Next year, Sound Transit employees will check to see whether passengers on light-rail and Sounder commuter trains have paid their fare, but they won’t penalize those who don’t.

These so-called fare engagement ambassadors will instead focus on educating travelers who don’t pay about fare options, and will issue warnings instead of citations.

The ambassadors, who will replace the contracted fare-enforcement officers, will receive training in conflict de-escalation and implicit bias.

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The pilot program is set to begin this spring and continue through 2021. It comes after Sound Transit data showed that Black passengers are cited and punished disproportionately by fare enforcement efforts.

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The agency says the goal is to improve riding conditions, especially for people of color, people with disabilities and people who make low or no incomes.

“We are excited to see Sound Transit move forward with a fare ambassador program,” said Kelsey Mesher, advocacy director for Transportation Choices Coalition. “This is an approach that helps people pay their fare and ride trains as opposed to punishing people because they can’t afford it.”

In a Sound Transit Board of Directors meeting Thursday, members also approved recommendations for an updated fare-enforcement policy that would go into effect after the pilot program ends.

The recommendations include increasing the number of warnings a passenger receives in a 12-month period to two before being cited, updating guidelines for fare collection during snowy or other extreme weather, and no longer involving law enforcement in situations that only pertain to fare evasion.

Sound Transit is also considering lowering the cost of a ticket for failing to pay from $124 to $50. Until recently, riders could be charged with a misdemeanor crime after one warning and two $124 tickets in a year.

The vote Thursday left open the question of whether a new fare enforcement system should send people who don’t pay through the court system.

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King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, the board member who introduced the legislation, said “people experiencing poverty should not be jeopardized for not being able to pay their fare.”

Several board members, including King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, also supported removing fare enforcement from the courts system. However, Sound Transit Board Chair Kent Keel said he wanted to leave the option available for people for whom fares do not place a burden.

“There’s not one way that fits everybody,” Keel said.

Metro Transit shifted its fare enforcement from a court-based system to an in-house process after a 2018 county audit found that enforcement disproportionately affected people experiencing homelessness.

In an effort to eliminate bias, Sound Transit’s fare-enforcement officers, who work for the private company Securitas, are instructed to board light-rail trains on either end and check all riders’ fares as the officers walk toward the middle.

But data showed that Black riders were punished disproportionately. Between 2015 and 2019, 22% of riders caught up in the fare-enforcement system were Black, despite making up only 9% of people who ride light-rail and Sound commuter trains, the agency said. Black riders received 19% of warnings, 43% of tickets and 57% of misdemeanor theft cases over the four-year period.

In 2019, Sound Transit spent about $1.6 million on fare enforcement aboard light-rail and Sounder trains. The agency collected about $97 million from fares across all Sound Transit services, including buses, covering about 30% of operating costs, said spokesperson Geoff Patrick.

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The agency suspended fares in March, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, and resumed charging fares on light-rail and Sounder trains June 1.

Enforcement officers were told to check for payment but not issue warnings or citations, in order to allow for social distancing.

Anna Zivarts, the disability mobility initiative director at Disability Rights Washington, called Thursday’s decision “a step in the right direction,” but said she supports ultimately eliminating fares on Sound Transit.

Sound Transit also plans to increase efforts to connect riders with reduced-fare programs.

Riders who make incomes of less than double the federal poverty level can qualify for a discounted ORCA LIFT card. ORCA youth cards provide a discounted rate for people between 6 and 18 years of age.

Service on light rail has fluctuated throughout the pandemic, with trains running between every half-hour to every 12 minutes now — down from every seven to eight minutes — during peak hours on weekdays.