Tag: King County Metro

Metro Wants to Get Rid of Cash Fares. But Will Vulnerable Riders Be Left Behind?

Chart showing Metro fare revenue by fare typeBy Erica C. Barnett

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, King County Metro plans to rip out its existing fare boxes, which accept cash, tickets, and ORCA transit passes, and replace them with a cash-free payment system—part of a long-term plan to expedite boarding, integrate the county’s bus system with Sound Transit, and reduce conflicts between riders and drivers. “Every second you save at the curb is money you can reinvest at keeping service operating,” said Carol Cooper, Metro’s Market Innovations Section manager.

But going cashless could end up reducing access for some Metro riders, including low-income and homeless customers, infrequent riders, people with disabilities, and those who don’t speak English—to name just a few groups for whom buying and using ORCA cards can be a challenge. “There’s a great deal to be gained by ensuring that more people get ORCA Lift [low-income passes] and other subsidized ways to ride, but I don’t think those can wholly replace cash in the system,” Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness director Alison Eisinger said.

In a recent report on the future of Metro’s fare system, the agency outlined its plans for smoothing the transition to eliminating cash fares, which—according to Metro—will make boarding faster, ease conflicts between riders and drivers, and eliminate the need to periodically repair Metro’s 1,509 on-board fareboxes, which are a decades-old model that is no longer being produced. Replacing fareboxes with new ones that accommodate cash payments would cost around $29 million, Metro estimates—a substantial cost for a system that is still recovering from the pandemic. Cash riders also have to pay a second fare to transfer to Sound Transit trains and buses, a problem that will only become more acute as Metro terminates more routes at light rail stations.

The move toward a cashless on-board system is happening as Metro, Sound Transit, and other regional transit agencies switch to a new generation of ORCA cards that will cost less to purchase ($3 instead of the current $5 fee), include the option of tapping a smartphone app instead of a physical card, and allow people to ride with a negative balance of up to $2.75, the equivalent of a single bus fare.

“Our goal is not to put anyone in a position where they can’t access our service. We’re pulling out all the stops in trying to address all of the different barriers, and that’s why it’s going to take time and we’re going to continue to evaluate our ability to [go cash-free.]”—Carol Cooper, King County Metro

Although social service providers and advocates have argued for doing away with card fees entirely, at least for low-income riders, that’s unlikely; the fees will pay to set up the new system and distribute cards, including a $1.25-per-card fee to a contractor called Ready Credit Corporation, whose core business is prepaid debit cards.

Prior to the COVID pandemic, the amount of money Metro received from cash payments had declined steadily for several years, falling 40 percent between 2013 and 2019, when cash fares amounted to around $19 million. During the same period, the number of riders who said they used cash “on a regular basis” declined from 32 percent to 11 percent, according to the report. Over the last two years, however, the percentage of regular cash riders increased to 17 percent, largely because white-collar workers with employer-funded ORCA cards were no longer riding buses.

Metro’s report does not say how many people occasionally, as opposed to regularly, use cash. But even 11 percent of riders amounts to millions of bus rides a year—rides that will no longer be possible without an ORCA pass if and when Metro makes the switch.

During a stakeholder engagement process, representatives from groups representing “priority populations”—riders with disabilities, Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) riders, low-income and homeless riders, and those whose primary language is not English—pointed to barriers that currently prevent many of their constituents from using ORCA cards.

According to the report, “Nearly half of riders who pay cash report that the reason they do not use ORCA is that they don’t ride enough to make it worthwhile.” However, “priority population” riders were also more likely than the general population say they use cash because it’s “easier, they do not have a credit or debit card, or can’t afford the card fee,” which even ORCA Lift pass holders have to pay every time they replace a card.  Many low-income riders, the report notes, don’t qualify for ORCA Lift passes, which are limited to people making less than 200 percent or less of the federal level, or around $27,000. Even among those who were eligible for ORCA Lift, about half still paid their fares with cash.

