Sound Transit moved a step closer toward a lighter touch around fare enforcement Thursday, the culmination of years of introspection by the agency in light of data showing that previous policies landed hardest on people of color and low-income riders.
Under the new policies, which were advanced through committee and will be taken up by the full board later this month, riders would receive more warnings, and fines for not paying fares would escalate more slowly than before. The agency would retain the right to send those who haven’t paid to collections and district court, a step some transit advocates continue to oppose. But Sound Transit would graduate to that action more slowly, offering other means of resolving nonpayment along the way.
Riders who are behind on payment also would no longer face suspension from the system, and law enforcement would be removed from the act of fare collection altogether.
The changes are meant to balance board members’ concerns about inequitable enforcement with their growing worry about declining fare revenue. Some board members said the new policies could go too easy on those who don’t pay, while transit advocates and other board members raised concerns that the new policies don’t do enough to reduce what they view as overly punitive measures.
Committee members also voted to lower the agency’s reduced fare rate from $1.50 to $1, although two board members raised concerns about the utility of such a move. Sound Transit’s goal is to enroll 80% of eligible riders into the ORCA LIFT program for lower-income users. Currently, less than 40% of that group is estimated to be enrolled.
They also moved forward an extension of Sound Transit’s new “fare ambassador” program, intended to reduce police and security’s role in enforcement.
The votes Thursday, spaced out over two committee meetings, came 2½ years after the transit agency launched an examination of its fare enforcement policies.
“We really need to focus, and this is going to be long-term work, on fixing the inequalities and where the injustices in the system are without gutting the system,” board member and Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said in the meeting Thursday.
The discussion over a new approach to fares began in 2019, before the pandemic or 2020 protests following George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer. But both events further elevated the stakes of the board’s work.
Amid data showing Black riders received 22% of all fare citations despite comprising just 9% of ridership, Sound Transit began the fare ambassador program in summer 2021, removing security contractors from passenger interactions. But the program has struggled with staffing levels and has shown limited evidence of its effectiveness.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, ridership on Sound Transit’s light-rail system, buses and trains has plummeted. In January 2022, Sound Transit logged around 80,000 daily riders — almost half of January 2020’s 157,000 daily users. After collecting nearly $100 million in fares in 2019, the agency recouped just $36 million in 2020. In 2021, the agency’s financial plan assumed fares would be roughly 6% of its total budget, or $8.3 billion, between 2017 and 2046. The pandemic has thrown that assumption into doubt; staff said Thursday that revenue could dip to $6 billion in that same period.
CEO Peter Rogoff, who is due to depart the agency this spring, has also expressed concern that fewer people are tapping their ORCA cards before boarding. Some members felt these new policies would exacerbate the problem.
“I think it’s a little soft, in my mind,” said board member and Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier.
Under the recommended policies, riders who did not pay would receive two warnings before being penalized for nonpayment, instead of one. The third warning would come with a $50 administrative fine, followed by a $75 fine for the fourth, as opposed to the $124 civil infractions currently meted out. Riders may be referred to collections if they do not either pay the fine or resolve the situation another way, such as signing up for a reduced-fare card.
Each additional interaction could come with a $124 civil infraction referred to district court.
One major unanswered question is how Sound Transit will keep track of warnings. Agency data showed 76% of riders did not show identification when approached by a fare ambassador, which board member and King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove called a potentially “fatal flaw.”
Rogoff agreed it was a “really vexing issue.”
Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union, said the policies would be an improvement. But she raised concerns that they could still send riders into the legal system.
“If someone can’t pay, they’re not going to pay, and then all they’re doing is ruining their credit history and ability to get an apartment,” she said. “I don’t think that those consequences are effective in getting people to pay their fare. All you’re doing is harming poor people.”
Board member and King County Councilmember Joe McDermott said Thursday he would introduce two amendments before the full board later this month to eliminate referrals to the court system and Sound Transit’s ability to send riders’ debt to collections.