Tag: King County Metro

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?”

Alex Hudson: The Path to a Just Transportation Recovery

By Alex Hudson

When the pandemic began and much of the world stopped moving, public transit carried on, connecting essential workers to jobs and people to food, health care, and other critical services. Bus drivers bravely continued working to get people where they needed to go, and adapted to help deliver food to seniors and patients to care. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a deep truth: public transit is, and always will be, essential.

There is worry that ridership is down now and won’t return. These fears are based on a return to pre-COVID levels of congestion and skyrocketing used car sales. But the risks of veering away from transit in a post-pandemic world are huge. If drivers get back in their cars exclusively, we’ll cut people off from opportunity and will be stuck in worse congestion than before, resulting in wasted time, more greenhouse gases and toxic pollutants that make our planet less livable, and hundreds of lives lost to preventable crashes.

The vision for public transit in a post-pandemic Puget Sound hasn’t changed: It must be fast, frequent, reliable and affordable. COVID-19 has simply underscored the urgency of addressing how we plan for and fund it. As we recover, the smart and most affordable investment we can make is in building a resilient and accessible public transit system that connects people to opportunities, creates good paying jobs, and supports our climate goals.

Here are three steps we can take to get there:

Invest in transit like it’s a key part of a just economic recovery—because it is. There can be no economic recovery without well-funded public transit. In Seattle, essential workers account for 33 percent of transit riders. These folks keep Seattle’s hospitals running, our grocery stores stocked, and provide social service, caretaking and education that all of us are depending on. In addition to getting people to their jobs, transit investments create good, green, family-wage jobs that last. An analysis of the 2009 stimulus package found that stimulus dollars spent on transit projects created more jobs than dollars spent building or maintaining highways. “To create the most jobs per dollar, invest in transit and maintenance,” the analysis concluded.

Transportation is a household’s second-highest cost, and the average household in King County spends more than $12,500 per year on their vehicles. In 2019, seven million Americans were at least three months behind on their car loans. As unemployment remains high and household finances are stretched to the breaking point, public transit is a desperately-needed affordable alternative to driving that millions of people across the country are counting on.

To keep our communities strong during this challenging economic climate, public transit must be centered in recovery plans and cannot be left out of the federal stimulus packages. All new COVID relief funding on the local, state, and federal levels must include investments for transit, teleliving, biking, walking, and rolling. To make sure this happens, we have to continue building strong coalitions across business, labor, environmental, and social justice advocates. We need everyone at the table.

Pay for it now, or pay the price later. Transit is a fundamental pillar of a functional economy, yet we have seen that the funding that keeps transit moving is fragile and overlooked at every level of government. TransitCenter estimates that across the country, transit agencies will see a $26 billion-$40 billion annual shortfall due to COVID. Declines in fare revenue, as well as the underlying supporting taxes, leave our agencies facing extreme budget shortfalls and elected leaders grappling with no easy choices.

Funding for transit in Washington has never been resilient or adequate. The 18th Amendment to our state Constitution restricts how we can spend transportation dollars. Rather than using gas tax money to create a more efficient and sustainable system overall, the state is forced to funnel money into highway projects, many of which only further pollution and congestion. This outdated restriction must be reconsidered—our social, economic and environmental future depends on it.

Washington lacks progressive revenue options for transit, and the passage of I-976 left local governments with even fewer tools. We need to move away from regressive, restrictive, and volatile sources of funding like the gas tax and replace them with sustainable and resilient funding options, like an equitably designed road user charge or congestion pricing and a statewide air quality surcharge. While working toward reform, we must continue to utilize the existing tools and support local transit ballot measures, starting by passing Seattle Proposition 1 and renewing the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, which funds transit investments in Seattle, for another six years.