Metro’s Cooper says that as part of its transition away from cash, the agency is taking steps to make it easier for people to access ORCA passes, including low-income fares and reduced fares for people with disabilities. “Our goal is not to put anyone in a position where they can’t access our service,” Cooper said. “We’re pulling out all the stops in trying to address all of the different barriers, and that’s why it’s going to take time and we’re going to continue to evaluate our ability to [go cash-free.]” Continue reading “Metro Wants to Get Rid of Cash Fares. But Will Vulnerable Riders Be Left Behind?”

Male Advisor Scott Lindsay Wrote City Attorney’s “Glass Ceiling” Email Calling Council Sexist; Bus Safety Audit Finds Most Incidents Aren’t Investigated

1. An email signed by then city attorney-elect Ann Davison calling the Seattle City Council sexist for proposing new reporting requirements for the City Attorney’s Office was originally written not by city attorney Ann Davison but by her male deputy, Scott Lindsay, emails obtained through a records request show.

Davison’s office sent the email to council members and the press in response to a council bill that would have required the office to inform the council before making any changes to, or eliminating, diversion programs that allow people accused of misdemeanors to avoid criminal charges, and provide quarterly reports to the council about the effectiveness of diversion programs.

“I have drafted an email for you to send to City Council with the idea that you would send it this morning by 8:30am before you head downtown. The hearing on the bill is at 9:30am,” the email from Lindsay to Davison explains. “The concept in this email (I was planning a letter but now think email is better) is to roll up your key messages (collaboration and listening, centering victim voices, transparency and problem-solving) into one strong intro piece that also highlights your focus on real public safety problems … I think this piece is strong and unique enough that it will certainly be noticed around City Hall and may help stir media interest in your transition.”

“I have drafted an email for you to send to City Council with the idea that you would send it this morning by 8:30am before you head downtown. I think this piece is strong and unique enough that it will certainly be noticed around City Hall and may help stir media interest in your transition.”—Deputy City Attorney Scott Lindsay, in an email to City Attorney Ann Davison

The email explicitly accused the council (which is made up of six women and three men) of targeting Davison because she is a woman. After describing the “unique barriers to women in the legal profession,” the email suggests the council was applying a “double standard”  based on Davison’s sex—one that sent a troubling message to “our daughters who may one day seek elected office.” (The line about daughters was not in Lindsay’s original email.)

“In the over 100-year history of the City Attorney’s Office, none of my male predecessors faced a single preemptive move by Council to establish additional reporting requirements and restrictions on operations in the two months before they took office. Nor did Council show any interest in scrutinizing the limited data provided by my predecessor,” Pete Holmes, the email says.

City council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold responded earnestly to the email, noting that the council passed similar reporting requirements while Davison’s predecessor, Pete Holmes, was in office. “I’m sorry that the reporting bill has been received in this spirit. I do not believe it was the sponsors’ intent, nor was it mine in voting in favor of the bill,” Herbold wrote.

The council ultimately passed the bill, but changed the language; instead of requiring Davison’s office to let the council know before making changes to existing diversion programs, it requires the city attorney’s office to inform the council within 90 days after the changes are made. The legislation also required the office to report back once a quarter on changes to pre-booking diversion programs.

2. An audit of accidents and other safety incidents at King County Metro found that the agency fails to investigate the vast majority of incidents, leading to data gaps and negatively impacting the transit agency’s ability to train drivers and prevent dangerous incidents in the future.

“Metro Transit dedicates most of its analysis to incidents where there was damage or injuries reported and that the operator may have been able to prevent,” the audit found. “Once an incident is determined to be non-preventable or less severe, Metro Transit does not take additional steps to analyze or respond to its context or causes.” Continue reading “Male Advisor Scott Lindsay Wrote City Attorney’s “Glass Ceiling” Email Calling Council Sexist; Bus Safety Audit Finds Most Incidents Aren’t Investigated”

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?”

