Tag: fare enforcement

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.
Continue reading “Sound Transit Removes Threat of Collections, Adds ID Requirement, In New Fare Enforcement Policy”

Sheriff Finalists Announced; Sound Transit Moves to Reinstate Fare Enforcement, but Staffing Challenges Remain

1. King County Executive Dow Constantine announced three finalists for King County sheriff on Thursday: Charles Kimble, chief of the Killeen, Texas Police Department; Reginald Moorman, a major in the Atlanta Police Department; and King County’s current interim sheriff, Patti Cole-Tindall.

The next sheriff will be the first to be appointed to the office by the county executive since 1996, when voters made the sheriff an elected position. County voters passed a charter amendment reversing that decision in 2020, making the sheriff’s office an appointed position once again—a move supported by many police accountability advocates, who criticized former sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht for her handling of multiple high-profile shootings by sheriff’s deputies. Johanknecht didn’t seek the appointment.

Before joining the sheriff’s office in 2015, Cole-Tindall served as the director of the county’s labor relations unit and as interim director of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, an independent agency that investigates misconduct and systemic problems in the sheriff’s office. A graduate of Central Washington University, Cole-Tindall began her career in law enforcement as a special agent with the Washington State Gambling Commission in 1991.

Reginald Moorman joined the Atlanta Police Department as a beat officer in 2001; he later served as the deputy director of a regional drug enforcement task force and as the commander of the department’s community-oriented policing, major crimes and airport security sections. Moorman is currently a precinct commander and adjunct professor in the criminal justice department at his alma mater, Georgia State University.

Charles Kimble spent most of his 25 years in law enforcement in North Carolina, including as the deputy police chief in Fayetteville and as the police chief in the smaller town of Spring Lake, both adjacent to Fort Bragg. He took over as police chief in Killeen, a small city near Fort Hood, in 2017; three years later, his department faced a lawsuit after Killeen police officers shot and killed a man while serving a no-knock warrant. Kimble is a US Army veteran and holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Liberty University, a Christian university in Virginia founded by evangelist Jerry Falwell Sr.

In the final stage of the selection process, the three finalists will meet with community, labor and municipal representatives from King County and take part in a series of public forums. Constantine plans to make a decision by early May, after which the King County Council will begin the confirmation process; the next permanent sheriff will likely take office by this summer.

2. The Sound Transit board’s executive committee approved a new fare enforcement policy on Thursday that brings back fines, court involvement, and the possibility of collections for riders who fail to pay fines for nonpayment. The policy still has to be adopted by the full Sound Transit board; as we reported Wednesday, board member Joe McDermott, a King County Council member, plans to introduce amendments that would take fare nonpayment out of the court system and would remove the possibility of collections.

Board members voted unanimously for the changes, which come after more than two years of debate over how to balance the need to collect fares (which currently fund about 5 percent of Sound Transit’s budget) with pressure to eliminate punitive policies that disproportionately target Black riders. During the pandemic, Sound Transit has experimented with various approaches, ranging from traditional fare enforcement to a pilot “fare ambassador” program in which non-uniformed staffers checked fares and provided information about low-income transit pass options, but did not issue tickets. Currently, according to a Sound Transit staff presentation, about 40 percent of riders do not pay the required fare.

Before voting for the changes, several board members expressed their opinion that the new fare policy—which provides several opportunities to resolve unpaid fares before fining riders, and eliminates the option of trespassing riders from the system—doesn’t go far enough to punish riders who fail to pay.

“When we’re thinking about equity, I also think about the equity of who’s paying for this system,” said board member (and Everett Mayor) Cassie Franklin. “Riders do need to pay for the system they’re using, because we have a lot of non-riders paying for the system right now. And I think that I fear that compliance will get worse, not better, with this current policy.” Franklin said she would like to change the policy in the future to start fining riders immediately after a second warning, rather than allowing them to avoid fines with alternatives like loading money onto a transit pass or attending a Sound Transit focus group.

