When fare-enforcement officers board a Sound Transit train, they begin at either end and work their way toward the middle. One by one, passengers tap their ORCA cards on handheld devices or show their tickets to prove they’ve paid.

The practice is designed to be unbiased, the agency says, a safeguard against potential profiling by officers.

But Sound Transit data shows this system is not preventing disproportionate punishment.

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While 9% of people who ride light rail and Sounder commuter trains are black, 22% of riders caught up in the fare-enforcement system over the last four years were black, according to rider surveys and enforcement data collected by Sound Transit.

For black riders, the disparity grows as the punishment gets more severe, from warnings to $124 tickets to misdemeanor theft charges. In the last four years, about half the riders who faced a misdemeanor charge for failing to pay a fare were black.

Disparities — both by race and by income — have led politicians and transit agencies across the country to rethink fare enforcement, sometimes pitting social- and racial-justice advocates against publicly funded agencies that want to appear fiscally responsible.

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At Sound Transit, officials are aware of the disparities, but don’t yet have an explanation or solution. Some in the agency say fare enforcement makes riders feel safer and therefore more likely to use the system.

“It’s certainly troubling,” said Sound Transit Chief of Staff Rhonda Carter. “It’s troubling to see pretty starkly what looks like a disparity.”

But the numbers don’t answer why people didn’t pay, Carter said. “Was it, ‘I literally don’t have the money?’ Was it, ‘I just forgot to tap for the third time this year?’ ” Or, she wondered, is it because places to buy tickets are hard to find?

Sound Transit plans to survey riders later this year.

Critics say the existing data proves the system is failing. Some question whether a public transit system should be punishing people who can’t afford to ride.

When light rail was built through Seattle’s Rainier Valley, “we were told it’s going to be an opportunity for people in our neighborhood to go downtown for jobs, an opportunity for enhancing our well-being,” said Gregory Davis, managing strategist at the Rainier Beach Action Coalition, one of dozens of organizations urging enforcement changes.

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“If what comes out of it is a fare-enforcement policy that indebts our young people, that’s the opposite of what we were told the benefit would be,” Davis said.

Disparities worsen with tickets and misdemeanors

A small share of Sound Transit riders encounter fare enforcement each year and fewer still are warned, cited or charged. But disparities worsen with each step, with black riders receiving 19% of warnings, 43% of tickets and 57% of theft cases over four years.

Riders who don’t pay can get one warning and, if found to have boarded without paying again within a year, a $124 ticket, a second ticket, then a misdemeanor charge. In May, the agency quietly paused referring cases for misdemeanors. It’s unclear if the agency will permanently stop those referrals.

The data reflects some riders who got multiple tickets or misdemeanors and are counted twice. When accounting for this, the share of black riders who faced misdemeanors drops to 48%, but is still more than five times the share of riders who are not black.

Sound Transit does not have data about the incomes of people warned, cited or charged for fare evasion.

In Portland, studies of light-rail fare enforcement found it was not “systemically biased” but black riders were more likely to be barred from the system. About a third of all fare-enforcement incidents involved people with more than one violation.

An audit released last year of King County Metro Transit fare enforcement found similar results: Of the riders who received penalties over a two-year period, 0.5% of people received 6% of all penalties, according to the audit. A majority of the people in that 0.5% were people of color, people who experienced housing instability or both.

Riders with low incomes can qualify for discounted passes, but survey data from Metro shows some riders who qualify don’t use the program.

Sound Transit could undertake an education campaign, reduce the cost of citations or offer riders more warnings before issuing tickets or seeking misdemeanor charges, according to agency documents.

Sound Transit board member and Kenmore Mayor David Baker said he “would be very concerned” about racial disparities but generally supports current policies. Baker said he has had his own fare checked and the process was fair.

Discount programs address potential harm to poor riders, he said. “People who can afford to pay are paying and those who can’t afford to, we help.”

‘I shouldn’t have to feel afraid’

Zoë Wolf has a routine.

Each Tuesday through Saturday, she boards the light rail at Capitol Hill Station, opens the Transit GO Ticket app on her phone, activates a pre-purchased ticket and settles in for her ride to work in Columbia City.

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One day in August, her commute ended with sheriff’s deputies demanding she get off the train.

Wolf, 24, said a fare-enforcement officer asked for her ID, claiming he saw her activate her electronic ticket too late. (Fares are supposed to be paid before boarding.)

Wolf had been cited before for mistakenly using low-income tickets on the app, she said, so she knew handing over her ID would result in another $124 ticket. She refused.

A man next to her activated his ticket at the same time and wasn’t being questioned, Wolf said, but the officer was insistent toward her. “He was like, ‘No, it’s fare evasion … When people try to get on the train without paying first, that is fare evasion.’ ”

Five stops later, two deputies held the doors until she got off, she said. “As soon as I got off the train, I just started crying.”

Wolf got a $124 ticket and, feeling shaken, drove to work for the next week instead of taking the train. When Wolf, who is biracial, saw that the ticket noted her race as black, it cemented what had left her feeling angry and humiliated.

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“It’s about people being unreasonably aggressive and targeting black and brown people and making them feel afraid just to take public transit,” she said. “I shouldn’t have to feel afraid just on my daily commute.”

After Wolf filed a complaint, an agency spokeswoman told The Seattle Times that Sound Transit would void her ticket and remove the officer from fare enforcement. Officer training is being reviewed as part of possible changes to fare enforcement.

“Even if [officers] are checking everyone equally, they may not be using their discretion equally,” said Hester Serebrin, policy director for Transportation Choices Coalition.

Sound Transit’s bottom line

Sound Transit depends on a low a fare-evasion rate for its bottom line. The agency covered about 33% of operating costs on Sounder and 38% on Link light rail with fare revenue last year.

A small percentage of people checked on both systems were found to have boarded without paying last year: 1.4% on Sounder and 2.7% on Link. That compares to evasion rates of about 3.5% on the New York City subway, 17% on Portland’s light rail and 5% on King County Metro RapidRide buses.

“Sound Transit continuously posts annual ridership growth [amid] a national decreasing ridership trend,” wrote Sound Transit Director of Public Safety Kenneth Cummins in an internal email in February. “Our public-safety practices, to include heavily on our fare enforcement, directly and greatly impact this growth.”

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The agency estimates it loses about $1.9 million to fare evasion each year and spends about $1.4 million a year on fare enforcement. The agency’s operating costs total $501 million. Sound Transit also has more than 150 other security officers and sheriff’s deputies who patrol stations, trains and parking facilities.

The 2018 audit of Metro found it costs about $6 to check one bus passenger, including court costs — almost twice the most expensive fare.

Revenue from fare-evasion tickets goes to the court, not the transit agencies. Since 2015, district courts have ordered people to pay about $905,000 for Sound Transit fare-evasion tickets. Less than a quarter of that, about $207,000, has been paid. Most of the rest has gone to collections, according to data from the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

King County Councilmember and Sound Transit Board member Claudia Balducci said she regularly hears from colleagues worried about the revenue impact of changing fare enforcement.

Balducci counters that “doing fare enforcement right doesn’t mean forgoing a whole bunch of revenue. If the people we’re not collecting from can’t afford to pay, they were never going to pay.”

Editor’s note: The comment thread on this story has been removed because too many recent comments were violating our Terms of Service.