Sound Transit Removes Threat of Collections, Adds ID Requirement, In New Fare Enforcement Policy

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.

15 thoughts on “Sound Transit Removes Threat of Collections, Adds ID Requirement, In New Fare Enforcement Policy”

  1. Papers, pleases!

    This isn’t Soviet Russia. U.S. Americans are not required to have documentation of identity, much less to carry it with us or to show it upon demand. Harrell send to forget this important point.

    Talk of transit being available “for free” or not is unfortunate framing. Let’s shift the discussion to whether or not public transit should be publicly funded like other public services are funded.

    If Sound Transit insists on private finding of public transit, they can demand payment before providing the service.

    Demanding instead that riders prove their innocence after boarding is completely inappropriate, especially given the decreasingly-likely possibility of doing so without hanging over an electronic record of ones travels in the form of an ORCA card.

    Selling fare onboard might be an acceptable middle ground for a public transit agency whose services are not publicly funded.

  2. It is easy to consider fare evasion like an ordinary crime. It’s not. With an ordinary crime, one individual can do a tremendous amount of damage. Thus you want to catch the worst offenders. That isn’t the case with fare evasion. Fare evasion is only a problem in relation to how much money you are losing, assuming the person would otherwise pay. Ten people evading constantly isn’t as bad as a hundred people who occasionally forget to pay.

    Some people evade the fare, but will never pay. Focusing on them is pointless. You want to reach those that will pay if the alternative is worse. It doesn’t have to horrible, just worse than paying. For the vast majority of those in that category, the humiliation and inconvenience of being kicked off the train is enough to discourage evasion.

    Ask for proof of payment. If they don’t have that, ask for ID. If they provide that, write them a ticket. If they don’t, kick them off the train. I guarantee you very few people will be kicked off the train, which means that doing anything more would be a huge waste of money.

  3. I think it is quite reasonable to kick someone off the train (or bus) if they don’t have fare or ID. Arresting them is a different matter. Kicking someone off the train is a big inconvenience. The vast majority of riders will try and avoid that. Those that don’t care aren’t likely to pay no matter what system you have (if you had fare gates they would jump them, or simply not ride the train). Thus by kicking people off, you are achieving your main goal, which is get people to pay.

  4. Need to install turnstiles, for 3 simple goals (1) to get an accurate baseline count of ridership (2) to earn revenue, and (3) paying is equitable! No pay / no ride!!


    1. That would cost a lot of money. A lot of stations would have to be completely remodeled. You still need security on the trains, which means you are paying for additional infrastructure (fare gates) along with additional security at each station (to make sure that people don’t jump the gate). As for your concerns, proof of payment systems can get an accurate baseline count of ridership (the Germans do it, and I’m pretty sure they are good at counting). Proof of payment systems can be more cost efficient than turnstiles. A proof of payment system achieves the same goal or requiring payment (although neither system achieves 100% payment).

  5. We’ve spent 80 years subsidizing free roads for single-passenger automobiles. If we’re going to survive the bottleneck of climate change, we need to subsidize free transit ASAP.

    1. Roads aren’t free. Gasoline taxes and car tab fees pay for them. Do you really think that fare payment is the reason more people don’t give up their cars in favor of transit? No, people ride transit because it’s either convenient for them, it saves them parking costs, or they don’t own a car.

      1. Gas/car taxes don’t even come close to paying for the cost of maintaining roads. Covers nearly 50% of the cost. Also kind of a silly thing to count as gas is subsidized as well so it’s artificially cheap to begin with.

  6. Yikes that’s a huge drop in revenue 2020! Only downhill from there. I’m a little worried about transit rn

    1. It will inevitably lead to service cuts or increased fares for riders who are honest.

  7. Whose decision was it to have open entry vs turnstiles or fare gates? And is there no way to tell how riders there are vs fare payers? Perhaps Mr Quotable can work out a “cheating asshole” algorithm. Can the yellow box system relay how many people passed through so that a surveyor could match that to a count of actual humans? It might take one per car to get an accurate count.

    Transit should be free and the best way to make that work is to tax the increased value of the land created *by* transit investment and transit use. Danny Westneat knows the score, as do many other speculators who will strip-mine the local economy as long as we let them. Land near stations goes up in value and property taxes aren’t cutting it.

    1. The people who designed the system thought that most people would pay voluntarily, and the few cheaters who didn’t would pay a penalty. Making land more expensive through taxing property around stations at a higher rate than other properties will increase the prices and rents for the property, Developers will simply pass on their added taxes to the people who buy or rent their property, if they can do so and remain competitive.

    2. Proof of payment (POP) systems are common all over the world. It is especially popular in Germany, but there are plenty of systems throughout Europe, Canada and the United States. Regional rail has had it for a really long time (you can see old movies where the official says “ticket please”). It has its advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages is spending less on infrastructure. In general, fare gates make sense in very busy stations, whereas POP makes sense elsewhere. That is why some systems are a hybrid (in that manner).

      1. Ross wrote, “you can see old movies where the official says ‘ticket please’.” That’s different, and it’s not just from olden times, but it’s still in in place now on some transit systems.

        In that situation, fare is being collected from every rider by the train attendant. Riders effectively pay after boarding, when the attendant comes by. Everyone must either provide a prepaid ticket, which is then invalidated so that it cannot be reused (note the attendant using a hole punch to do so), or purchase fare on the spot from the attendant. If not, they are presumably forced to exit at the next stop. This effectively requires sufficient staffing to reach every rider between stops, so works best on longer, regional, systems. It would work well on Sounder, for example, but less so on Link.

        Compare with Sound Transit’s “honor system” whereby riders are expected to pay before boarding, then a subset of riders are treated as dishonorable, and are asked to prove that they have paid. Sound Transit fare inspectors do not collect fare from everyone like the attendants in old movies and on some transit systems today do. They do not sell fare to anyone who forgot to pay or who hoped to pay onboard. ST fare inspectors simply work to find and punish people who did not pay. This provides some disincentive to avoid paying, and also provides an opportunity for staff to hassle or eject “undesirables.”

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