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Just because there aren’t any fare gates, that doesn’t mean Seattle light-rail passengers are sneaking a free ride.

Based on some 727,396 checks last year by Sound Transit’s fare-enforcement officers, only 2.9 percent of passengers failed to pay the full amount to board the Link trains through downtown, Rainier Valley, Tukwila and SeaTac.

To call even that amount “evasion” is a stretch. Thousands of travelers provide an innocent excuse, such as misunderstanding the intricate instructions on the ticket machines.

Though some people think gateless transit is too trusting, these “proof of payment” systems that rely on inspectors are widespread around North America. A 2010 survey of 33 transit agencies found 30 were using it. Only Vancouver, B.C., after years of struggling with evasion, is planning to switch to fare gates.

King County Metro Transit uses a similar method for six RapidRide lines. Fare inspectors will become more commonplace as light rail extends to the University of Washington, Northgate, Lynnwood, Bellevue, Overlake and Highline College in the next few years.

Last week’s fatal shooting at Sodo Station has brought extra attention to the fare-inspector system, security and the issue of evasion.

Authorities say Sound Transit fare-enforcement inspectors encountered a 23-year-old man who didn’t show proof he paid and refused to show ID. The inspectors asked for police backup; then the man and two companions got off the train. A struggle followed, and authorities say a deputy shot the 23-year-old, Oscar Perez-Giron, after he pulled a gun. Friends and supporters have held at least two vigils at the station.

Business as usual

There have been no changes in fare-enforcement methods or staffing, said Ken Cummins, chief security officer for Sound Transit.

Visitors arriving at the SeaTac/Airport Station last week may have seen four officers, but that’s not unusual. Two in pine-green shirts perform typical security work such as looking for suspicious packages, and they help riders buy tickets. Two in blue shirts check fares, on the trains or the upper-level boarding platform.

Sound Transit uses 112 fare inspectors and guards under contract with the Securitas firm, plus 35 deputies as transit police. Fare inspectors earn $15.80 in starting pay and undergo 240 hours of training.

They don’t carry guns. They don’t carry pepper spray because it could too easily spread to bystanders. They do carry batons and receive 16 hours training in defensive moves, said Cummins.

Fare officers sometimes handcuff people, usually when a deputy asks for help detaining someone, said Cummins. And sometimes inspectors have handcuffed people to prevent them from running onto the tracks before police can arrive.

The goal is to check 1 in 10 passengers, but the actual performance last year was about 1 in 13.

Roughly 9 of 10 evaders get off with a warning, instead of a $124 citation. Unless the offense is blatant, such as using a stolen ORCA fare card, “we assume you, as an evader, perhaps made an honest mistake,” said Cummins.

After a warning, inspectors will photograph the person’s ID, so subsequent inspectors can detect any repeat offense and issue a ticket. Money goes to county district courts, not the transit budget, as in some cities.

Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray emphasized “99.99 percent” of checks go smoothly.

Nonetheless, the president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, Paul Bachtel, said he worries about safety of fare officers. Local 587 represents bus drivers and mechanics, but not the Sound Transit inspectors.

“If/when one of them is seriously hurt or killed, we will all be asking ourselves why we didn’t have police officers performing this task,” Bachtel said.

It’s a touchy matter because bus drivers have endured assaults over the years, including some that began as fare disputes. Typically they ask once for fare, then let the matter drop.

Cummins said that after the Sodo shooting, fare inspectors have heard snarky comments, like “That’s my ORCA card, don’t hurt me.” Officers have been allowed to take extra breaks to decompress, he said.

In Auckland, New Zealand, officials ordered body cameras to deter assaults on fare officers, Australia Network News reported.

Vancouver, B.C., TransLink uses a mix of transit police and unarmed security officers to check fares, said spokeswoman Jiana Ling.

Sound Transit’s goal, which it usually meets, is to keep fare evasion below 3 percent. Gray said this figure was the low end of a national norm of 3 to 7 percent in 2008, shortly before Link began.

The 2010 survey found an average 2.7 percent for bus and rail — but mentions one light-rail route in San Francisco at 15.2 percent.

Vancouver TransLink has reported rates of more than 6 percent, while a spokeswoman for Portland’s Tri-Met said “the national average is around 8 percent and we are in line with that.” Portland has increased enforcement and eliminated a downtown free-streetcar zone.

Fare-officer friendly

Gates are possible in Vancouver because SkyTrain stations are in the air or underground. But they’re not feasible at surface-level stations in Seattle, says Gray. People would be tempted to bypass them by walking into the trackway, he said, creating dangers far worse than the evasion.

More riders in Seattle will come face to face with a fare inspector.

Metro just converted Route 140 to the RapidRide F line in June. That brought 3,500 more passengers into a fare-inspection system, for a total of about 51,400 on six routes. RapidRide counts on loading passengers through three doors to make trips faster, leaving it more susceptible to evasion without inspectors.

Light rail carries more than 31,000 daily riders. Sounder commuter trains carry 12,600 riders and report evasion just below 1 percent.

On the South Lake Union streetcar, where Metro rarely checks fares, Seattle is taking over fare enforcement next year for those trains and the upcoming First Hill line.

Evasion is notoriously hard to measure.

RapidRide inspectors find only 2 percent of people they contact failing to pay, said Metro spokeswoman Rochelle Ogershok. That could be low due to the difficulty in canvassing a packed bus, or how easy it is for an evader to hop off. A 2010 Metro sample found overall evasion at 2.5 percent.

A common misconception is that Metro could greatly reduce its $75 million budget gap by fare crackdowns.

Desmond says Metro spends $1.5 million on fare inspectors, and it’s unclear whether their existence brings even that much income to the busy RapidRide routes. The rationale isn’t income, but to enable loading at all three bus doors, and give the public an added sense of security, he said. Metro certainly would lose money inspecting less-used lines, he said.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or On Twitter @mikelindblom