After two years of not enforcing payment, Sound Transit will bring back spot checks of passengers by deploying “fare ambassadors” who educate nonpaying riders and issue lighter penalties — a new strategy leaders hope will change the fare system’s history of unequal impacts on Black and homeless people.
The transit agency will invest a possible $672 million over the next quarter-century for this new method, which will have blue-and-yellow clad ambassadors asking 10% of daily light-rail passengers to show a fare ticket or ORCA fare card.
Sound Transit and King County Metro suspended fare enforcement by security guards in paramilitary uniforms in spring 2020 to reduce risk of COVID-19 spread. Then the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd, followed by social justice protests, motivated leaders to find a less-confrontational approach than removing and citing people. Elected officials let fare collections languish as they spent months on outreach and meetings trying to devise a way to boost collections that doesn’t perpetuate disparities.
Many riders see no point in paying if no one is checking. And if fare collections collapse, Sound Transit could wind up forfeiting close to $100 million per year in revenue, even as funding gaps exist to build voter-approved tracks to Ballard, West Seattle, Everett and Tacoma.
In voting unanimously last week for ambassadors, Sound Transit’s governing board shunned other tactics ranging from eliminating fares to rousting people off trains for nonpayment to installing station turnstiles that require a pass or ticket.
Like before, the fare checkers are supposed to cover an entire railcar from end to end, as a safeguard against people being singled out by race (or any other reason) for inspection. But what happens next will change.
In the coming months, instead of expelling or citing people, ambassadors will issue advice and warnings twice to anyone who can’t show proof of payment, followed by $50 and $75 penalty notices for third and fourth violations. People could waive fines by loading money onto an ORCA card or taking part in some educational activity. It would take five offenses in a year before anyone is referred to district courts for a $124 infraction.
“Our hope really is, we’ll give people so many options and chances, it doesn’t ever get to that point,” spokesperson Rachelle Cunningham said.
Board member Joe McDermott of West Seattle said: “I won’t argue it’s perfectly equitable. It’s more equitable.” Because ambassadors are Sound Transit employees, not security guards, they undergo anti-bias and de-escalation training, the monetary penalties are lower, and fewer people will be tossed into the court system.
Audits found that under past fare enforcement, Black people were 9% of light-rail riders but received 22% of Sound Transit citations; while homeless people were issued 25% to 30% of King County Metro fines, virtually all unpaid.
A pending state Supreme Court case challenges the practice of forcing riders to show proof of fare. “The constitution does not allow police to treat all passengers as suspects,” argues a brief by the American Civil Liberties Union.
About 39% don’t pay
So far, Sound Transit’s experiment with fare ambassadors, since August 2021, hasn’t shown much success.
As of midsummer, there were six ambassadors, who checked 1.5% of passengers, reported Sandee Ditt, fare engagement and passenger accessibility manager.
About 39% of riders approached by fare ambassadors didn’t show proof of payment in recent months, and of those, 41% wouldn’t show ID when asked. the agency reported. And out of 22,000 people warned, only 36 signed up to get ORCA Lift low-income fare cards, which was supposed to be a top priority.
Sound Transit has yet to tackle the fundamental question of what happens when someone refuses to cooperate. For the next year or so, nothing happens.
“The lack of a requirement to provide ID is a fatal flaw in our fare-enforcement system,” said Dave Upthegrove, a transit-board and Metropolitan King County Council member from Des Moines.
But McDermott and board member Claudia Balducci of Bellevue, also County Council members, say fare ambassadors deserve a longer tryout. They hope more personnel, combined with sheer numbers of returning commuters, will boost the percentage who pay fares, without use of force. Link is rebounding from its pandemic ridership collapse to carry an average of 77,000 weekday passengers this summer, nearing 2019 levels.
Another dilemma: If the old fare enforcement system was racist, why won’t the new system be unfair, too?
“It’s a good question,” said board Chair Kent Keel, a City Council member from University Place near Tacoma. “We don’t know. That’s why we’re implementing it now,” he said, in this transition time while riders come back to Sound Transit.
Keel said the public will need time to adapt and pledged Sound Transit is listening to the community. A review is planned in July to examine fare ambassadors’ performance data, when Keel said the board can make changes as needed.
King County Executive Dow Constantine, a transit board member, predicts “the new policy will go a long way in improving rider experience for those who have historically been impacted by the more reactive, punitive models of fare enforcement.” Washington state’s new zero-fare policy for youth will also help, he said by email.
