Sound Transit’s board of directors voted Thursday to overhaul its fare enforcement practices, with the goal of creating a system that’s less punitive, more educational and increasingly mindful of racial disparities.
The vote, years in the making, also comes as the transit agency has seen its fare collections bottom out over the past two years as ridership during the pandemic has plummeted. Sound Transit staff also estimated in January that up to 42% of riders were boarding without tapping their ORCA cards.
The balancing act between revenue and equity considerations created tension among board members and outside advocates over concerns that the new policies would be too lenient or too stringent.
Despite these worries, the board elected to move forward with a policy that takes enforcement out of the hands of security, increases the number of warnings to riders and makes it less likely that those who were found to have not paid their fare will end up in civil court.
The new policies also remove the possibility of suspension from the system for nonpayment and provide riders with an appeals process for enforcement action taken against them.
“I’m glad that we have strong progressive policies before us today,” said board member and King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, “and one that is very responsive to the conversation that began some four years ago. As this policy was introduced, it responsibly responds to the disparity and enforcement problems we identified in our previous policy and practice.”
The board also had been scheduled to vote Thursday to extend its fare ambassador program — which took the place of security guards carrying out enforcement — and to revise the reduced-fare cost from $1.50 down to $1, but tabled both for time. The board will revisit them next month.
The new policies will take effect Sept. 17. Riders who have not paid their fare will receive two warnings before facing a financial penalty, up from the current policy of one. On the third and fourth violations, riders will be fined $50, then $75. The fines are administrative, rather than civil, and can be satisfied through payment or some alternative path, such as signing up for the reduced fare program if the rider qualifies. Only on the fifth violation will a rider face a $124 civil infraction — which could lead to a misdemeanor if left unpaid. The current policy graduates to a civil fine after the first warning.
The revisions to Sound Transit’s fare enforcement come three years after a dive into the agency’s data showed that Black riders were more than twice as likely to be cited for nonpayment and four times as likely to have their cases end up as misdemeanors.
For transit advocates, the top priority was to remove the enforcement process from the criminal justice system, which can quickly snowball.
“Steep penalties and a tour through the courts can ruin people’s lives,” said Wes Mills, a member of the Transit Riders Union, during public comment.
Although the new policies make it less likely an individual will have their case referred to district court, it maintains that avenue as a possibility.
McDermott proposed an amendment that would have eliminated the possibility of a civil infraction, replacing it with a $100 administrative fine. But the proposal failed, 7-9. However, his amendment to bar riders from being sent to collections for nonpayment of fines did pass.
On the other side, some raised concerns that the new policies would serve as de facto endorsement of riding without paying. CEO Peter Rogoff had already raised that with board members, and the January estimate of 42% of riders boarding light rail without paying underscores the problem.
Rogoff’s concern coincides with an overall dip in fare revenue projections through 2046, from $9.5 billion in 2019 to, on the low end, $6.1 billion now. Six percent of Sound Transit’s overall budget is tied to fare collections. The board previously set a goal of recouping 40% of its operating budget through fare collection, but that figure was just 5% in 2021.
“It’s not about the $3.50. It’s about ensuring that riders have to pay for the system they’re using as we promised the voters when we passed Sound Transit,” said board member and Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin.
Board member and King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove said he sought to distinguish between those who could not pay and those who chose not to, referring to the latter as cheaters.
“The benefits narrowly outweigh the costs,” he said in voting in favor.
Questions remain about implementation. The fare ambassador program, which began as a pilot last August, is intended to provide riders with more education and to make fare collection feel less like a police action. But staffing shortages have constrained the program; Sound Transit staff estimated earlier this month that an average rider will go 23 trips before encountering a fare ambassador.
Another issue is how Sound Transit will track warnings to riders who did not pay. In recent years, three-quarters of riders have provided no or insufficient identification when approached by a fare enforcement officer, raising the question of how the agency will know who’s been warned already.
Sound Transit also wants to sign up 80% of riders who are eligible for reduced fare. The current estimate is that just 40% are signed up.
When compared to several other cities, Sound Transit’s new policies offer more warnings and less expensive fines. Portland and Denver each only give one warning before fining riders for nonpayment. Houston and Dallas give fare enforcement officers discretion when they choose to offer a warning and when to write a fine.