Board member (and Pierce County Executive) Bruce Dammeier, who recently called Sound Transit trains “unsanitary and unsafe” and said he would not ride them, called the new policy “a little soft” on nonpaying riders, and said he would like to revisit the policy in six months “to determine what’s worked and what has not.”

3. In a separate meeting Thursday, Sound Transit’s Rider Experience and Operations Committee voted to continue the “fare ambassador” program and expand the fare ambassadors’ role to include fare enforcement, which the agency has renamed “fare compliance.” The proposal the committee adopted adds $1.3 million to the transit agency’s 2022 budget to hire up to 56 fare ambassadors this year.

That number could be optimistic. Sound Transit has struggled to hire fare ambassadors throughout the pilot period, which began in mid-September of last year. According to a Sound Transit spokesman, the agency had hoped to begin the program with 26 ambassadors , “but only 23 stayed on when we launched,”and the number of ambassadors “started declining from there.” Currently, there are 14 fare ambassadors, including supervisors, and 12 vacant positions.

According to a staff presentation at Thursday’s meeting, at current staffing levels, riders encounter a fare ambassador about 3 percent of the time; if the program was fully staffed, riders could expect to have their fare checked on one out of every three trips, the staffer said.

—Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett

Sound Transit Fare Enforcement Plan Could Send Riders to Court and Collections

By Erica C. Barnett

This Thursday, Sound Transit’s executive committee will take up a proposed new fare enforcement policy that would reinstate fines of up to $124 and impose legal penalties against riders who repeatedly fail to pay their fares. The new policy, if adopted, will go into effect on September 1.

The transit agency, which operates Link light rail as well as regional buses and Sounder commuter trains, has been working on a new fare enforcement policy since before the pandemic, after an internal review showed that despite its supposedly neutral fare enforcement strategy, the system disproportionately penalized Black riders. < During the pandemic, Sound Transit briefly eliminated fares, then reinstated them along with a new "fare ambassador” program that focused on education and engagement, replacing uniformed security officers with Sound Transit staffers in vests and regular clothes. The program is currently understaffed and has been ineffective at getting riders to pay their fares; during a recent Sound Transit board meeting, staffers said fares account for just 5 percent of the agency’s budget, down from a 2017 high of almost 40 percent.

Riders who repeatedly fail to pay their fare (or “tap” their prepaid transit pass correctly) can still wind up in court facing a civil infraction, and unpaid fines will still go to a collections agency, which can lead to garnished wages and a cycle of debt.

The new policy includes a number of reforms designed to reduce the punitive nature of Sound Transit’s old fare enforcement system. For example, it provides a number of alternatives for resolving an unpaid fare, including reduced-fare cards for very low-income riders, and it ends the policy of suspending people from the system if they have unpaid tickets or multiple infractions. Under the new policy, riders will get two warnings in a 12-month period, followed by a fine of $50; fines will only rise to $124 after the fifth time fare checkers catch a rider without proof of payment, and anyone under 18 will be exempt from legal penalties.

Still, the new policy preserves many of the elements of the old fare enforcement policy many transit advocates found objectionable, starting with the reinstatement of fare enforcement by on-board staff.

According to the policy, fare ambassadors will essentially become plainclothes fare enforcement officers, “issuing fines and citations” to riders who fail to show proof of payment. Riders who repeatedly fail to pay their fare (or “tap” their prepaid transit pass correctly) can still wind up in court facing a civil infraction, and unpaid fines will still go to a collections agency, which can lead to garnished wages and a cycle of debt. And it remains unclear how, or whether, the new policy will address the stark racial disproportionality that plagued the pre-pandemic system.

King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, who sits on the Sound Transit board, plans to introduce two amendments Thursday that would take away Sound Transit’s ability to send riders to court and send unpaid fines to collections. McDermott said the changes would address the agency’s “disproportional response” to fare evasion by a very small number of riders—perhaps 100 a year.

“The policy that’s before us now is light years better than what we were doing three years ago, McDermott said. “Removing collections and the courts are the final two pieces.” Continue reading “Sound Transit Fare Enforcement Plan Could Send Riders to Court and Collections”

Sound Transit Leaders Call Trains Dirty, Dangerous; San Francisco’s Experience with Sanctioned Camps; New Poll Tests Harrell Priorities

This graph is a metaphor: With no “Y” axis, an incomplete color key, and no definition of the three “issues” that are listed, it’s impossible to know whether these wavy lines represent an alarming increase in incidents or a modest pandemic-era increase.