Board members emphasized Sound Transit made trips more affordable by reducing ORCA Lift fare on Thursday from $1.50 to $1.
Former ACLU attorney Julia Mizutani, who co-authored the Supreme Court brief opposing “fare enforcement sweep” systems, said while the new less-punitive policy is an improvement, Sound Transit should focus less on how to make people pay, and more on why people don’t pay.
“The cost of living in Seattle, higher inflation, has made it difficult to pay for transit, which is a necessity for many people,” she said. “I’m not sure the fare ambassadors remedy the disparities that have been prevalent in society.”
King County Metro still has no schedule for reviving fare enforcement until it completes its Safety, Security and Fare Enforcement Reform Initiative, a massive outreach project to write anti-racist policies. “We expect everybody who is able to pay to pay,” spokesperson Al Sanders said.
Education not citations
Sound Transit hasn’t set a date to reintroduce frequent fare checks and evasion penalties. That was supposed to happen Sept. 17. The agency has hired 26 ambassadors but hasn’t set up its adjudication process to handle disputes over fines and whether district court infractions get filed. Wages were boosted to $24 per hour, and $30 for supervisors, Cunningham said.
Sound Transit’s $672 million figure, to be sure, is merely a placeholder in a $142 billion financial plan. Changes are inevitable.
Even if nearly everyone pays, fares are budgeted to reap only 7% of Sound Transit revenue over 25 years. Sound Transit collects $3 billion yearly, mostly from taxes, and mostly spends it on construction and equipment.
Last decade, fare officers canvassed 8% of railcars and found at least 95% of riders paid. In pre-pandemic 2019, serving 80,000 daily riders, light-rail fare collection cost 13 cents for equipment and ticketing and 6 cents for enforcement, out of $1.75 gross revenue per passenger. Total fare income on Sound Transit trains and buses shrank, along with ridership, from $96 million in 2019 to $30 million in 2020.
Citations yield nearly no revenue. The patrols exist primarily for deterrence.
Alex Hudson, executive director of Transportation Choices Coalition, said the softer approach faces a reality, that people who evade lack money.
“The previous model for fare compliance was disparately affecting people of color and low-income people, who are also the most reliant on public transit,” she said.
On the other hand, ex-CEO Peter Rogoff reported evasion as high as 30% last year, and seeing Mariners fans who bought $60 ballpark tickets and $13 beers, then skipped Link fare. Balducci said she recently met a passenger who advised she didn’t need to pay — an image she wants to reverse.
Some transit supporters, including Hudson, would like to see zero fares eventually. Kansas City is trying that for bus riders in predominantly Black parts of town. The tiny European nation of Luxembourg charges zero fares, except for first-class seats.
Julie Timm, who takes the helm at Sound Transit on Sept. 26, established free bus fares in Richmond, Virginia, in 2020 to help essential workers, funded by state and federal grants through 2023.
“As incoming Sound Transit CEO, I don’t have an opinion on it at this point. It’s such a complex issue,” Timm said in an interview. For instance, any zero-fare strategy in Seattle must consider multiple agency budgets and the regional ORCA fare card network. Sound Transit relies on fare income and “something has to replace that,” Timm said.
Sound Transit launched Link without fare gates in 2009, like Portland, Dallas and Minneapolis. Besides equipment costs, officials said people would evade turnstiles by walking on the tracks at surface stations, in Rainier Valley and Sodo. Instead, they chose a modified honor system with spot-checking, called “proof of payment.”
That worked out financially. At their late-2010s peak, fares paid for 38% of light-rail operations, near the 40% goal.
Vancouver, B.C., SkyTrain formerly conducted fare inspections, but amid massive evasion the agency retrofitted its stations in the 2010s, spending $195 million for gates and compatible fare cards, the Daily Hive reports.
Calgary is debating a conversion from open platforms to fare gates, to reduce crime and drug use on light rail. St. Louis MetroLink has approved turnstiles and cameras in 38 light-rail stations for $52 million including private funds.
Sound Transit board members Upthegrove and David Baker of Kenmore say they want to consider fare gates, which they’ve seen in cities worldwide.
Keel said he’s asked transit staff to gather cost figures about fare gates, and he expects a briefing in November. “It’s not at the top of the list,” he said, “but if there’s something out there that’s beneficial, we don’t want to reject it out of hand.”