Many Top Mayoral Candidates Support Free Transit. Here’s What Corporations Would Save.

Image by Atomic Taco, via Creative Commons

As the leading mayoral candidates establish (and sometimes alter) their positions on major campaign questions, including homelessness, growth, and transportation, a surprising consensus has emerged around an issue that wasn’t even on the table four years ago: Free public transit.

The city has slowly expanded programs subsidizing transit passes for students and low-income residents, providing free or reduced-cost passes to thousands of riders. But elected officials, as well as the leaders of Sound Transit and King County Metro, have balked at making transit free for everyone, arguing that free transit would punch a huge hole in their agencies’ budgets. About a quarter of both agencies’ budgets come from revenue collected at the farebox.

Current city council president Lorena González and former council member Bruce Harrell both said they support free fares, at least in concept, although González has been more enthusiastic in her support. At a forum sponsored by the MASS Coalition last month, González said she “would be committed to making sure that we initiate every effort we can to accomplish the goal of free public transit,” looking to US cities and cities in Europe that have made transit free, such as Talinn, Estonia, as examples.

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Jessyn Farrell, a former state legislator who directed the Transportation Choices Coalition, was more effusive, saying at the same forum that she “absolutely and with a great amount of enthusiasm” supported eliminating transit fares. “Free transit is a core component to getting us to net zero [carbon emissions],” she said. “And it is a core component to racial equity in our system and access and decriminalizing the use of our transit system.”

People who pay full price for public transit would benefit from fare-free transit, obviously. So would large and small businesses, which provide a substantial chunk of transit agencies’ revenue through free or subsidized transit passes for employees, including highly compensated tech workers who could easily afford to pay full fare. This raises potential equity questions, because free transit would shift the cost burden for these workers’ free transit from corporations like Amazon and Microsoft onto taxpayers. Continue reading “Many Top Mayoral Candidates Support Free Transit. Here’s What Corporations Would Save.”

Advocates Say It’s Time to Ditch the Old Transportation Funding Process

Anna Zivarts, Disability Rights Washington

by Leo Brine

Transportation advocates were actually pleased when lawmakers ended the most recent legislative session without passing a new transportation package.

After the transportation committees released their proposed revenue packages late in the session, transportation accessibility groups and environmentalists were disappointed by the outdated investment priorities. Wanting a more equitable transportation package, advocates repeated a line of critique they’ve been making for years: The state needs to find new transportation revenue sources and free up revenue that is otherwise restricted to highway spending.

However, and perhaps because their recommendations have gone unheeded for a decade, a new, more sweeping critique emerged in 2021: It’s time to dump the whole politicized “transportation package” model and create a new framework that assesses and prioritizes the state’s actual transportation needs.

Anna Zivarts, Director of the Disability Mobility Initiative for Disability Rights Washington, said the current system is a “pork model,” where legislators pick projects for their districts rather than investing in projects that make the whole state transportation system function better.

“A transportation system has to work across the state,” she said. “If you have everyone competing, that’s not going to create the best system overall.”

Advocates say lawmakers have too much power over which projects get funded and have political incentivizes to fund major highway expansion projects rather than expand transit services or improve pedestrian infrastructure. Featuring friction over projects, funding, regionalism, mode split, and maintenance versus new construction, the legislative ritual, akin to passing a kidney stone, played out in 2003, 2005, and 2015.

A new, more sweeping critique emerged in 2021: It’s time to dump the whole politicized “transportation package” model and create a new framework that assesses and prioritizes the state’s actual transportation needs.

In April, during the last weeks of the session, the House and Senate transportation committee chairs, Rep. Jake Fey (D-27, Tacoma) and Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens), shared their transportation revenue proposals. The House proposal would have spent $22 billion over 16 years, earmarking the majority of the dollars for highway projects, with about 20 percent going to multimodal projects. The Senate’s proposal would have spent $18 billion over the same period, with less than 10 percent going to multimodal projects.

