Sound Transit is going to the people with fare enforcement reform proposals, including reducing fines and widening access to low-income fare programs, in the wake of criticisms that their current procedures can disproportionately impact homeless people and people of color.
The King County Council, one of the counties served by Sound Transit, modified its Fare Violation Program with an eye toward fixing problems identified by the King County auditor. The auditor’s office found that a quarter of the people who received fare violations were homeless and that the vast majority of fines do not get paid, trapping people in “a cycle of debt and court interactions.”
Sound Transit launched its process in March 2019, forming a team to review their processes and collect suggestions for reform from residents of Pierce, Snohomish and King counties. Officials held six listening session in three different counties, pursuing input from communities of color and people “in proximity to poverty.”
Now the transit authority is coming back with options to implement the kinds of reforms that people want to see.
A group gathered the evening of Feb. 19 at Centro de la Raza in Beacon Hill to hear Sound Transit’s proposals.
“It’s important for us, as we learn what equitable enforcement looks like within Sound Transit, to make sure we don’t just come and ask community what they need, but come back and report out,” said Jackie Martinez-Vasquez, the director of Sound Transit’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity, Equity and Inclusion.
Suggestions ran the gamut from lowering fines from $124 to $50; expanding access to ORCA Lift, a reduced-fare program for low-income people; eliminating fares for extremely low-income people outright; and altering where and how fare enforcement officers operate, among other options.
Sound Transit is also contemplating working with public schools to plan education on how to use transit and communicating about the first day of school when Seattle high school students are expected to pick up their free ORCA cards. Sound Transit was widely criticized when fare enforcement officers contacted several high school students on their first day of school this year, before they were able to pick up their free passes.
The Wednesday meeting started with a presentation outlining the basics of the proposals. Then, participants drifted to round tables to share their ideas around specific areas such as fare enforcement officers and barriers to payment.
Attendees threw out ideas such as allowing the fare balance on ORCA cards to go below zero so that people could board a bus or train if they’re slightly short and exploring group fares to bring prices down for families. The proposals were written on sticky notes and affixed to large pads of lined paper.
Mark Dublin rode transit up from his home in Olympia to attend. Dublin drove trolleys in Seattle for 13 years. He was a longtime resident of Ballard, but ultimately left because rents were too high for him to afford. Although he left Metro in 1995, and the area sometime thereafter, Dublin is passionate about making sure that transit works.
Dublin was incensed about how difficult it is to use the Sound Transit fare stations. Although he pays for a monthly pass, a poorly executed tap of his ORCA card would make him a criminal, Dublin said. Large crowds on the platforms can make it difficult to tap in.
“Poor people are being served with criminal papers who have done everything morally right,” Dublin said.
One of his proposals: Add another animal to the menagerie of cartoonish creatures that dispense advice on Metro buses to riders about proper bus etiquette. Dublin wants to see the “tap-munk,” a chipmunk character that reminds people to double check that they’ve successfully tapped in.
Dublin doesn’t have to worry as much about fare enforcement in his current hometown. Thurston County launched a pilot program Jan. 1 that eliminates fares for people on the Intercity Transit bus lines.
Work is underway locally to try to either eliminate fares or shift the burden away from workers and low-income people.
The Transit Riders Union, which helped organize the Feb. 19 event, launched the ORCA for All campaign. It aims to get employers to provide transit passes to employees, require local government to give transit passes to their contractors and institute low-income fares.
Disclosure: Real Change’s Advocacy Department is part of the coalition working on the ORCA for All campaign.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
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