1. Sound Transit board and staff members, including outgoing CEO Peter Rogoff, used an update on “current operating challenges” as an opportunity to portray the central light-rail system as a dirty and dangerous way to get around, especially during non-“conventional” hours, when fewer riders are on board. Only board member (and King County Councilmember) Claudia Balducci, of Bellevue, pushed back on her colleagues’ “unduly bleak” description of the system, saying, “it doesn’t match my own personal experience as a regular rider of our service.”

Almost since the beginning of the pandemic, Rogoff has argued relentlessly for increasing security and fare enforcement on trains, both to increase revenues and to punish people who fail to pay fare or behave in ways that make other riders feel unwelcome or unsafe. On Thursday, Sound Transit’s executive director of operations, Suraj Shetty, said the agency has had trouble retaining  private security and “fare ambassadors,” vest-clad staffers who check to see if riders have paid but do not issue tickets.

When the agency’s main private security provider, Securitas, failed to provide as many guards as they agreed to, Sound Transit contracted with two additional firms, both non-union—a fact that prompted a number of public commenters to accuse the agency of being anti-union. Sound Transit is also facing a shortage of drivers, cleaning staff, and maintenance crews.

Board member (and Pierce County Executive) Bruce Dammeier, a former Republican state senator, said he considered the system “unsanitary and unsafe,” adding, “I wouldn’t ride it,” and suggested stricter fare enforcement as a solution to problems like drug use and unclean conditions on trains. “We don’t want to stop running the trains at certain hours, but that is one of the solutions” to problems that become worse late at night, he continued. “Or maybe we put security guards on every train.”

Nancy Backus, the mayor of Auburn, chimed in, suggesting that the problems on trains are made worse by “some of the laws surrounding drug use, what police officers can and cannot do with low level property crimes and other issues.”

Responding to those comments, Balducci said that in her own “anecdotal experience” riding the system over the last two years, “this narrative that our system is falling apart just does not ring true to me. And we have to ask the staff and leadership of the staff to help us paint a truly accurate picture of what’s going on that we need to address.”

2. As PubliCola reported exclusively earlier this week, Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis and Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office have been discussing a plan to relocate as many as 600 people living unsheltered in downtown Seattle into up to 10 sanctioned encampment sites. Lewis described the proposal as a humane way to transition people from unsheltered homelessness to housing as more permanent housing units become available this year.

The plan is also explicitly an attempt to make downtown more appealing to companies that want to bring workers back to the office this year—including the companies that funded a separate plan to “dramatically reduce unsheltered homelessness” downtown by navigating people to shelter and services elsewhere.

Seattle would hardly be the first West Coast city to create fenced tent encampments as a response to increased homelessness. San Francisco began opening sanctioned encampments in 2021 in response to an increase in unsanctioned encampments during the pandemic.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness, said unsheltered people in San Francisco said they preferred encampments to congregate shelter because, among other reasons, they offer more privacy and don’t have strict curfews or other rules common in mass shelters.

The drawbacks, Friedenbach said, are that the encampments are cold, tend to be expensive—around $70,000 per tent, per year—and are, obviously, not housing permanent housing. “Rental assistance with support services runs less than half” the cost of sheltering a person in a sanctioned encampment, she said. “So instead of sheltering you can just have housing for the people at half the cost.”

And, Friedenbach noted, San Francisco’s encampments are “used as a placement option in sweeps.” The Coalition did a report last year on San Francisco’s geographically focused efforts to eradicate (or “resolve”) encampments in specific neighborhoods, which found that most people who are displaced from one location end up unsheltered elsewhere, often after losing their possessions to sweeps. As in Seattle, there are typically only a handful of shelter beds available citywide for thousands of unsheltered people across the city.

