“Transit cannot determine whether its model of fare enforcement makes sense, in terms of costs or outcomes, or identify ways to improve it,” a new King County audit says.

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King County Metro’s fare-inspection program makes life tougher for homeless people, while its equipment and the court system to collect fines frequently fail, the county’s independent auditors have found.

“Transit cannot determine whether its model of fare enforcement makes sense, in terms of costs or outcomes, or identify ways to improve it,” says the 24-page report issued this week.

The inspectors carry fare-card scanners as they roam the six RapidRide routes, which serve 65,000 daily riders. Passengers are subject to random fare checks, where inspectors in gray uniforms tell everybody on a bus to display their recently used ORCA fare card, paper transfer or charity bus ticket.

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Failure to pay results in a warning, followed by a citation the second time and a misdemeanor-criminal charge on the third violation.

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Using addresses on the citations, auditors learned that 25 to 30 percent of people cited face “housing instability” — so the penalties conflict with King County’s stated mission to improve social equity, the report says.

A record of misdemeanor offenses can make it tougher for somebody to find housing, they point out.

One person was cited or charged 53 times in 2015-17. Another 98 people were penalized at least 10 times, and most of them were people of color. Officers said they use “discretion in enforcement” but their options to help people are few.

Only 94 people cited in 2016 actually paid the $124 fine, a tiny fraction of the 3,911 citations issued, because most are poor.

After deducting the state’s share of the proceeds, King County kept a mere $4,338, despite spending $343,760 for district court staff and services to process the citations.

Metro spends $1.4 million a year to pay and equip fare inspectors, but hasn’t researched whether that’s a good return on investment. An estimated 1.4 percent of passengers were fare-checked in 2016. Is that too many? Is that too few? Metro should study whether current enforcement levels are cost-effective, auditors say.

In one sense, the enforcement works.

Evasion rates reported by inspectors vary by route from 1 percent to 3 percent. A rate of 3 percent is similar to that of national light-rail systems, including Sound Transit’s, which uses inspectors instead of turnstiles to make sure passengers pay.

Widespread use of employer-subsidized ORCA fare cards is one factor in King County’s favor.

Fare-dodging is rampant in some cities. Portland Tri-Met found 14.5 percent evasion on MAX light rail in 2016, while Minneapolis reports about 9 percent evasion.

Auditors speculate that RapidRide undercounts evaders who see an inspector and flee the bus. But that factor seems minimal, since fare-checking teams typically sweep the entire bus between any two stops.

On the other hand, auditors think Metro might overstate evasion while making enforcement unequal — because fare-checkers gravitate to the A Line in SeaTac and the E Line on Aurora Avenue, in relatively poor areas, where evasion has tended to be higher.

The point is nobody knows, auditors said in an interview.

Auditors also found that the inspectors’ handheld scanners, which confirm whether someone “tapped” an ORCA card recently to deduct the fare, often don’t work. So they pretend to scan the cards.

Metro serves 400,000 daily passengers but hasn’t examined systemwide evasion since 2010. It hasn’t analyzed RapidRide fare policy since 2012, when the downtown ride-free zone was abolished, which reduced easy access for the poor.

RapidRide’s fare-payment system saves time and operating costs by enabling passengers to board using all three doors, rather than funneling everybody into the front door, where drivers watch for cash or ORCA payment.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has endorsed putting more ORCA readers on Third Avenue sidewalks, so more buses can go through downtown faster.

Questions raised in the audit will be more critical as Metro tries to convert 13 more routes to RapidRide by 2025. The next two may be a Madison Street line and an upgrade of Route 120 on Delridge Way Southwest.

“The audit is extremely damaging and very unsurprising,” said Katie Wilson, co-founder of the Transit Riders Union, which focuses on social problems including homelessness.

Wilson suggests that for a year or so, the inspectors quit citing people or even kicking nonpayers off the bus. “While the county’s figuring out what to do, let’s stop harming people,” she said.

Metro General Manager Rob Gannon wrote this week about balancing the need to collect fares with safety and equality. Fares currently cover 30 percent of operating costs countywide.

Jamie Smith, chief of staff for County Executive Dow Constantine, promised in a formal response to the audit:

• An intensive fare-enforcement study in early 2020.

• Stronger efforts to get discounted ORCA Lift passes, which allow a flat $1.50 fare, to more people.

• New discounts for people who can’t afford even $1.50.

• Replacement of its obsolete handheld fare-card scanners, maybe in late 2019.

• Written social-equity requirements for the new fare-inspector contract after the current contract with Securitas expires this year.

Metro will give a second warning to fare evaders under 18, add a quality-assurance supervisor and temporarily stop filing criminal cases.

“You have my pledge that we will continue to promote a transit environment where all customers feel safe and welcome onboard our buses,” Gannon wrote.