Leah Missik, transportation policy manager for Climate Solutions, said lawmakers’ proposed investments in multimodal projects were a major step up from previous packages, but “continuously investing in road expansions is certainly not the way we want to go.”

In order to fix the state’s transportation system, Paulo Nunes-Ueno of Front and Centered, a BIPOC environmental group, said, “this package process needs to go.”  Transportation packages never meet people’s needs and are a hodgepodge of project ideas from legislators, he said. Instead, Nunes-Ueno says lawmakers should establish climate, infrastructure, and safety goals, and allocate funding to state and local agencies that would decide how to allocate funding on projects.

Hester Serebrin, policy director for the Transportation Choices Coalition, said politics play too great a role when lawmakers craft transportation packages. She said lawmakers are more likely to invest in large projects, like highway expansions or major road repairs, because they garner more attention than smaller multimodal projects. “This process doesn’t incentivize … projects that help people travel between places,” Serebrin said. “Instead it incentivizes larger, geographically isolated projects.”

Other advocates agree that politics should play less of a role in the state’s transportation system. Vlad Gutman, Climate Solutions’ Washington director, like Nunes-Ueno, wants legislators to devise a set of goals and values for Washington’s transportation infrastructure and allocate funding to state agencies who can come up with projects and programs to accomplish the goals.

In order to fix the state’s transportation system, Paulo Nunes-Ueno said, “this package process needs to go.”  Instead, Nunes-Ueno wants lawmakers to set climate, infrastructure, and safety goals and allocate funding to state and local agencies.

“We need to be selecting projects and investing and designing our transportation system in a sort of objective, metric-based way that also recognizes and inputs the needs of communities and people who are impacted and stakeholders of transportation,” he said.

To do so, he argued, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) should study the needs of the state and select projects based on those needs, “instead of [lawmakers] sort of piecemealing it by selecting projects one at a time,” Gutman said.

This participatory approach to transportation planning doesn’t make sense to Senate Transportation Chair Hobbs. “We’re in a democracy and legislators have a right to say how their districts should be supported by government,” he said.

Continue reading “Advocates Say It’s Time to Ditch the Old Transportation Funding Process”

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”

Lisa Herbold: Paying for Bridge Maintenance Benefits Everyone Who Uses Seattle’s Streets

By Lisa Herbold

Seattle is a city of hills and water; thus we are also a city of bridges. Our bridges are critical for mobility and both the local and regional economy.  Bridges are also critical transit infrastructure. That’s why I, along with Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Andrew Lewis, have introduced legislation, along with a companion budget action for 2021, that would create a new $20 vehicle license fee (VLF) to pay for critical bridge maintenance throughout the city. The fee, if it’s approved by the Council this week, will be added to the existing $20 fee that funds additional Metro bus hours through the Seattle Transportation Benefit District.

The closure of the West Seattle Bridge on March 23 placed Seattle’s dependence on its bridges in stark relief. Every person and business in West Seattle, or anyone going to West Seattle, has felt the impact of this closure. Before it was closed, the West Seattle Bridge carried 17,000 daily transit riders on 13 routes making 900 daily trips. Two of these routes—the RapidRide C Line and Route 120—were among the top 10 routes for ridership in all of King County.

But the West Seattle Bridge is hardly the only vulnerable bridge in Seattle; for decades, funding for critical maintenance has fallen short, allowing the city’s bridges to fall into further and further disrepair. In September, the City Auditor released an audit, requested by Councilmember Pedersen, that focused on 77 bridges owned and operated by the Seattle Department of Transportation. That audit reported that bridge funding is well below the minimum annual $34 million level needed for the long-term health of this critical infrastructure.

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The audit notes the overall condition of SDOT’s bridges has declined during the last decade and that Seattle is “not spending enough on the upkeep and preservation of its bridges, and risks becoming out of compliance with federal regulations.” This is, unfortunately, consistent with previous findings on the state of Seattle’s bridges, including an SDOT report from 2013 that found that 43 of the city’s bridges were “functionally obsolete,” and suggested that the city had a bridge maintenance backlog of nearly $2 billion.