3. A poll in the field this week was already taking Seattle voters’ temperature about new Mayor Bruce Harrell, interspersing favorability questions about the mayor with questions about his political priorities. For example, the poll asked recipients to rank priorities such as “expedit[ing] removal of homeless encampments from sidewalks and parks, with those of need of assistance being redirected into housing and services, with a minimum of 2,000 units brought into use this year”—a description of the Compassion Seattle initiative, which Harrell integrated into his campaign platform.

Continue reading “Sound Transit Leaders Call Trains Dirty, Dangerous; San Francisco’s Experience with Sanctioned Camps; New Poll Tests Harrell Priorities”

After Years of Debate, Still No Fix for Sound Transit’s Punitive Fare Enforcement Policy

By Erica C. Barnett

Going back to at least 2019 (and, really, 2015 or earlier), Sound Transit—the region’s light-rail agency—has been under pressure to end its punitive and racially biased fare enforcement policy, which subjects riders who fail to show proof of payment to fines and potential criminal charges. (The policy has effectively been suspended since the beginning of the COVID pandemic last year).

Instead of rejecting the punitive policy outright—something the legislature gave the agency explicit authority to do earlier this year—Sound Transit has spent the last two years conducting surveys, doing community outreach, and launching a pilot program that replaced uniformed security officers issuing fines with T-shirt-wearing “fare ambassadors” who give information and issue warnings to passengers who fail to pay their fare.

Last Thursday, the Sound Transit board got another update on its ongoing outreach and engagement work that reiterated similar conclusions as previous presentations: Riders want Sound Transit to advance racial equity, build trust with communities, and listen to what they have to say. Like earlier staff presentations, this one also included a timeline: The board should be prepared to adopt a new fare enforcement policy next March, and to implement a “permanent program” by June.

The presentation did not include information about what such a program might look like. In an interview with PubliCola, Sound Transit regional government and community relations director Carrie Avila-Mooney said the decision wasn’t as simple as whether to punish fare evasion or not. For example, “if you don’t do a civil infraction, we have to develop a whole different process or policy,” Avila-Mooney said. “The engagement that we’re doing right now is also different than the engagement we’ve done in the past, because we’re really trying to talk to people who have been most impacted by our past fare enforcement policy. So that takes time.”

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In addition, Avila-Mooney said, “We do have farebox recovery considerations.” In August, Sound Transit staff projected that the amount of revenue the agency receives from fares would be around $34 million short of what the agency budgeted. However, Sound Transit’s assumptions about “farebox recovery”—the percentage of its budget that comes directly from rider fares—are higher than comparable agencies; Sound Transit assumes, for example, that fares will fund 40 percent of the cost of running Link Light rail, compared to King County Metro’s target of 25 percent.

Rogoff and Sound Transit board chair Kent Keel have repeatedly raised concerns about what will happen if people no longer feel compelled to pay their fare by the threat of enforcement. According to the fare ambassadors’ data, 31 percent of riders had no proof of payment in September, a number that decreased to 11 percent by October, after the ambassadors started issuing warnings for nonpayment. Continue reading “After Years of Debate, Still No Fix for Sound Transit’s Punitive Fare Enforcement Policy”

Afternoon Fizz: New Sheriff In Town, Council Adopts $7 Billion City Budget

1. Starting January 1, King County will a new interim sheriff: Patti Cole-Tindall, previously an undersheriff in the King County Sheriff’s Office, will assume the role until County Executive Dow Constantine appoints a permanent sheriff in mid-2022.

Last year, county voters approved a charter amendment that sets up a process for appointing, rather than electing, the King County sheriff. Tindall will be King County’s first appointed sheriff in more than two decades.

Before joining the sheriff’s office in 2015, Tindall served as both the director of the county’s labor relations unit and interim director of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, an independent agency that investigates misconduct and systemic problems in the sheriff’s office.

At a press conference Tuesday, Tindall said that she doesn’t plan to apply for the permanent sheriff or for permanent chief of the Seattle Police Department, the two most prominent law enforcement job openings in the county. “I see my value in this appointed process as being there to help the permanent sheriff be successful,” she said. The county council, with input from a panel of sheriff’s staff, community members and local government representatives, is still reviewing candidates to become the permanent sheriff.