Prioritize racial equity in our recovery plan and undue long standing disparities. The pandemic has exacerbated inequities that exist within and are caused by our transportation system. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) experience disproportionate impacts through exposure to air and noise pollution caused by racist planning decisions which built traffic arterials and highways in their communities, lowering home values, separating communities, and increasing exposure to air and noise pollution and preventable traffic violence. Health disparities caused by exposure to air pollution, such as higher rates of asthma, have left BIPOC communities more vulnerable to contracting COVID. Creating an equitable transportation system is literally a matter of life or death for BIPOC communities in Washington. Continue reading “Alex Hudson: The Path to a Just Transportation Recovery”

King County Executive Highlights Criminal Justice Reform in Budget Preview

By Paul Kiefer

On Wednesday afternoon, King County Executive Dow Constantine previewed a number of new programs he will propose as part of his 2021-2022 county budget plan next week, including alternatives to jail, community-based public safety alternatives, and divestments from the current criminal legal system. “We took up a simple refrain to guide our budget: divest, invest, and reimagine,” Constantine said. “As we support community members in co-creating our shared future, we make an important down payment on building a strong, equitable, and racially just county.”

Toward that end, Constantine proposed spending $6.2 million over the next two years on a new program called Restorative Community Pathways. According to Department of Public Defense Director Anita Khandelwal, the program would refer 800 juvenile offenders away from the criminal justice system per year and instead provide “community-based support, mentorship, and targeted interventions.”

Those services would be provided largely by the three nonprofits involved in the program’s development: Community Passageways, Creative Justice, and Choose 180, which also all contract with the City of Seattle for violence prevention or youth diversion programs. The initial $6.2 million investment would also fund support for victims of crimes and a new “restitution fund,” which would cover court-mandated fines and financial obligations for juvenile offenders who can’t afford them.

According to a press release from Constantine’s office, the county hopes to get the program off the ground by 2022, and “eventually” fund it entirely through cost savings from the King County Superior Court, the Department of Public Defense, and the King County Prosecutor’s Office.

Constantine’s budget proposal also includes $2.7 million for restorative justice services for adults facing their first criminal charges for nonviolent crimes. According to King County Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Casey McNerthey, the program would primarily serve those charged with property or low-level drug crimes, but could also include other nonviolent offenders. The adult program would rely on the same three nonprofit partners responsible for Restorative Community Pathways.

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After the press conference, Community Passageways CEO Dominique Davis told PubliCola that his group would assume responsibility for felony diversion, while Creative Justice would manage other elements of both restorative justice programs. Community Passageways doesn’t take referrals for anyone older than 27, but if the county decided to expand the program to serve people over 27, Davis is hopeful that other nonprofits could pitch in. “If in the first year we actually save the city and the county a lot of money [in court and incarceration costs], then we could tap groups like LEAD that already work with older adults,” Davis said. “We really don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

The proposed restorative justice programs would work in tandem with Constantine’s vision of a $1.9 million decrease spending on the the county jail. “With fewer people in jail,” Constantine said, “we will be able, in this biennium, to close one of the [12] floors of the downtown jail.” Since the beginning of the year, the county has already reduced the jail’s daily population from 1,900 to 1,300, and Constantine said he intends to continue that downward trend and increase the county’s savings in future years.

Constantine also proposed transferring $4.6 million of the county’s marijuana tax revenues from the sheriff’s office to three new programs: one helping those with past marijuana convictions clear their records and settle unpaid court fines and restitution; a “youth marijuana prevention” and employment program run by the county’s Department of Local Services in unincorporated King County; and a “community-centered advisory body” that would determine how the county spends marijuana tax revenue in the future.

The county also plans to suspend fare enforcement on King County Metro buses, even as they reinstate fares in October, and reassess the county’s $4.7 million fare enforcement contract with the private company Securitas. Interim Metro general manager Terry White added that when fare enforcement resumes in 2021, Metro will “use non-fine alternative approaches” for those who can’t afford to pay fare, ranging from community service to providing connections to social service agencies.

Constantine will present his budget to the King County Council, which has final say over most aspects of the proposal, on September 22.

Plan to Preserve Metro Bus Service Heads for November Ballot

After a lengthy debate over the correct size and duration for the proposed renewal of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District—a Seattle-only tax originally intended to supplement King County Metro bus service—the city council voted unanimously to put a six-year, 0.15 percent sales tax proposal to fund bus service on the November ballot. The measure will provide a little over $39 million a year for bus service, compared to $56 million a year under the measure that expires this year—enough to preserve between 150,000 and 200,000 hours of existing in-city service.

