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