We must address this underinvestment and protect our Frequent Transit Network, which includes all routes that operate with frequencies of 15 minutes or less for most of the day. Continue reading “Lisa Herbold: Paying for Bridge Maintenance Benefits Everyone Who Uses Seattle’s Streets”

King County Council Debates Bus Service Priorities and the Meaning of “Equity”

King County Council member Rod Dembowski, in pre-COVID times (flanked, L-R, by King County Executive Dow Constantine and council members Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Joe McDermott)

by Erica C. Barnett

The King County Council shelved a budget proposal by North Seattle council member Rod Dembowski yesterday that would have kept 47,000 hours of bus service inside Dembowski’s district after the Northgate light rail station opens next year. The proposal came in the form of a budget proviso, or restriction on spending, that would have withheld $5.4 million in funding for King County Metro unless the bus service went to North King County.

The hours will become available because King County Metro is shutting down its Route 41 bus line, which duplicates the light rail route. Instead of being redistributed throughout North Seattle to feed commuters to the new light rail line, as Dembowski proposed, those hours are likely to go to South King County, where King County Metro’s equity analysis shows the need is greatest.

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Dembowski argued that Metro’s usual practice is to reallocate service freed up by light rail into nearby neighborhoods, to make light rail more accessible. “We’re doing this all around the county,” he said. While this has been the practice in the past, it is not required—and Metro’s new Mobility Framework, created in collaboration with community groups over the past year, calls for new or reallocated service hours to go into communities where the need is greatest, regardless of where they originated.

“Every time there’s service changes, if we start to put our thumb on the scale or try and use the budget as a tool to try to slip through something that carves out hours, it undercuts established policies and it also undercuts our commitment to equity,” council member Dave Upthegrove, who represents South King County, says. “It goes around our established processes and guidelines, and that’s a dangerous road to go down.”

The debate, which centered on the question of what constitutes equitable transit service during a time of sweeping budget cuts, concerned a small slice of Metro’s overall budget. But it was also a preview for the battles that will play out over the next year, as Metro adopts new service guidelines that will benefit the county’s most underserved communities while diverting funds from areas that are, on average, wealthier and whiter.

“Every time there’s service changes, if we start to put our thumb on the scale or try and use the budget as a tool to try to slip through something that carves out hours, it undercuts established policies and it also undercuts our commitment to equity.”—King County council member Dave Upthegrove

Last year, before a global pandemic forced massive cuts to bus service and decimated transit agency revenues, King County Metro adopted a new “mobility framework” to guide future transit service decisions with an eye toward equity and economic and racial justice. The framework, developed by Metro in collaboration with an Equity Cabinet made up of 23 community leaders from across the county, was a precursor for revised Metro service guidelines, which will replace existing guidelines that emphasize ridership and geographic distribution, including in “areas where low-income and minority populations are concentrated.” Among other changes, the new framework recommends concentrating new (and reallocated) service in areas with high density, a high proportion of low-income people, people of color, people with disabilities, and those with limited English skills. 

Community members who turned out to speak against Dembowski’s proposal talked about the challenges they face as bus riders in South King County. Najhan Bell, a student and retail worker, described a grueling daily routine: Up at 9 to catch a 10:15 bus that will take her, via two transfers, to her noon-to-9 shift at IKEA in Renton; leave work at 9 to do the same grueling commute in reverse; and land home at midnight to study for a few hours before getting up to do it all again. Bell said that if Metro was going to uphold its commitment to equity, it “must continue to put efforts into increasing service in areas in South King County so that people like me don’t have to spend most of their day waiting on a bus.”

The members of the Equity Cabinet, along with Transportation Choices Coalition, Disability Rights Washington, and other advocacy groups, wrote a joint letter to the council on Tuesday opposing Dembowski’s amendment.