The original 2014 STBD ballot measure included a $60 vehicle-license fee, which was supplemented by a $20 fee passed by the council, but the city has been unable to spend the revenues from either fee since Washington state voters passed the car-tab-killing Initiative 976 last year; the state Supreme Court is set to rule on the initiative’s constitutionality later this year.

It’s a sign of how much the funding landscape has changed that the biggest debates on Monday were about whether to preserve the sales tax approved by voters in 2014 at its existing level, as Mayor Jenny Durkan proposed, or increase it slightly, and on whether the funding package should last four years or six. Every option the council considered would, at best, offset service reductions from the county—a major difference from the original 2014 ballot measure, which expanded transit service by 350,000  hours

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Proponents of a larger tax hike—to 0.2 percent—argued that it may be possible, in theory, to reduce the tax after the county passes its own region-wide taxing measure, or when a court overturns I-976, making car tab revenue available again. Opponents expressed skepticism that voters would pass a significant tax increase during a recession that has already resulted in unprecedented unemployment. “Even though a 0.1 percent regressive tax maybe isn’t going go be the straw that but the aggregate impact is something that I’m very concerned about,” council member Andrew Lewis said.

Along somewhat similar lines, proponents of a shorter-term ballot measure—four years, as opposed to six—argued that a levy that expired earlier would light a fire under the city and county to come up with a regional ballot measure whose cost and benefits would be spread across the entire county instead of concentrated in Seattle. Opponents (those who supported a six-year renewal) argued that a six-year measure would put the city in a stronger bargaining position with the county if and when the county gets around to proposing a regional measure.

Worth noting: Although most council members seemed optimistic that a countywide transit measure would pass, very recent history suggests otherwise. The whole reason the city proposed a Seattle-only ballot measure in 2014 is that a countywide measure failed overwhelmingly earlier that same year, losing by double-digit margins in the suburbs, and by eight points overall. The fact is that the county could put together a regional bus funding measure on the city’s preferred timeline, only to see it fail—an outcome that may be more likely, not less, during an economic downturn.

The proposal that passed Monday also includes a measure limiting the portion of the new tax that can be spent on things like low-income transit passes, rather than service hours, to $10 million—the same cap as in the mayor’s original 0.1 percent proposal—and increases the amount that can be spent on “emergent needs,” such as bus service for West Seattle residents stranded by the closure of the West Seattle Bridge, to $9 million.

Council member Alex Pedersen, who sponsored the original 0.1 percent legislation and was the only council member to vote against expanding it to 0.15 percent, said the unanimous vote demonstrated that “despite the divisions and conflicts that many people might see reported in the media, the mayor and city council can pull together and row in the same pos direction when we direct our energy toward the hard responsibility of governing. … It may not be perfect for each of us, but it is necessary for everyone.” And with those less-than-rousing words, the stopgap transit funding measure headed toward the November ballot.

Metro Could Require Reservations for Late-Night Service

King County Metro is asking people who use its late-night bus service to provide feedback on whether the transit agency should require reservations to take the bus between 1am and 5am. The online survey describes the new “concept” this way: “a reservation-based system [in which a]ll passengers boarding buses between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. would book their essential trip in advance using a free reservation system (interpreter and TTY services would be available).” 

Currently, Metro requires riders to wear masks and maintain six feet of separation from others—a requirement that works out to a maximum of 12 riders on a 40-foot bus and 18 on a 60-foot bus. After those limits are reached, drivers are allowed to pass up riders waiting for the bus. The reservation system, according to the survey, would “ensure there is enough space on transit to support essential trips during Night Owl service.”

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Torie Rynning, a spokeswoman for Metro general manager Rob Gannon, said Metro is considering a reservation-based system after hearing “from some riders who are not able to board their desired bus due to our ‘social distancing’ capacity limits.” Rynning said Metro doesn’t have details about what a reservation system might look like, but it would likely require, at minimum, access to a phone. Rynning said requiring reservations is just one option Metro is considering for late-night service; another is “increasing [the] supplemental service] that Metro has already added on the routes with the highest late-night ridership.

According to Metro, ridership has decreased dramatically during the late-night hours, declining between 53 and 57 percent overall between 10pm and 5am.

