On April 28, the Sound Transit board voted to reintroduce fines for failing to pay fare on the Link light rail and Sounder trains. Advocates warn that the fare enforcement policy, which was put on pause in 2020, could result in racist disproportionalities against Black passengers.
It might even be unconstitutional, they say.
Between 2009 and 2019, Sound Transit issued nearly 38,000 citations against riders who failed to show proof of payment. Under the old fare enforcement system, passengers who already received two tickets could also be charged with theft in the third degree. In the same time period, more than 3,000 people were referred to misdemeanor charges by Sound Transit. Black transit riders received 46.7 percent of citations and 56.9 percent of theft charges despite making up just 7 percent of the King County population and 10 percent of Sound Transit’s ridership.
Sound Transit’s new fare enforcement policy, which is expected to come into effect on Sept. 17, is designed to be less punitive and racist than the pre-coronavirus policy.
Under the newly revised fare enforcement policy, passengers who failed to show proof of payment will be given two warnings in a 12-month period instead of just one. After the third and fourth instances of failing to show proof of payment, riders will be issued a $50 and $75 fine managed internally by Sound Transit. Riders will have access to non-monetary options to resolve or dispute these fines. After a fifth instance of failing to pay, riders will receive a $124 fine to be adjudicated in the court system.
However, KL Shannon, a community organizer with Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, says that the racist disproportionality in fare enforcement will remain despite the changes.
“It also concerns me that ... even though Sound Transit voted that they’re going to give you a number of chances to pay these fines, at the end of the day, they’re still gonna be sent to collections,” Shannon said.
The board voted on an amendment that is meant to prevent tickets from going to collections, but the $124 tickets would still go through the courts. The amendment’s efficacy, in these cases, is unclear.
The Sound Transit board decision comes in response to concerns over decreased ridership and revenue from fares. According to a spokesperson for the transit agency, Sound Transit earned $97 million in fares in 2019, which made up about 30 percent of the system-wide operations cost. In 2020, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, fare revenue dropped to just $30.6 million.
After years of criticism from affected communities, the transit agency began a review of fare enforcement in 2018. Data from surveys conducted during this review showed that a majority of passengers without proof of payment had annual incomes of less than $50,000.
In late 2020, amidst the backdrop of the international uprisings for racial justice in response to the police murder of George Floyd, Sound Transit voted to put on hold the punitive aspects of the fare enforcement system and instead pilot a new “fare ambassador” program. Unlike fare enforcement officers, fare ambassadors no longer wore militarized, security guard-style outfits and did not issue fines. Ambassadors also educated riders about the ORCA LIFT program and other reduced fare opportunities for low income passengers.
According to outgoing Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff, Link ridership has recovered to about 83 percent of pre-COVID-19 levels. However, in a presentation to the board, agency staff said that fare compliance has not rebounded proportionately to the recovery in ridership
Unlike other government entities such as the county and the Port of Seattle, the Sound Transit board is not directly elected. Its members consist of local politicians, including Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell and King County Executive Dow Constantine.
When questioning the proposal to reintroduce fare enforcement at the April 28 meeting, Pierce County Executive and Sound Transit board member Bruce Dammeier said that riders who fail to pay and don’t show ID could demonstrate a lack of accountability.
“If people are refusing to show identification and there’s no accountability to it,” he said. “... it seems like we’re incenting [sic] them to not [pay] … but they can avoid the whole thing if they don’t show ID, just refuse to interact with the fare ambassadors?”
According to early fare ambassador data, 76 percent of riders who did not show proof of payment did not have full ID, which includes a full name and date of birth, while 40 percent of that 76 percent had no ID at all.
In response to these concerns, the board voted 11 to 5 to authorize fare ambassadors to request passengers to leave the train if they did not show an ID or proof of payment. Board members noted that the policy would leave discretion to fare ambassadors to decide whom they would ask to leave, which could lead to uneven enforcement.
Board chair and University Place Councilmember Kent Keel called people who failed to show proof of payment “offenders” (even though failing to pay for transit is a civil infraction, not a crime). He said that passengers who don’t show ID are being “less than responsible.” Keel added that if fare ambassadors ask a rider to leave the train and they refuse, then the ambassador would “just walk away” and not try to involve some sort of law enforcement.
Breanne Schuster, a civil rights attorney and Real Change board member, said that the requirement for passengers to have ID could raise both constitutional concerns and also disproportionately affect unhoused people, who are more likely to have their ID destroyed.
“It’s a really big issue in Seattle, where we’ve heard so many individuals, in particular in the houseless community, who are having their forms of identification taken and destroyed, or otherwise, by the city,” Schuster said. “And so, it’s potentially making it impossible for somebody that is experiencing homelessness to use public transportation, for example.”
