By Erica C. Barnett
The Sound Transit board voted on Thursday to adopt a new fare enforcement policy that will provide more opportunities to resolve unpaid fares and give riders more chances before they incur fines and other penalties.
Under the new rules, which PubliCola covered earlier this month, riders who repeatedly failed to show proof of valid payment would face a gradually increasing set of penalties, culminating on the fifth offense in a $124 fine and the possibility of court action, which could lead to collections and other penalties if a rider fails to pay their fine.
Sound Transit’s outgoing CEO, Peter Rogoff, has argued repeatedly that without fare enforcement, “fare evaders” will take advantage of Sound Transit’s gate-free entrances and ride for free, cutting into agency revenues and producing an unpleasant environment for paying riders.
Farebox recovery—the amount of Sound Transit’s operating budget that comes from fares—has declined during the pandemic, as it has at all of the region’s transit agencies; Rogoff has claimed “fare evasion” is to blame for most of that decline. The new fare enforcement policy is aimed at addressing some equity concerns leveled at Sound Transit in the past—namely, that their fare enforcement efforts have disproportionately targeted Black and low-income riders—while increasing penalties for people who “could” pay and don’t.
An amendment to the new policy, proposed by King County Councilmember Joe McDermott would have taken fare enforcement out of the court system, addressing a major concern advocates have raised for years. That amendment failed, with Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell among the majority voting “no.” Another McDermott amendment, which takes away Sound Transit’s ability to turn people with unpaid fines over to a collections agency, passed.
“Having debts sent to collections can impact someone’s finances for years to come in substantial ways—from wage garnishments that can impact your ability to afford day to day life, to a lower credit score that can negatively impact a person’s ability to find appropriate and affordable housing,” McDermott said.
The new policy rebrands fare enforcement officers as “fare ambassadors,” expanding a pandemic-era pilot program that took fare enforcement in-house at Sound Transit, and and gives fare ambassadors the authority to issue tickets and fines.
On Thursday, Fife Mayor Kim Roscoe proposed an amendment that gives fare ambassadors new authority to remove riders from trains and buses if they fail to produce ID—a power board members argued they need in order to see how many times a rider has failed to pay in the past to and ensure that riders can’t exploit the system by giving a fake name or otherwise refusing to identify themselves. That amendment passed, with both Harrell and Seattle City Councilmember Debora Juarez voting “no” and King County Executive Dow Constantine supporting the requirement.
Riders who are “responsible,” board chairman and University Place City Councilmember Kent Keel said, will “give them the ID.” But “where we find people that don’t want to give them their ID, my opinion is that [they’re] being less than responsible.”
“There’s nothing [in state law] that says you have to have an ID. So it is creating this opportunity for some people to be targeted … where otherwise there isn’t a legal requirement.”—ACLU-WA Senior Attorney Nancy Talner
Harrell argued that the ID requirement is in conflict with Washington state law, which does not require people to carry ID. “We do we know that some people, because of their immigrant status, for example, may be reluctant to carry ID,” Harrell said.
The Washington State Supreme Court is currently considering a case involving a Community Transit rider in Everett who was arrested after he failed to pay his fare and provided a fake name to officers. In that case, the ACLU of Washington argued that people do not give up their legal protections against warrantless search and seizure when they board public transit, and that punitive fare enforcement “exacerbates [the] legacy of racial discrimination” because it disproportionately targets people of color.
Sound Transit’s new ID rule could raise similar concerns, ACLU of Washington senior attorney Nancy Talner said. “Who gets asked to show proof of fare, who gets asked to show ID, and what happens to the person when they don’t have ID? All of those questions are in the context that a lot of people need to rely on public transit” and can’t easily opt out, Talner said. “There’s nothing [in state law] that says you have to have an ID. So it is creating this opportunity for some people to be targeted … where otherwise there isn’t a legal requirement.”
Some of the most heated argument at Thursday’s meeting seemed to center on the question of whether Sound Transit riders can be trusted to pay their fares without the threat of significant financial costs and legal penalties. Many board members seemed to believe that the answer was, emphatically, no. “In my opinion, it’s not about the $3.50—it’s about ensuring that riders have to pay for the system they’re using, as we promised the voters when we passed Sound Transit,” Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin said. “If we don’t have a consequence, at the end of the day, why does anyone pay for this system?”
King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove went further. “If a fare ambassador encounters a rider who has not paid their fare, and that rider gives the middle finger instead of identifying themselves… it’s no longer an issue of poverty. It’s no longer an honest mistake.” Those who choose not to pay their fare, Upthegrove said, are “cheating assholes” threatening to upend the “rule of law” and the maintenance of “civil society.” (To drive the point home—or perhaps hoping to be quoted—Upthegrove used the phrase “cheating assholes” twice.)
In the future, Upthegrove suggested, Sound Transit may have to consider “involving law enforcement when someone refuses” to provide ID, or adding physical turnstiles to Sound Transit stations to make it harder for people to ride the trains for free.
The new policies will go into effect on September 17.