Both Metro and Sound Transit, the regional rail and bus agency, have struggled with the question of how (and whether) to accommodate so-called “non-destinational riders”—a euphemism, generally speaking, for homeless people who seek warmth and shelter on buses and trains—at a time when space on transit is at a premium and transit is free. Sound Transit has decided to resume charging fares (and fare enforcement) on June 1. Metro has also set a “target date” of May 31 to start charging fares again.

As Metro Considers Its Post-COVID Future, Agency Resists Calls to Crack Down on Homeless Riders

This article originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

It wasn’t so long ago — just 2018 — that Seattle could be proud of its status as the only city in the nation where transit ridership was actually going up, and the number of people commuting to the center city by car was going down. COVID-19 didn’t just reverse this trend; it obliterated it. Ridership on King County Metro buses is down about 73%, while ridership on Sound Transit’s light rail line has shrunk an estimated 70%. In an attempt to protect drivers from riders who might be COVID-positive, both agencies eliminated fares, and Metro implemented back-door-only boarding, in March. Both agencies also cut service, which has led to overcrowding on popular routes, such as the Route 7, that serve essential workers getting to and from the center city.

In response to complaints, Metro added more service in April. But they also limited the number of riders who can be on a bus at one time, which has meant that people waiting at bus stops are sometimes passed up because buses are over capacity. This has created tensions, which have coalesced around so-called “non-destination riders” — people who are not going to work or running essential errands, and who generally happen to be homeless. The number of non-destination riders is higher, proportionally, than it was before. But it’s also higher in absolute terms, because libraries, community centers and day shelters — all the places people experiencing homelessness used to go during the day — are closed. This leaves only a few places for people without homes to sit down, get warm and doze off for a while.

Some riders and drivers began calling on King County Metro to address the problem by barring homeless people from riding. Other suggestions included kicking them off at the end of the line, starting to charge fares again or forcing them to wear masks. Seattle is hardly the only city whose homeless population is using buses as a substitute for shelter during the pandemic. And it’s far from the only city where people have accused homeless riders of crowding the transit system, or making it dirty or putting people at risk by not wearing masks. Leaders of some transit systems have rushed to judgment — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo stained his legacy by stating that homeless riders were “disgusting and disrespectful.” But to their credit, Metro, and its general manager, Rob Gannon, have not.

In a wide-ranging conversation this week, Gannon talked about non-destination riders, how Metro will get people back onto buses again, and the agency’s financial future.

Let’s start with what the new normal looks like. How much has ridership fallen off, and where is Metro currently seeing the highest ridership? 

Even though our ridership was down dramatically — between 70 and 75 percent—we’re still seeing about 100,000 boardings each day. If you look out your window and see an empty bus, that is not a guarantee that that bus is going to be empty the entire trip.

The more heavily-used routes are in the South End and southeast King County. On the RapidRide lines — the A, the E, the D Line — we continue to see a level of ridership that makes it difficult to have a coach that is not subject to crowding conditions, which is why we’re trying to add back service.

“We will see delays in portions of our RapidRide program, but that doesn’t mean we are mothballing those lines.”

Farebox revenues are currently nonexistent, and sales taxes, which are always volatile, are likely to take a long-term hit. How have you balanced the need to add more buses with the need to keep Metro’s budget in line with the current revenue reality?

We’re anticipating that the lost revenue associated with the pandemic response — meaning, sales tax being severely depleted and farebox not recovering because we’re operating with free fares right now — will amount to $220 million to $265 million in losses in 2020. That is now offset by about $243 million coming in [from the federal CARES Act], so we are sustainable for the current year.

What we don’t know is what the longer-term impact of the pandemic will be on the economy — when will sales tax begin to rebound and when will ridership start to come back? So our 2021-‘22 outlook is pretty stark right now. We see a recession coming and we know the Seattle Transit Benefit District [a Seattle tax that adds service inside the city] is set to expire at the end of this year. And we know that the city continues to deliberate about when and how to bring that measure back in front of the voters. I-976 [an initiative that will, if upheld, slash revenues from car taxes and fees] brings uncertainty, generally, to the financing of public transportation. So 2021 and 2022 are going to be a period where we have to consider service reductions, and the where and the how of that is something we’re going to continue to assess.

“I’m not going to deny that the non-destinational riders present a challenge, especially when that group is seeking to use our buses as a shelter. That is a challenge that is not unique to transit systems. That is a pervasive challenge of homelessness, and the lack of services that are currently available is exacerbating that situation.”