Constantine also debuted his proposal to provide hiring and retention incentives for sworn sheriff’s officers, which county council budget chair Jeanne Kohl-Welles introduces as an emergency amendment to the county’s 2022 budget today. The proposal would provide $15,000 to officers who transfer from other departments, $7,500 to new hires, and a one-time $4,000 bonus to every officer in the department. Constantine argued that while the sheriff’s office, which has 60 vacant officer positions, isn’t currently struggling to meet demand, the incentives might help attract and retain officers as a growing number of officers reach retirement age.

King County Police Officers’ Guild (KCPOG) President Mike Mansanarez told reporters he supports the hiring and retention incentives. His counterpart at the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, Mike Solan, voiced his skepticism about a similar hiring incentive program introduced by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan in October.

2. On Monday, the Seattle City Council approved a $7.1 billion 2022 city budget that provides new funding for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, preserves the JumpStart payroll tax spending plan while restoring the city’s depleted reserves, and keeps Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed budget for the Seattle Police Department largely intact, shaving about $10 million off the mayor’s initial $365.4 million proposal.

As budget chair Teresa Mosqueda emphasized twice on Monday, the budget the council adopted doesn’t require SPD to lay off any officers, nor does it eliminate any officers’ salaries. Instead, the council saved $2.7 million by assuming SPD will lose more officers next year than Durkan’s budget projected—125, instead of 91—and moving their unspent salaries out of SPD’s budget. Continue reading “Afternoon Fizz: New Sheriff In Town, Council Adopts $7 Billion City Budget”

Is It Time for Free Transit?

Image of Metro’s Route 99, a free waterfront bus that ran until 2018, by Atomic Taco

By Katie Wilson

Last week, PubliCola reported a “surprising consensus” among Seattle mayoral candidates on the subject of free public transit. Jessyn Farrell, Lorena González and Andrew Grant Houston have all displayed enthusiasm for pursuing this vision, while Colleen Echohawk and Bruce Harrell have expressed more cautious interest.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when local transit agencies stopped charging fare and implemented back-door boarding, transit riders who kept on riding got a taste of what a fare-free system might be like. No more fumbling for change, no tapping a card, just hop on the bus or the train. But even before the pandemic, free transit was having a moment.

On January 1, 2020, Intercity Transit, which serves Olympia and the rest of Thurston County, went fare-free. In the first month, ridership jumped up 20 percent. Bobby Karleton, a community organizer and daily bus rider in Olympia, noticed the change: “More people of color, elderly and disabled people and families with small children appear to be using the system,” he said. “For IT’s most impoverished riders—many who are homeless—free service means saving $1.25 every bus ride. That may not sound much, but it adds up.”

But even before the pandemic, free transit was having a moment.

Olympia wasn’t alone. In December 2019, Kansas City, Missouri became the first major U.S. city to dispense with fares. A few months earlier, Lawrence, Massachusetts began a two-year pilot. It was starting to look like a trend, but it wasn’t entirely new—in fact, the Pacific Northwest has long been something of a quiet national leader on free transit. A number of smaller cities and rural areas in Washington, Oregon and Idaho have operated fare-free systems for decades. Visiting Whidbey Island? Put away that wallet. Traveling around Mason County? Welcome aboard.

For Seattle, a city accustomed to being on the leading edge of progressive policy, this is all a little embarrassing. How could we let other parts of our own state—including some that vote Republican!—get so far out ahead? Why are many of us still paying $2.75 to stand, crammed in like sardines, on buses crawling down car-choked streets? Why do we submit to the indignity of fare inspections, with steep fines that punish poverty and disproportionately harm Black riders? In a global climate crisis, why are we still erecting barriers to choosing sustainable transportation? In short, when is fare-free transit coming to Seattle and King County?

Sadly, it’s not quite that simple — but it’s not an impossible dream, either. Let’s take a look.

