Sound Transit should lower its $124 fines for people found to have not paid their train fare and better advertise discount fares, agency staff told board members Thursday, capping off months of debate about how to change a fare enforcement system that has come under intense public scrutiny.
Fare enforcement officers are likely to get extra training, and stations will get more signs and machines for tapping ORCA cards to make sure people know they have to tap their cards to ride, according Sound Transit.
But the agency will stop short of some other major changes. Sound Transit does not plan to do as King County Metro has done and move its process for resolving fare evasion tickets in house in order to avoid pushing riders into the criminal justice system.
Instead, Sound Transit hopes to use community courts, alternative courts that also connect people with services. A King County District Court spokesman said discussions about that switch are still underway.
Advocates and a Sound Transit Board member are already questioning that choice. Removing the process from the courts entirely is the best way to “stop the cycle of debt and poverty,” said Alex Hudson, director of the Transportation Choices Coalition.
Board member Claudia Balducci urged Sound Transit to join with Metro in resolving tickets in house, though another board member, Kent Keel, warned against too hastily adopting another agency’s process.
Sound Transit also will not change its system to allow riders to pay their fares on board its trains, an idea floated briefly that could have dramatically changed how riders interact with fare checkers, but which Sound Transit says would be too expensive. Today, riders with ORCA cards must tap their card before boarding, which can be confusing and easy to forget, particularly in stations with few card readers.
Nationwide, transit agencies are reckoning with fare enforcement, which they say is key to their bottom line but which can have disproportionate impacts on people of color or saddle low-income riders with expensive tickets they can’t pay.
Today, failure to pay a fare — or failure to properly tap your fully-paid monthly pass — on Sound Transit results in a warning and, if caught again in a year, an $124 ticket. Until the agency paused the practice last year, riders could be charged with a misdemeanor after one warning and two $124 tickets in a year.
Sound Transit plans to allow two warnings per year and reduce the cost of a ticket, likely to $50, staff said.
When people refuse to show their ID for a warning or ticket, fare enforcement officers can call in police, a practice Sound Transit plans to suspend for incidents that are related only to fares and involve youth. The agency said it needs “more information” before making the same change for adults.
Sound Transit also plans to join a new discount program from Metro for two years to offer free transit passes for people with very low incomes, and the agency might use the shuttered Westlake Station kiosk to sign people up for discount programs.
Some changes will still have to be finalized and approved by the board.
The agency expects to spend about $900,000 a year on the new policies, including three new staff members, plus $1.8 million over two years for the new discount program with Metro, according to Sound Transit.
Sound Transit staff have repeatedly emphasized the agency is not considering going fare-free.
In surveys on board Sound Transit trains, the agency found that income was the primary difference between people who had valid fare payment and people who didn’t, and some people said they couldn’t afford the fare.
But the top two reasons for lack of payment were the same across incomes: “I forgot to tap” and “I tapped my ORCA card, but it didn’t work.” The agency used that finding to argue for better signage.
Survey respondents generally had positive impressions of fare enforcement officers, but in separate focus groups, people raised concerns about targeting and bias. Some also said the system exacts too harsh of a punishment on young people, like Seattle public high school students who get free ORCA cards.
In November, a 16-year-old Franklin High School student was left “shaken and crying hysterically” after getting her second ticket from a fare enforcement officer, despite having a free ORCA card from school, her parents wrote in a letter to Sound Transit Board members.
Both times, the student had the transit pass with her and around her neck, her parents wrote, but had issues with tapping the card. Both times, “she has felt intimidated, publicly shamed, confused, scared and penalized for a mistake she was unaware of having made,” the letter said.
Sound Transit says it will give fare enforcement officers special training on interacting with youth and figure out a time around the start of the school year when students won’t get warnings or tickets.
The costs of fare enforcement remain an open question for some board members.
Fare revenue covered about 38% of operating costs on light rail and 33% on Sounder commuter rail in 2018, and the agency says the fare checks are key to keep people paying their fares. Only about 2% of people who were checked last year didn’t have a valid ticket.
Sound Transit spends about $1.4 million a year on fare enforcement and does not get the money from fines, which are instead handled by the court. In recent years, the vast majority of tickets went unpaid and were sent to collections, according to data provided to The Seattle Times by the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts.
Sound Transit Chief of Staff Rhonda Carter called the system a “relatively light touch, but we find it to be very, very effective.”
Balducci questioned the claim that fare checks are what keep fare evasion so low. Without “proof of causation,” she said, “how do we make a determination whether this is a business we should be investing all this money into?”