It’s hard to believe that as recently as March, Metro was holding open houses throughout Southeast Seattle on route options for the RapidRide R, which is supposed to replace the Route 7 on Rainier Ave. S. Are this route and the other planned RapidRide lines being put on hold?

The planning is not on hold. In high-level terms, when we identified those RapidRide corridors as places to enhance the service experience and to enhance the way customers can get where they need to go, that was based on some well-founded analysis and community participation. We still think those are all the right areas. The question now becomes: will we have the resources to stay on that investment timeline? We’re still doing planning, we’re still going to figure out how to engage the community, we’re still going to bring those services online. We will see delays in portions of our RapidRide program, but that doesn’t mean we are mothballing those lines.

There have been complaints from drivers and riders about homeless people riding the bus and not wearing masks or taking up seats on buses that are supposed to only be for essential rides. How do you respond to these complaints, and what is Metro currently doing to ensure rider and driver safety? 

First and foremost, we’re trying to make sure that our bus system is safe and reliable in this current health crisis. It started very early with daily cleaning of the buses, disinfecting, moving to a free-fare situation to limit the amount of interaction at the front of the coach, putting up a safety strap [between the front and back of the bus], and doing rear-door boarding. We have also been in everyday contact with our employees, trying to understand what conditions they face and how we can make it safer for them, fulfilling requests for PPEs, outfitting operators with sanitation kits and gloves and hand sanitizer and wipes, and, on April 11, bringing masks into the equation [for drivers]. So a lot of that isn’t about the non-destinational rider. It’s about how do we make the system safe for all those who use it?

The rider that is finding shelter on the coach — in one sense, we all find shelter on a coach, because it is the alternative to walking, to being exposed to the elements. What we hope to see is that a rider comes on board, pays a fare, and rides to a specific destination. When they don’t, when they try to use the bus as a shelter, it inevitably presents problems of crowding. It makes it more difficult to keep the buses as clean as possible. There is occasionally conduct inconsistent with the guidance for the transit system, and we have seen an increase in those incidents. Continue reading “As Metro Considers Its Post-COVID Future, Agency Resists Calls to Crack Down on Homeless Riders”

Driving a Metro Bus Through the Pandemic

The post excerpted here originally ran on Huffington Post, where you can read the entire piece.

Driving a city bus has always had its hazards. Until recently, exposure to a deadly pandemic was not among them. But as most workers are staying home to avoid exposure to the coronavirus, bus drivers remain on the front lines, transporting strangers around the city in what one driver referred to as “rolling petri dishes.”

With protective equipment such as masks and gloves in short supply, drivers say they have no way of knowing whether they’ve been exposed. Every interaction with a rider, another driver said, is a potential opportunity for infection: “Everybody’s got a gun now, but we don’t know who has bullets.”

In Seattle, where the first U.S. cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, were detected in February, conversations with nearly a dozen bus drivers revealed widespread anxiety about driver and passenger safety.

While many drivers sympathize with riders who still rely on buses to get to work or the store ― or just have nowhere else to go ―  some drivers said they didn’t understand why so many buses were still on the road. They have no idea how many of their fellow drivers have been infected because the public transit authority, King County Metro, won’t say. And drivers are frustrated with what they see as a lack of clear direction from management about how to protect themselves, when to stay home, and how they will be compensated if they take time off.

Nathan Vass is a veteran Metro driver who recently decided to take unpaid time off because he thinks he may have been exposed to the coronavirus. He said that his route, which is one of the busiest in the city, has remained crowded through the pandemic — an observation confirmed by Metro’s ridership statistics, which show that buses serving lower-income areas, like the one Vass drives, have seen much lower reductions than commuter and suburban routes.

Vass said he’s not sure what’s worse: Failing to serve people who rely on transit by shutting the buses down, or allowing the virus to spread unchecked by keeping them in service.

“If we’re going to continue allowing transit, we have to be OK with the fact that we’re spreading the virus as well,” said Vass, who recently published a book chronicling his experiences as a bus driver. “Transit is just not conducive to restricting the transmission of viruses.”