The transit agencies that have recently hopped on the fare-free bandwagon all have one thing in common: They’re smaller systems, and their revenue from fares is small both absolutely and as a portion of their total budget. Kansas City had to scrape together a modest $9 million per year. In the case of Intercity Transit, fares covered less than 2 percent of operating costs, and the agency was facing an expensive upgrade to the ORCA card system. For some rural systems the calculus is even more extreme: The ancillary costs of collecting fares exceed the fare revenue itself. In both cities, fare-free just makes sense.

The notion that fare-free transit somehow pencils out without a massive infusion of new tax revenue is a pipe dream.

By contrast, in a large, dense urban system like ours, fares bring in real money. Pre-pandemic, farebox revenue covered about a quarter of the operating costs for King County Metro’s bus system. Metro’s annual haul from fares was somewhere in the neighborhood of $175 million. Sound Transit, which operates Link light rail, regional Express buses and the Sounder line, brought in another $100 million. While it’s true that collecting and enforcing fares also costs money—a 2018 audit found that Metro spent $1.7 million per year on fare enforcement, for example—the amounts simply aren’t comparable. The notion that fare-free transit somehow pencils out without a massive infusion of new tax revenue is a pipe dream.

That’s not the only challenge for fare-free transit. While it’s undeniable that the cost of fares is a hardship for many and a disincentive for many more, the bigger problem for most people—including those with low incomes—is the service itself. Public transit doesn’t come frequently enough or get people where they need to go fast enough. Buses and trains are overcrowded and don’t run at all times of the day and night. So even if the transit agencies found a quarter billion dollars on the doorstep every year, eliminating fares might not be the highest and best use of those funds—especially since people would respond to this change by riding still more, further increasing the demand for service.

Recognizing these realities, over the past decade community organizers, advocates and transit riders have taken a needs-based approach to fare-free transit. Through pressure and work with elected officials and agency staff, they’ve won and expanded a suite of reduced- or no-cost transit programs serving specific populations: the Human Services Ticket program, ORCA LIFT reduced fare program, Seattle Youth ORCA program, and, as of last fall, a no-cost annual transit pass program for people below 80 percent of the federal poverty level. I have been involved in all these efforts through my work with the Transit Riders Union. Continue reading “Is It Time for Free Transit?”

Oly Fizz: Wealth Tax Dies, State Could Re-Criminalize Drug Possession, Sound Transit Gets Green Light to Fix Fare Enforcement

1. A proposed 1 percent tax on the wealth of 100 or so very rich Washington state residents is dead for this year. The cause of death: The House Appropriations Committee did not include the wealth tax (HB 1406) on this week’s committee agenda, which means the bill will not move forward. The bill had detractors in both parties and never advanced past the House, where it has languished since early April. The session ends next Sunday, April 25.

The chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Timm Ormsby (D-3, Spokane) said the committee was prioritizing bills that have gone through the legislative process. The committee is hearing only four Senate bills this week, including the cap-and-trade bill (SB 5126) and a bill addressing the State v. Blake decision, which effectively decriminalized simple drug possession in Washington state (SB 5476).

Tax reform bills arguably had a better chance of passing this year than any time in recent memory, with Democrats firmly in control of both houses and the pandemic exposing the economic gulf between the very wealthy and everyone else.

While legislators did pass some progressive legislation that had been in the works for years, including the working families tax exemption (HB 1297), and the capital gains tax (included in the budget), the wealth tax stalled.

Tax reform advocates say because the wealth tax is the first legislation of its kind in the nation, it will take some time before legislators start pushing the policy forward. “I don’t think that’s necessarily the best thing about the legislative process,” Misha Werschkul, executive director of the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, said. “If there’s a good idea, there’s no reason not to pass it the first year it’s introduced.” However, Werschkul and other advocates said they think the wealth tax has enough momentum to move faster than previous tax bills.

2. The House of Representatives is considering a bill that would re-establish a criminal penalty for drug possession in response to the state supreme court’s landmark ruling in February that effectively decriminalized drug possession.

In that decision, State of Washington v. Blake, the court ruled that Washington’s so-called “strict liability” drug possession laws—which made no distinction between intentional and unintentional drug possession—were incompatible with the due process rights enshrined in both the state and federal constitutions. The court’s decision rendered Washington’s existing drug possession laws toothless, sending lawmakers, prosecutors and attorneys statewide scrambling to adjust to the sudden end of decades of harsh drug policies.

