,” turnstiles increase the effort required to dodge a fare. Right now, it’s easier (less effort) to ride the train by for free than pay for it — just walk on. Most other subway systems use turnstiles, why doesn’t ours?

    1. You have apparently never heard the Progressive mantra: “Fences don’t work”. What makes you think that physical barriers will function like ……physical barriers? C’mon now, to sell turnstyles to Progressives you need to lie about it and tout their function as Progressive infrastructure. The argument goes like this: Since “persons of color” (Erica’s words) are more athletic than those old fogey white dudes, turnstyles favor those who can jump right over. It will even out life’s playing field when turnstyles are installed, and also punish those guilty white dudes who can’t jump (did you not see the movie?). That’s the whole idea after all. We can look forward to turnstyles in all ST stations soon. Now you see how Seattle works.

      1. There’s an underlying assumption with this piece that only people who can’t afford to pay evade fare payment. It doesn’t address the possibility that some people avoid paying a fare simply because they can do it and get away with it. If this is the case, then why are concentrating on fare payment as punitive instead of concentrating on finding ways to make fares more affordable for low-income people. That’s social justice. Letting people who can afford to pay get away without paying is simply unjust, because it shifts the costs to taxpayers and honest transit riders.

  6. Farebox recovery of 39% or more is not unusual. Google farebox recovery and you will discover many train systems in Europe and Asia have higher farebox recovery than that even. No us city has lower farebox recovery than Sound Transit. This tells me we need stronger policies. Every ticket needs to be checked. If you don’t pay or won’t identify yourself you must be escorted off the train at next stop.

  7. Erica: By “punitive” you apparently mean: “forced to pay a small fraction of ST construction and operating costs”. Oh how unfair that would be. In fact, the vast majority of non-payers are able to pay, but they don’t see the need since payment is not being enforced. Without minimal enforcement, payment is only for those stupid or honest people. After reading your article, I think the preferred solution to getting a $124 fine would be: Don’t try to steal free rides which are already reasonably cheap. It is almost criminal that ST relies on any revenue from fares, isn’t it? You would think everything in life should be free, or paid for by those dirty mega-corporations which don’t do anything except employ tens of thousands of people and provide cost-effective goods and services to everyone. With your claims of racism, you apparently think that the enforcement apparatus is standing there looking for black people to cite for non-payment. So where is that happening? Where has that ever happened on Sound Transit? Please do-tell in your next post. When a Mariners’ game ends, fare enforcement is difficult because riders pack the system to capacity. It is not because they are white. Plus, I see plenty of “persons of color” at Mariner’s games. Where have you been? You also seem to be overly-concerned that non-payment could “destroy a person’s credit”. The purpose of a credit rating is to identify those who did stupid stuff with their money, and therefore insure they don’t do more stupid stuff with someone else’s money. You are actually claiming that the criminal behavior is justified by ST’s viewing riders with suspicion (end of 12th and 14th paragraphs). Saying it twice must make it more progressively true. Each phase of ST expansion was sold to the voters by promises that riders would pay some percentage of the cost, not that it would be free. People in Seattle can already get enough free stuff. Maybe the next transit director will come with a magic money tree. Even then, the free stuff will never be enough for you. If that is not true, then tell us how much free stuff will finally satisfy you……..followed by silence from Erica.

  8. “…transit is a tool for equitable mobility, not a machine to churn money back into the system.” Exactly. What we have now is partly a due to a woefully regressive tax system, a narrow business mentality and a bad selfish attitude.

    1. Equitable mobility? How does expecting people to pay a share of the cost of riding transit translate to inequity? There should be adjusted fares for low income people. That will give everyone an equal opportunity to access good transit. Otherwise what is the alternative to “a machine to churn money back into the system,” if we have regressive tax system? Some people avoid fares because they can’t pay, some people because they don’t want to pay. You have to deal with both sides of that equation.

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