Two fare enforcement officers work their way toward the front of a bus after checking a few riders proof of payment.
Fare enforcement officers were clapping down on fare evaders in fall 2019. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

Sound Transit stepped in it on the first day of school last week.

Despite widely cheered plans to provide free transit passes to high school students at Seattle Public Schools, Sound Transit turned an opportunity to build goodwill and welcome a new generation of transit riders into a public relations nightmare.

The snafu culminated in people across the country–from Naomi Klein to Ijeoma Oluo–wagging their finger at Sound Transit for handling the situation so poorly. An agency that could have been building relationships with lower-income families and communities of color instead got defensive. In the process, Sound Transit highlighted its lack of progress on equitable fare reform. While King County Metro made some progress on fare enforcement reform last year–lowering fines, offering community service alternatives, and diverting infractions out of the court system–Sound Transit hasn’t followed suit. It should.

Metro’s fare policy change was spurred by a King County Auditor’s analysis of fare enforcement which found a quarter of all citations were given to people experiencing homelessness, effectively penalizing poverty and furthering a cycle of poverty that traps people in with escalating court fines. The report pointed out that the assumption that fare enforcement drives down fare evasion hasn’t been borne out in academic studies.

Here’s Heidi Groover’s recap of what happened last Wednesday and Sound Transit’s response:

Last month, Seattle Public Schools mailed students temporary passes to use until they get their free ORCA cards. Still, even students without those temporary passes were not formally warned or ticketed Wednesday, said Sound Transit spokeswoman Rachelle Cunningham.

[Jesse] Hagopian said officers took photos of the young riders’ IDs. Typically, fare-enforcement officers take photos of IDs when they issue formal warnings to riders caught for the first time without fare. (Riders caught a second time within a year can get a $124 ticket.)

Asked why officers took photos of the IDs if they were not issuing formal warnings, Cunningham said in an email: “The fare enforcement officers were doing their jobs the way they normally do. In this instance, because students did not have their permanent [ORCA] cards yet, they were not issued formal warnings, and the photos will not be entered into the system.”

Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff spoke about the controversy at a board meeting Thursday. The online attention “reflected some very valid questions about how we do fare enforcement, but there was a great deal of confusion and misinformation that I want to address,” Rogoff said.

Rogoff said fare enforcement was not increased Wednesday and no students were ticketed. No students will be ticketed or formally warned for the rest of the week, he said, and if any students did receive tickets or warnings they will be “expunged.”
“Since we’re not recording formal warnings to students that means that no student interactions with fare enforcement count toward whether they might ever get a ticket in the future,” Rogoff said.

Heidi Groover in The Seattle Times

Lost in Sound Transit’s equivocating is why fare enforcement officers were taking photo of students’ ID’s if they weren’t suppose to enter them in the system anyway. From a transit rider’s perspective even the act of getting hassled by officers is disincentive enough, particularly with intimidating gestures like checking ID’s on kids who haven’t done anything wrong. Plus, being a stickler on proof of payment on transit that was supposed to be free anyway is a little ironic.

Speaking of which, fare-free transit is a climate justice solution, as Naomi Klein pointed out, and one that would avoid regrettable fare enforcement situations like this. If we extended free transit to everybody, then Sound Transit and Seattle Public Schools wouldn’t be in the position of having to get these temporary passes to students. I wonder how much the mailing of temporary transit passes to students costs when transit agencies could have theoretically just taken a break from enforcing fares.

Instead, transit agencies are going in the opposite direction. Both Sound Transit and Metro recently hired more fare enforcement officers–both agencies contract with the same private company for fare enforcement: Securitas. Mayor Jenny Durkan also indicated she intends to beef up fare enforcement on the First Hill Streetcar hoping to squeeze out more fare revenue, despite concerns that adding enforcement officers may cost more than they could recover in fares. (And meanwhile enforcement of motorist lawbreaking is down, as Charles Mudede reminds us–and parking fines cost less than fare infractions for some reason.)

Transit agencies are somewhat hamstrung by the Federal Transit Administration, which requests agencies demonstrate fare enforcement to qualify for grants. However, agencies certainly do not need to be throwing themselves at the practice with such zeal and turning off riders in the process. The goal should be maximizing transit ridership, especially in light of our climate goals. Klein is right that Democratic presidential candidates should be leading on adding transit and making fares either free or at least equitable. Otherwise good ideas like making transit free for students will be undermined in their execution as we saw last Wednesday.

The effort to make transit cheaper is continuing locally, too, with Seattle Transit Riders Union (TRU) launching their ORCA For All campaign last night. The idea is to require all large employers in Downtown Seattle participate in the ORCA passport program and cover at least 50% of transit costs–believe it or not some large Downtown firms offer no transit subsidy whatsoever. The Urbanist has endorsed the ORCA For All campaign–making it easier and more affordable to ride transit makes a ton of sense. We’re hosting a volunteer event with TRU on September 18th if you’d like to join us and lend a hand on the ORCA For All campaign.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.