In the legislature, a group of lawmakers saw an opportunity to cement de-criminalization in Washington law by rewriting the state’s drug possession statutes. Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Bellevue) led the charge in the state senate, drafting a bill that would have removed all criminal penalties for possessing a “personal use amount” of an illegal drug—up to one gram of heroin or two grams of methamphetamine, for example. The bill also proposed a system in which law enforcement could pass the names and contact information of drug users to a “care coordinator,” who would then reach out to the drug user to offer treatment and recovery resources.

As the end of the legislative session approached, senate Democrats rushed to adjust the bill to reach an agreement with some of their Republican counterparts. The resulting amendments, Dhingra wrote in a press release last week, no longer reflected a “treatment-first approach” to drug use. Instead, the revised bill would impose a gross misdemeanor charge for drug possession—making no distinction between a “personal use amount” and larger quantities.

While the re-worked bill would require prosecutors to divert people charged with drug possession to addiction treatment for their first and second violations, it would grant prosecutors leeway to decide whether a person is eligible for treatment after their third violation, re-introducing the possibility of fines or jail time.

Dhingra, still listed as the bill’s sponsor, chose not to vote in support of her bill when it passed the senate last week. “I understand the importance of keeping a statewide policy response moving, and this compromise was the only way to do that,” she wrote in the press release. “Too many lives, especially Black and brown lives, will continue to be shattered by a criminal justice approach to what is fundamentally a public health problem.”

The legislation is now one of two bills written in response to the Blake decision before the House Appropriations Committee. The other, sponsored by Rep. Roger Goodman (D-45, Woodinville) and Rep. Tara Simmons (D-23, Bainbridge Island), would make possession of a “personal use amount” of illegal drugs a civil infraction.

3. Governor Jay Inslee signed legislation last week (HB 1301) that authorizes Sound Transit to create an “alternate fare enforcement system,” removing what the agency called the primary legal obstacle preventing it from decriminalizing fare nonpayment on buses and trains. Unlike King County Metro, Sound Transit has resisted calls to end its punitive approach to fare enforcement, arguing that a more lenient policy would lead to revenue loss as people realize they can get away with riding for free.

Under existing policy (which Sound Transit is not currently enforcing), people who fail to show proof of payment more than once in a year receive a ticket and $124 fine; if they fail to pay the fine, they can face criminal charges.

Advocates for low-income transit riders have long argued that this policy is too punitive and disproportionately impacts low-income people and people of color; in 2019; King County Metro revised its own, similar rules to take fare enforcement out of the courts and give riders multiple alternatives to paying fines. Sound Transit said it would like to consider decriminalizing fare enforcement, but its enabling legislation required the fines.

For the next year, as part of a pilot program aimed at testing out potential long-term changes, Sound Transit isn’t issuing citations and has replaced private security guards with “fare enforcement ambassadors” who work to educate people about how and when to pay their fare and how to access low-income ORCA cards, among other changes.

Legislation Eliminates One Objection to Sound Transit Fare Enforcement Reform

Image by SeattleDude via Wikimedia Commons

By Erica C. Barnett

Legislation that would make it easier for Sound Transit to adopt a fare enforcement system that does not involve the court or criminal justice system is coasting through the state senate after passing the house on a near-unanimous bipartisan vote.

House Bill 1301, originally sponsored by Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34, Seattle), gives Sound Transit the authority to create an “alternative fare enforcement system” that could include resolutions other than fines for people who fail to pay their fare. The state senate transportation committee voted unanimously on Tuesday to move the bill to the rules committee, the final step before a floor vote.

Sound Transit director Peter Rogoff and some Sound Transit board members have resisted reforming the agency’s fare enforcement procedures, arguing that removing penalties—which include steep fines that, if unpaid, can lead to criminal charges—would lead to revenue shortfalls as people simply stop paying fares. And although the agency has instituted some reforms in the wake of the pandemic, negative press, and data showing that fare enforcement disproportionately impacts Black riders, the changes it has made so far fall far short of King County Metro’s proactive approach, which focuses more on harm reduction and access than punishment and fines.

