Are Transit Fare Violation Policies Fair?


Over the years, the issue of fare enforcement fairness has routinely been raised. In 2015, Metropolitan King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove sponsored legislation to ensure that minors would not be criminally charged for fare evasion. That same year, Erica Barnett at Seattle Transit Blog highlighted the burden that King County Metro Transit riders cited for fare violation had to endure by traveling all they way to Shoreline just to appeal an infraction in court. And in 2016, Anzel Herz at The Stranger laid out data showing that Sound Transit’s fare enforcement officers are disproportionately white and male compared to the communities they serve.

Recently, Vincent Snow launched an online petition targeting Sound Transit and Seattle to change policies on fare enforcement. Snow argues that the fines levied through enforcement are unfair comparing much lesser penalties to motorists who violate parking regulations.

“Today, I received a ticket in the mail for fare evasion. It was $124, [about three] times the amount of a parking violation, for forgetting to validate my prepaid monthly unlimited card which was paid for peak fare rate,” the petition reads. “I am a full-time student, low-income self-employed person between contracts and currently pulling in $0 a month. This ticket caused a lot of grief and came out of money for necessary living expenses, and still would have even if I’d chosen a time-payment plan. I saw no option for forgiveness based on inability to pay, and no option for forgiveness based on proof that I already paid for my unlimited rides reduced-fare card for the highest fare rate.”

In the petition, Snow makes a salient point: the people most likely to use transit tend to come from populations that can least afford high penalties, such as those with low incomes, the elderly, the disabled, or those otherwise lacking access to a private vehicle. Despite programs like ORCA LIFT, individuals who are low-income are certainly the most at risk of fare violations. Anyone could forget their ORCA pass and end up in a situation like Snow.

State law allows transit agencies such as Sound Transit, King County Metro Transit, and Community Transit to classify fare violations as a Class 1 Civil Infraction. That can carry a maximum fine of $250, but none of the transit agencies impose penalties at the maximum. In fact, fines set by all three transit agencies is $124 to pay for court costs and a base penalty. Fighting the fine, however, is often a difficult task for accidental fare violators like Snow. Meanwhile, most parking violations in Seattle range from $44 to $47, a comparatively small fine for what can often be much more detrimental violations, such as parking on sidewalks, blocking a curb ramp, occupying a bus zone, or hindering access to a fire hydrant.

In an email, Metro spokesperson Scott Gutierrez says that his agency “is constantly evaluating fare enforcement practices.” However, he reported that there is not active policy changes proposed or under consideration right now. Generally, fare enforcement on Metro buses is limited to boarding in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel and random checks on RapidRide buses. Some transit operators are pushing to end fare enforcement entirely through their Just Transit campaign. “We are working to end fare enforcement on the RapidRide lines because Metro should be in the business of Just Transit, not policing and criminalizing poor people and people of color,” they argue.

At Sound Transit, Kimberly Reason said that her agency recognizes that riders sometimes make mistakes on fares. “Virtually no one receives a citation for a first-time offense involving failure to provide valid proof of payment,” she said. “Sound Transit issues and tracks warnings to riders, and a rider is not cited unless he or she has already received a warning in the previous 12 months.” Reason also noted that riders can appeal their fines in front of a District Court judge near them (King County, Snohomish County, or Pierce County courts).

As far as transit crimes committed go, fare violations rank about as mild as it gets. It should, however, be concerning that fines are often imposed on those least able to afford them, with particular disproportionate impact on people of color. It’s also quite apparent that fare enforcement fines are steep compared to much more significant violations. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider local and state policies on monetary penalties for fare violations. Reform could include reducing or eliminating fines, providing clearer guidance on reasonable appeal and alternative settlement options, and allowing for better resolution based upon the circumstances of an individual.

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. Stephen lives in Kenmore and primarily covers land use and transportation issues for The Urbanist.

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I’ve never been at all supportive of the idea that we should levy fines against people who have paid for an unlimited monthly transit pass and are holding onto that monthly pass while riding a transit vehicle, when their only misdeed was failing to properly press their monthly pass against a reader before entering said transit vehicle.

I realize that agencies in the ORCA system apportion monthly pass revenue based on how often that pass is used on each agency’s transit vehicles, but a $124 fine seems vastly out of proportion for the crime here. At worst, failing to tap your monthly pass upon entering a Link station might cost Sound Transit a couple dollars, while giving those dollars instead to King County Metro or some other transit agency that the person also uses. But with all the people using different transit vehicles in our area and sometimes forgetting to tap their passes, I bet it mostly comes out to a wash overall.

Fare enforcers should by all means remind and encourage pass holders to tap their cards so the money gets divided up properly. Fines for people who have already paid should not be the answer.