In addition to requiring passengers to show ID, board members — including Harrell and Seattle City Council President Debora Juarez — voted down a proposal from King County Councilmember Joe McDermott to ensure that enforcement does not escalate to the court system. However, the board did approve a second amendment from McDermott that would prevent fines from going to collections agencies.
Juarez, who supported the amendment, said that, if fines went to collections, they could ruin a person’s life by tanking their credit score.
It’s unclear if those who receive a $124 citation after the fifth instance of not showing proof of payment will be shielded from collections, as the district court has the ability to hand over unresolved fines to collection agencies. Thus, passengers who are most impacted by fare enforcement might still be funneled into collections. Data from 2019 showed that nearly half of unpaid fines in King County District Court were issued to Black people.
Workers from the nonprofit transit advocacy groups Move Redmond, Downtown On the Go and Transportation Choices Coalition (TCC) testified in favor of McDermott’s amendments.
While she was disappointed that the Sound Transit board didn’t fully sever the link between fare enforcement and the court system and collections, TCC Policy Director Hester Serebrin said that the new fare enforcement policy is “definitely an improvement from the policy that they had beforehand.”
In addition to involvement in the court system, Sound Transit’s fare enforcement has put people who can’t or didn’t pay for the light rail in contact with law enforcement. On June 30, 2014, 22-year-old Oscar Perez-Giron was kicked off the light rail after allegedly failing to pay fare. King County sheriff’s deputies were called to the scene when Perez-Giron failed to show ID. Police claimed that he was armed. After an escalation, one of the deputies shot and killed him. His mother, Maria Giron, is still calling for justice in the case.
Shannon said that fare enforcement contributed to the bloodshed by escalating the situation.
“You know, this kid was killed because he was refusing to show his ID and the fact that he refused to show that he had paid his fare amount. And it escalated from there,” she said.
For young people, especially young people of color, fare ambassadors may still appear threatening. Although fare ambassadors are not supposed to interact with police, their request for passengers without IDs to leave the train could lead to escalation.
Even as Sound Transit commits to reintroduce fare enforcement, the constitutionality of the policy itself is being challenged in the Washington Supreme Court. Zachary Meredith was removed from a bus by three Snohomish County sheriff’s deputies after he failed to show proof of payment in 2018. Meredith claims that the act of officers asking him for proof of payment constitutes an illegal stop which violated his right to privacy.
The Supreme Court held a hearing on the case in February and is currently deliberating.
Julia Mizutani, an Equal Justice Works fellow at the ACLU Washington, filed an amicus brief together with Schuster and public defenders in support of Meredith. Mizutani said that fare enforcement represents a kind of double standard, where public transit riders are subject to a level of surveillance that drivers are not.
“If you’re driving a car, the police cannot just pull you over for no reason and require you to show them your ID,” Mizutani said. “There has to be some sort of reasonable suspicion. So, you went through a red light or a stop sign or, you know, were driving erratically — there has to be something in order for them to even just pull you over and ask questions.”
“And we think that should be true for people who use public transit. Otherwise, we’re gonna have two different systems where certain people have rights and other people don’t just because of what kind of public transportation they use.”
In addition to the basic question of if fare enforcement is constitutional, Mizutani added that she doesn’t think the new fare enforcement policy solves the racist disproportionality of the previous iteration.
“I still don’t see how this new proposal would reduce the disproportionality or disparate impact that it has on Black people and on low-income people, because they’re still stopping everyone, and that was the same scheme as before,” she said.
Both in the United States and internationally, fare enforcement is coming under increasing scrutiny. For agencies such as Sound Transit, there exists a tension between squeezing out revenue from riders and grappling with violent consequences of what enforcement looks like to poor and homeless community members, especially poor Black and Brown community members.
One potential alternative is to adopt a fare-free transportation model, something Intercity Transit in Olympia did in 2020. Mizutani said that ditching the farebox could be a way for transit agencies to ensure compliance with the constitution.
“I think if the city wants to err on the safe side of the constitution, they could always decide to fund public transit fully and make it free for riders, and that makes fare enforcement obsolete,” she said.
“Mobility is a necessity to access so many rights, and it should be treated as fundamental to our society,” Mizutani said. “And by making it free, it would be truly for the public, for the entire public and not just for people who can pay.”
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that implementation of the new fare enforcement policy will begin on Sept. 17, as well as to add additional information about non-monetary options to resolving fines. The newspaper regrets the error.
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Jun 1-7, 2022 issue.