Metro, like other transit systems across the country, has reduced service dramatically during the pandemic. But drivers in Seattle — unlike, for example, in Vancouver, Canada, where the bus agency recently closed off every second row of seats — have been offered limited official options for enforcing social distance.

A recorded message, which is only in English, instructs riders to sit six feet apart, but that’s an impossible standard to achieve on the more crowded routes. And even if riders do sit six feet apart, the coronavirus lingers on surfaces, so if an infected person sneezes on a handrail or touches a seat with dirty hands, they can still infect the next person who sits there.

At the same time, Metro has officially designated bus drivers “first responders” and instructed all drivers who don’t show COVID-19 symptoms to keep showing up for work, even if they think they’ve been exposed to the virus.

“That is the opposite of everything we’ve been told, from CDC on down,” said Audrey Monroe, who has driven for Metro for almost four years. “It seems wild to me that that’s their policy when we know that you can have no symptoms and still be shedding the virus.”

Metro will not say how many drivers have been infected. According to King County Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer, releasing illness numbers “could lead to individuals being identified and could cause other spaces to be mistakenly seen as being without risk,” and might cause drivers not to seek needed medical care. A driver for Community Transit, an agency that serves the suburbs north of Seattle, died of COVID-19 last month; so far, the agency has confirmed 10 cases among its drivers.

Read the rest of this piece at HuffPost.

Sound Transit Considers Fare Enforcement Reforms, Touts Survey Suggesting Most “Fare Evaders” Could Afford to Pay

Sound Transit says this distribution of reasons riders said they failed to pay shows that “most riders are able to pay” their fares, which range from $2.25 to $5.75 for a one-way ride.

After a fare-checking incident on the first day of school led to widespread criticism of Sound Transit’s fare-enforcement policies, the agency said it would reconsider how it checks and enforces fare—just as soon as it could complete an in-person rider survey, an onboard rider survey, and a series of focus groups to determine what issues riders were most concerned about and the reasons people engage in “fare evasion” on Sound Transit trains. (“Fare evasion” is a term that suggests intent, or even theft, but it includes many situations where the “evasion” is unintentional, such as when a person buys an unlimited monthly pass but forgets to “tap” her card before boarding; hence the scare quotes)

For the onboard surveys, staffers shadowed fare enforcement officers until they caught someone without proof of payment, then gave them a survey about why they didn’t pay. The most common responses were that the rider forgot to tap their card, that their card didn’t work, or that they “couldn’t find where to tap.” This finding, according to the survey, “provides further support for the finding that most riders are able to pay but occasionally fail to do so for a myriad of reasons.”

The comment seems aimed squarely at advocates who have argued for free or reduced fares on the grounds that people who avoid fares typically do so because they can’t afford them. Those advocates expressed frustration last year after Sound Transit adopted a wait-and-see policy toward any changes to fare or fare enforcement, pointing out that a 2018 audit of King County Metro showed that a large number of riders who failed to pay did so because they couldn’t afford the fare. (In comparing the two surveys, it’s worth noting that Sound Transit’s survey included a bewildering array of 14 possible reasons for nonpayment, plus “other”—nearly twice as many options as King County Metro’s 2018 survey). If it turns out people could pay if they wanted to, but don’t, that would create a new bulwark against calls to make the system more affordable or accessible to low-income people.

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The on-board survey did find that people making between $0 and $50,000 were the least likely to pay, but the report doesn’t break that number down further, making it hard to draw conclusions about different groups within that broad income category. Currently, people making less than 200 percent of the poverty level, or about $25,000 for an individual, are eligible for discount fares through the ORCA Lift program.

The King County Auditor’s independent review of Metro’s fare enforcement policies led to changes such as reduced fines for fare evasion and the creation of new avenues to address fare evasion tickets, including enrollment in ORCA Lift. Sound Transit is considering similar changes, but has rejected proposals to make its service free, and has resolutely defended its fare-enforcement practice of checking all riders on each car for fare, despite the fact that this practice has still resulted in racially lopsided enforcement.