Continue reading “King County Council Debates Bus Service Priorities and the Meaning of “Equity””

Morning Fizz: Some Good Budget News, a Durkan Departure, and Putting Fare Evasion in Context

1. Last month, Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff scoffed at the suggestion that the regional transit agency should stop sending riders to court over unpaid fines for fare evasion, arguing that efforts by King County Metro to offer alternative dispute resolution options have been a failure. “Within King County, some 90 percent of [alternative resolution participants] never show up for their appointment and then nothing becomes of those cases, which is to say that there is no consequence for persistent violators in that circumstance,” Rogoff said.

Rogoff’s number is correct—of the 4,039 fare violations Metro recorded in 2019, 403 were resolved (meaning that the person either paid a fine directly to Metro, added money to their ORCA card in lieu of a fine, or used another alternative resolution route), according to Metro’s latest fare violation report, issued last April. However, that statement is missing some important context about the mission and purpose of transit. And it ignores the fact that a 10 percent resolution rate actually represents a significant improvement over the previous resolution rate of just 3 percent under the previous, punitive system, in which all unpaid fines went to court and collections.

Fare enforcement has been a contentious issue for Sound Transit, where failure to provide proof of payment to fare inspection officers can result in a $124 fine plus late fees, damage to credit, and even misdemeanor charges if a rider fails to pay their fine. The agency has agreed to make some changes to its policies, including new uniforms, clearer signage, additional warnings, and lower fines.

But they have resisted adopting alternative resolution options for people who can’t pay, arguing that this concession would reduce revenues as people realized there was no real penalty for nonpayment, raising costs to taxpayers and potentially impacting future capital projects or service. (For perspective, fare evasion cost Sound Transit, on net, around $550,000 last year.)

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The debate over fare evasion is really about the purpose of transit and the mission of transit agencies.

Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer says the agency’s fare enforcement policy isn’t primarily about fare revenue at all. In taking fare enforcement out of the court system and offering alternatives to fines, “Our goal was to decriminalize fare evasion and work to get fare resources into riders’ hands,” while “reducing and minimizing harm to people and not involving law enforcement,” he said. This goal is reflected in Metro’s fare enforcement mission statement: “to help minimize King County Metro Fare Enforcement Program’s contribution to negative outcomes for some of King County Metro’s most vulnerable riders.”

“Our goal was to decriminalize fare evasion and work to get fare resources into riders’ hands,” while “reducing and minimizing harm to people and not involving law enforcement.” — Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer

But even Sound Transit’s more conventional fare enforcement mission—”to understand the impacts of our current program and develop recommendations that provide an equitable and customer-focused experience, including safety for all riders and integrity of decision making, while ensuring strong financial stewardship of taxpayer dollars—is still compatible with adopting a more lenient fare enforcement policy. That’s because in reality, few riders on either system actually fail to pay their fare.

Historically, Metro has set a fare evasion target of no more than 5 percent; in 2019, actual fare evasion on routes where Metro deploys fare enforcement officers averaged 4 percent, down from 5 percent the previous year. If the argument for sending people to court for failure to pay a $3 fare rests on the argument that not doing so will lead to rampant fare evasion, Metro’s example is showing that, so far at least, this worst-case scenario has not come to pass.

2. The city council and Mayor Jenny Durkan got some good budget news for once on Monday, when the city budget office issued a new revenue forecast for 2020 and 2021 that adds $36 million to the city’s general fund in 2020 and $32.5 million in 2021. The CBO attributed the new, higher projections to increased sales and business and occupation (B&O) taxes between July and September, “driven by significant improvement in the national and regional economic forecasts, particularly employment, personal income and personal outlays.” Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Some Good Budget News, a Durkan Departure, and Putting Fare Evasion in Context”

Morning Fizz: What Is Transit For?

Mockup of new, clearer signage Sound Transit has proposed to reduce fare evasion and errors

1. Sound Transit board members had some pointed questions for agency CEO Peter Rogoff on Thursday, when staffers presented the agency’s plan to address concerns about fare enforcement to the board.

