Despite a new system aimed at making fare enforcement less punitive, King County Metro still has work to do in helping riders with the lowest incomes afford to take the bus, according to a new report from the agency.

Surveys and agency data show that many people who fail to pay their fares are experiencing homelessness or have very low incomes. Plus, people who would qualify for Metro’s existing discount programs aren’t enrolled.

The agency is now working on a new discount program to be based on riders’ incomes.

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“We want to enforce fares with people who have money to pay and choose not to and/or who are causing a safety disruption to other passengers and drivers, not people who can’t afford to pay and don’t understand the system,” said Metro spokeswoman Torie Rynning.

The report, released this week, is the first assessment of the new fare-violation system created last year.

After a county audit found that fare enforcement disproportionately affected people experiencing homelessness, the agency shifted from a court-based system to an in-house process. Metro now offers alternatives to paying a fine, like community service or enrolling in a discount program. Fare officers also received new de-escalation and implicit bias training.

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There is “much greater recognition from Metro that people aren’t not paying just because they’re scofflaws or something like that, but that what we’re seeing is these much larger systemic issues of wealth inequality, the rising cost of living and the homelessness crisis,” said Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union, one of several groups Metro consulted on the changes.

While traditional bus routes depend on drivers checking fares at the front door, six Rapid Ride routes use fare enforcement officers who board and check for payment. Metro recently began using officers on dozens more routes that use downtown’s busy Third Avenue and plans to add seven more Rapid Ride lines by 2027.

As Metro prepared to roll out its new system last fall, enforcement was on hold. Instead, officers boarded buses, checked fares and, when someone had failed to pay, gave them a survey instead of a ticket.

Of about 3,600 people surveyed, 43 percent reported household income of less than $1,000 a month, according to the report. Nearly a quarter reported no income at all. About half qualified for Metro’s discount ORCA LIFT program but weren’t using it.

In January, officers began issuing fare violations again.

In the first three months of the new program, Metro issued about 1,100 violations, 60 percent of them to people who identified as homeless, according to data provided by Metro.

During the pause in fare enforcement last year, the rate of people not paying was slightly higher on Rapid Ride routes than during the previous year, though Metro says that could be due to more accurate data collection.

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The evasion rate last fall was about 4.7 percent, in line with the rate in 2010, Metro says. The agency is required to cover at least a quarter of its operating costs with fares.

Auditors wrote last year that they were unable to analyze demographic data, but it’s well known that homelessness disproportionately affects people of color. The Metropolitan King County Council required Metro to include demographic information in the report about the new system.

In January, about 42 percent of citations were issued to black riders, according to the report. About 7 percent of King County’s population is black.

“We know inevitably that fare enforcement programs are just another system that identifies or picks out black folks and poor folks disproportionately,” said Jessica Ramirez, director of community engagement at Puget Sound Sage.

The group advised Metro on the new system and supports abolishing fare enforcement.

“We know it can’t disappear tomorrow, but what are incremental things we can do?” Ramirez said.

The Transit Riders Union, Puget Sound Sage and other groups are now calling on Sound Transit to make similar changes to its fare enforcement system.

New fare-enforcement system

Previously, getting caught not paying bus fare multiple times could result in a misdemeanor criminal charge, compounding challenges for people struggling to make ends meet. Under Metro’s new system, riders can resolve a fare violation within 90 days by doing one of the following options. If the violation is not resolved, the rider can face suspension.

• Pay a $50 fine, reduced to $25 if paid within 30 days.

• Load $25 or more to an existing ORCA card, or $10 to an ORCA LIFT card (only allowed once a year).

• Perform two hours of community service.

• Sign up for a reduced fare program like ORCA LIFT and add $5 to the new card.

• Appeal the violation.