The agency released the results of the surveys and in-person sessions last week, and held a listening session to talk about some of the proposals that emerged from the process at El Centro de la Raza on Wednesday night. The meeting was unusual for a “roundtable” style public meeting in a couple of respects: First, agency staffers kept the initial presentation short. Second, participants got a chance to rotate among six different tables to discuss a total of three separate topics instead of just one. Finally, because the public comment came at the end of the meeting, after everyone had spent an hour throwing out ideas, it was actually informed by the discussion, rather than rehearsed and packaged in advance. Continue reading “Sound Transit Considers Fare Enforcement Reforms, Touts Survey Suggesting Most “Fare Evaders” Could Afford to Pay”

Sound Transit Tickets Disproportionate Number of Black Riders, New Numbers Show

Sound Transit staffers presented new data on fare enforcement at Thursday’s Rider Experience and Operations meeting, which showed that despite the agency’s purportedly neutral fare-enforcement policy, black riders were far more likely to receive citations and warnings than white or Asian American riders. African Americans made up just 9 percent of riders on Sound Transit’s Link Light Rail and Sounder trains, but represented 21 percent of all tickets and warnings—more than double their representation among Sound Transit’s ridership. White and Asian American riders, conversely, received proportionally fewer tickets than their ridership would suggest.

The race of a rider is determined by fare enforcement officers. Sound Transit public safety director Ken Cummins told me yesterday that if a person’s race “is not obvious,” a fare enforcement officer is supposed to “tactfully” ask the person how they prefer to be identified.

The issue of fare enforcement was in the news last month, when Sound Transit officers were seen checking fares and scanning the IDs of students on their way to collect their free ORCA passes on the first day of school.

Sound Transit frequently touts its use of “equal treatment” in fare enforcement using the following slide, which shows that fare enforcement officers enter trains in a specific pattern and check fares until they come to someone who hasn’t paid:

But the glaring racial disparity in Sound Transit’s new fare enforcement stats led some public commenters to argue that  “equal” treatment doesn’t necessarily lead to equitable outcomes. Kelsey Mesher, advocacy director for the Transportation Choices Coalition, noted that “communities of color and low-income people have different relationships to policing and enforcement.” What may seem like a friendly interaction with a uniformed officer to a white rider may look entirely different to someone whose community has a history being targeted by police, she said.

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The current fine for failing to pay fare on Sound Transit buses and trains is $124, and failing to pay it can result in criminal charges and cascading debt. In contrast, King County Metro recently reduced fines for nonpayment, eliminated the possibility of criminal charges, and created multiple new avenues for addressing fare evasion tickets, including enrollment in the ORCA Lift low-income fare program.

Sound Transit didn’t provide a detailed breakdown of ticketed riders by income or primary language, or detail what percentage of “ticket or warning” actions by fare enforcement were warnings vs. formal citations. However, an audit of Metro fare-evasion infractions showed that low-income riders and people experiencing homelessness were far more likely than other groups to be cited for fare evasion, and that the primary reason people failed to pay for bus rides was because they couldn’t afford the fare. Sound Transit maintains that in order to keep their fare recovery much higher than industry averages, they need to inspect about 8 percent of all riders for proof of payment—”the sweet spot” that keeps evasion below 3 percent, according to Cummins.

Sound Transit is considering a number of strategies for addressing concerns about aggressive fare enforcement and excessive punishment for unpaid fares, including providing “on-the-spot information about ORCA Lift” and allowing people to work off their fines through community service, but getting rid of fines for nonpayment isn’t amongthem. Seattle City Council member Debora Juarez, who sits on the Sound Transit board, seemed to suggest Thursday that maybe it should be. She compared the cascading consequences of fare evasion fines to the city’s old policy of impounding the cars of people whose licenses had been suspended over minor infractions, such as unpaid parking tickets, which often pushed them further into poverty. “When it comes down to the ability to drive, the ability to have transportation, those are basic… rights,” Juarez said.

Sound Transit Board Members Raise Concerns About Punitive Fare Enforcement Policy

Sound Transit board members, including King County Council members Joe McDermott and Claudia Balducci, are raising questions about the agency’s fare enforcement policy, which—unlike King County Metro’s revised fare enforcement rules—can still result in a criminal record and potentially jail time for people who are unable to pay their fares.