“There’s a law-and-order mentality that’s more pervasive in Sound Transit than at Metro, both among agency staff and the board.”—Transit Riders Union general secretary Katie Wilson

Advocates, who have pointed to King County Metro’s far-reaching fare reforms as a local best practice, have long been skeptical of the claim that Sound Transit is powerless to keep fare enforcement out of the court system, but say they’re happy to see the issue resolved beyond any doubt.

“They [Sound Transit] kept insisting that they couldn’t do what Metro was doing [to decriminalize fare nonpayment], and one of the excuses they started giving us was they were bound by Sound Transit’s authorizing legislation to use the court system for citations,” said Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union. “So that’s what this legislation takes care of.” Continue reading “Legislation Eliminates One Objection to Sound Transit Fare Enforcement Reform”

Afternoon Fizz, Part 2: Durkan Explains Odd Votes, City Funds Alternatives to Policing

The details of Sound Transit’s plan to lower fares on its Sounder commuter trains, which Mayor Jenny Durkan cast the lone vote against. 

1. Sound Transit’s full board voted unanimously on Thursday to approve a resolution updating the agency’s fare enforcement policies while keeping fare enforcement squarely within the courts and criminal justice system, after a dramatic discussion one week earlier, which PubliCola covered most recently here

Durkan, along with the rest of the board, voted for the fare enforcement motion, after noting that it was only a first step toward decriminalizing fare nonpayment entirely. 

Oddly, Durkan made exactly the opposite argument after casting the lone “no” vote on a proposal to lower fares for low-income, disabled, and elderly Sounder riders. Initially, Durkan cast the vote without comment, but revisited it several minutes later, saying that she wanted to clear up any confusion about why she voted against the fare reduction. (Her staff pays close attention to Twitter). “The reason I voted against that,” she said, “is, I believe that people should have free transit and not pay anything, and we should follow [the lead of] Seattle and give students and low-income people” access to free transit passes.

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Durkan has not proposed such a measure in her three years on the Sound Transit board. The reasoning Durkan gave for her vote also contradicts her own previous vote in favor of lowering fares on more widely used Sound Transit Express buses, as well as her vote in favor of the fare enforcement resolution just moments earlier, which she justified by saying, essentially, that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

Contacted after the vote, mayoral spokeswoman Kelsey Nyland said, “The Mayor believes that Sound Transit has the infrastructure and ability to make transit free for youth, low-income, older, and disabled riders, and she will continue to vote according to that belief and principle.”

2. During the same meeting, Durkan voted against an amendment to Sound Transit’s 2021 legislative agenda calling on legislators to “adopt legislation to base vehicle taxes on a more accurate and current value of a vehicle” for purposes of determining the Motor Vehicle Excise tax on which Sound Transit relies. Sound Transit’s valuation schedule was the subject of a lawsuit by vehicle owners who believe it unfairly overvalues more expensive, late-model used cars.

Durkan did not give the depreciation schedule as her reason for voting against the amendment—which county executive Dow Constantine voted for. Instead, she said she believes the MVET itself is inherently “regressive,” because many low-income people have no choice but to drive long distances to get to work, including those who commute to Sound Transit’s park and ride lots.

This claim that taxes on driving are inherently regressive has been made for decades, usually by people who have not owned a cheap used car for many years, if ever. Sound Transit’s valuation schedule may overvalue late-model used cars—the kind people buy for $30,000 at a dealer, for example—but it also appears to undervalue the older used cars that low-income people tend to actually drive. In this sense, it is actually a progressive tax—people who can afford to buy almost-new cars pay more, and those who buy 20-year-old cars for cash pay less. 

3. On Friday morning, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced $1 million in grants for community organizations to “develop alternatives to and address the harms created by incarceration, policing, and other parts of the criminal legal system.”
Continue reading “Afternoon Fizz, Part 2: Durkan Explains Odd Votes, City Funds Alternatives to Policing”