The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is considering adding fare-enforcement officers to streetcars, citing security concerns on its First Hill line.
The move comes as other regional transit agencies consider ways to reduce the harms of fare enforcement on people with low incomes and people of color, who may also make up some of the ridership of the First Hill line.
King County Metro changed its fare-enforcement process after a 2018 audit concluded that the system particularly hurt people experiencing homelessness. A survey found that 43% of people who didn’t pay their bus fare reported a household income of less than $1,000 a month and nearly a quarter reported no income at all. Sound Transit is considering similar changes.
SDOT outlined its proposal in a memo sent to Mayor Jenny Durkan and obtained by The Seattle Times through a public-records request.
“There is an immediate need to address the increase in security incidents on the streetcar,” wrote the authors, SDOT Streetcar and Transit Corridors Manager Chris Eilerman and Streetcar Operations Manager Curtis Ailes.
But the July 22 memo also acknowledges “many potential equity issues given the diversity of neighborhoods and populations served by the [First Hill] line.” The line runs from Capitol Hill through First Hill, the Central District and the Chinatown International District to Pioneer Square.
Under SDOT’s proposal, the officers would likely not issue tickets for a failure to pay at first, instead surveying riders and collecting “data on current rider fare payment activity,” the memo says. The plan would cost about $125,000 a year.
Of a small number of fares checked on the First Hill line in 2018, about one in five was not paid, according to figures provided by SDOT.
Spokesmen for the mayor and SDOT emphasized that the discussion was in its early stages. SDOT did not answer questions about the proposal. Asked about streetcar fare enforcement during a separate recent interview, SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe said, “all options are on the table.”
Seattle has largely avoided fare enforcement on its two streetcar lines, which together carried about 1.7 million riders last year.
Metro operates the streetcars under a contract with the city. Unlike some Metro buses and Sound Transit light-rail trains, streetcar riders don’t encounter fare-enforcement officers who can cite them if they fail to pay. Security staff also do not ride and monitor the streetcar, the memo says. Metro staff check some fares but don’t issue citations.
SDOT consulted Metro late last year about using the bus agency’s fare-enforcement officers on the streetcar. Metro offered two officers for four hours a day seven days a week. (The officers work for the private company Securitas, which contracts with both Metro and Sound Transit.)
Reports of security issues like harassment and threats to operators have remained roughly consistent on the South Lake Union line but increased by about 50% on the First Hill line last year, SDOT and Metro say. Ridership has also increased about 31.5% on the First Hill line.
The total number of reported security incidents on the First Hill line last year, 36, is about what two of Metro’s busy RapidRide lines, the A and E lines, see in one month, the memo notes.
Across about four years of security incidents on the streetcar documented by Metro, the most common issue was “unruly or disturbing behavior,” with 20 reports. The second most common was threats to drivers, with 12 instances.
In the same time frame, there were fewer than 10 of each other type of incident, including seven reports of verbal abuse, six reports of threats against passengers and seven reports of people sleeping on the streetcar, according to Metro data.
Metro spokeswoman Torie Rynning said in an email there are “regular ‘quality of life’ incidents, similar to what one might experience on traditional bus service, that aren’t reflected in the numbers.” She cited people who are intoxicated or experiencing mental-health episodes as examples.
Meanwhile, the First Hill line’s fare revenues have not kept up with ridership increases. The agency “does not currently have data” to attribute the lower fare revenue to evasion, the memo said. Some of the discrepancy could be due to other factors like transfers from other modes that cost more.
Of fares checked, 20.5% were unpaid on the First Hill line in 2018 and 8.5% were unpaid in South Lake Union, according to figures provided by SDOT. In a recent report to the City Council, SDOT listed 8% as its projected fare evasion rate for the coming years.
Advocates for reforming fare enforcement warned against expanding enforcement but said they supported SDOT’s plan to gather more information about why streetcar passengers may not be paying.
The Metro audit and survey suggest “the No. 1 reason people don’t pay their fare is they don’t have the resources to do it,” said Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. “Let’s not confuse security issues with fare-enforcement issues because that is exactly the path that leads to punishing people for being poor.”
The memo recommends more equity analysis if fare enforcement is implemented on the streetcar.