During last week’s Sound Transit board meeting, both McDermott and Balducci pointed to Metro’s recent overhaul of its fare enforcement policy, which reduced fines for fare evasion, eliminated the possibility of criminal charges for nonpayment, and created multiple new avenues for addressing fare evasion tickets, including enrollment in the ORCA Lift low-income fare program. The last item is important because an audit of Metro fare enforcement last year concluded that the overwhelming majority of “fare evaders” on RapidRide were homeless or low-income; poverty, not disregard for the law, was causing people to attempt to ride for free.

“Sound Transit has one of the transit industry’s lowest (if not the lowest) fare evasion rate and has since the inception of the fare enforcement program. Also, more than 93% of our riders surveyed feel safe while on our rail services. Both of these are directly attributed to our fare enforcement program.” – Talking points developed by Sound Transit’s public safety director

The audit, released last April, found that the most common reason for fare evasion was lack of money to pay fare, and that the overwhelming majority of fines were never paid, despite the threat of criminal charges and the possibility that unpaid fines would be sent to collections. (Sound Transit still has what I dubbed the “Shoreline Rule,” which requires riders who receive tickets for fare evasion to drive or take the bus up to Shoreline if they want to contest their tickets—a significant burden for people who are transit-dependent and those who can’t take off work for several hours to contest a ticket during the work day. King County eliminated the Shoreline Rule back in 2015).

“We’re really proud of the work we’ve done in King County on fare evasion, because … it’s unclear that that policy actually increases fare compliance and we know that it has some downstream negative impacts and disparate impacts,” Balducci said, adding that the point of fare enforcement should be to ensure that “people pay when they can, and that [for] people who can’t pay, who rely on our services, that we’ll find a way to address that need other than sending them to court and ultimately collections and, at some point, jail.”

Rogoff, who has argued that Sound Transit’s fare evasion rate is low precisely because people know they may incur substantial ($124) fines, said that while problems like the Shoreline Rule are “low-hanging fruit,” a complete overhaul of the agency’s fare enforcement policy would threaten the agency’s current high compliance rate. “The challenge is, I think, to have a policy that is meaningful and inclusive … but also to make sure that we [preserve] what is currently a high level of fare compliance” compared to cities with “open systems.” Rogoff also noted the current system only “criminalizes” fare evasion after the fourth offense in a calendar year.

Sound Transit’s fare enforcement talking points argue that implementing Metro-style rules that give low-income riders alternative avenues to resolve fare enforcement charges would be a “demeaning” “form of bias and discrimination” and would force fare enforcement officers “to make a judgment call based on appearances and/or through the use of invasive questioning.”

Rogoff’s statements last week are consistent with talking points developed by the agency late last year, which I obtained through a records request. The talking points, which the agency’s Director of Public Safety, Ken Cummins, provided to Rogoff in November, also explicitly connect fare enforcement, which is conducted by uniformed officers, with a sense of “safety” among light rail riders—suggesting that the presence of officers cracking down on fare evaders improves the perception of safety on trains. “Sound Transit has one of the transit industry’s lowest (if not the lowest) fare evasion rate and has since the inception of the fare enforcement program,” the talking points say. “Also, more than 93% of our riders surveyed feel safe while on our rail services. Both of these are directly attributed to our fare enforcement program.”

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Given that, according to Metro’s audit, fare evasion charges disproportionately target low-income riders and people experiencing homelessness, it’s easy to see how “safety” might be conflated with cracking down on certain categories of people. Sound Transit, and Rogoff in particular, have responded to concerns about equity in fare enforcement by pointing out that the agency’s fare enforcement officers check everybody on the train rather than singling out certain riders. This point showed up in both the talking points—which called the policy of universal checks a way to “ensure fairness and equity”—and in communications between Sound Transit’s communications staff and the fare enforcement division after the initial Metro audit was released, in anticipation of criticism or questions about fairness  The talking points, which you can read in full here, go on to argue that implementing Metro-style rules that give low-income riders alternative avenues to resolve fare enforcement charges would be a “demeaning” “form of bias and discrimination” and would force fare enforcement officers “to make a judgment call based on appearances and/or through the use of invasive questioning.”

Balducci says that Sound Transit’s go-to-talking point—”‘We enforce on the whole car; we do it to everybody—therefore you’re not going to see bias in terms of picking on certain types of people'”—misses the point. “That wasn’t entirely the issue we raised,” she says. “The issue we raised was that with the people we do find (evading fares), there could be a better approach.”