The proposed changes, which come after months of community outreach and both onboard and online surveys, include new signage that will indicate more clearly that people must pay fare in order to enter light rail stations; reduced fines for people who still fail to pay their fare; more warnings before a rider receives a fine; and new, in-house “fare education ambassadors” who will replace the private security guards who currently check fares and issue citation.

Board members, including Joe McDermott (West Seattle), Claudia Balducci (Bellevue), Victoria Woodards (Tacoma), Dave Upthegrove (Federal Way), and Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan, wanted to know why Sound Transit staff have not proposed taking fare evasion and fines out of the court system, as King County Metro has done. Failure to pay fare on Sound Transit’s system, which includes Link Light Rail as well as express buses and Sounder trains, can result in a $124 fine plus late payments and potential criminal penalties if a rider does not pay the penalty. Unpaid fines can end up in collections and can damage a rider’s credit for years.

What would it take, Balducci asked, to get the staff to take requests from board members seriously and come up with a plan that didn’t expose riders to financial hardship and a potential criminal record for failing to pay a $3 fare?

“The challenge we have is figuring out for those folks who are persistent fare violators and are not among those classes that I just cited—people who clearly are economically distressed or are drug-addicted or homeless—what, then, do we do, if not the courts?” Rogoff said.

It’s unclear exactly how many people fit into the category of “persistent fare violators” that Rogoff described. According to Sound Transit spokeswoman Rachelle Cunningham, about 7.6 percent of riders did not pay their fares in October. (Sound Transit has been charging fares since July, after making rides free for several months in response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Currently, fare enforcement officers do not scan riders’ cards individually to see if they’ve paid their fare; instead, they ask riders to show that they have a card or a ticket.)

“Fares are critical to pay for transit services, and Peter’s comments referenced concerns about the potential level of non-compliance that could result if penalties were reduced to the point that it became known over time that there was little or no consequence for fare evasion,” Cunningham said. “The result of that would be increased costs for taxpayers and potential impacts on projects and services. It can be reasonably assumed that some segment of riders, potentially increasing over time, would respond with chronic fare evasion.”

But there may be an additional reason Sound Transit is so reluctant to bring fare evasion penalties in-house. “State law vests the District Court with exclusive jurisdiction to impose fines for fare evasion infractions,” Cunningham says. In other words: The state legislation that created the agency establishes that failing to pay fare is a civil infraction that must go through district court. Taking fare enforcement out of the jurisdiction of local courts might require a change in state law. Historically, Sound Transit has tried to avoid reopening its authorizing legislation, since Republican legislators have tried to change it in the past to, for example, make Sound Transit’s board an elected body.

“Difficult” is not the same thing as “impossible.” But any major changes to Sound Transit’s fare enforcement policy would require a significant shift in thinking at the agency about its mission as well as the reasons people don’t pay fares. Rogoff’s response indicated that his longstanding position on “fare evasion”—a concept that implies conscious ill intent, if not outright criminality—has not changed, even as the political environment in Seattle and across the country undergoes a seismic shift.

At a time when agencies at all levels of government are working to undo and prevent future harm to Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities, Rogoff is still drawing distinct lines between the people who don’t deserve to get caught up in the criminal justice system—”someone who’s poor… someone who’s homeless, someone who’s drug-addicted”—and the modern-day turnstile jumpers who will keep robbing the system unless there are harsh consequences when they do.

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During yesterday’s meeting, Rogoff suggested that King County’s alternative fine resolution program, which is intended for people who can’t pay that agency’s $50 maximum fine, has been something of a failure. “Within King County, some 90 percent of [alternative resolution participants] never show up for their appointment and then nothing becomes of those cases, which is to say that there is no consequence for persistent violators in that circumstance,” Rogoff said. “We need a better mousetrap, and we’re trying to figure that out with the community and with King County Metro.” Continue reading “Morning Fizz: What Is Transit For?”