On July 26, King County Executive Dow Constantine introduced legislation to improve Metro’s fare enforcement program. This significant piece of legislation is a step toward ensuring safe and affordable transportation options are available to everyone. No one should end up in the court system because they can’t afford a bus ticket.

The Executive’s action came in response to an audit last spring revealing that people experiencing homelessness and low-income people are disproportionately cited for fare evasion on King County Metro’s RapidRide lines. They have the least ability to pay the fine and the highest need for transit access. The King County Auditor’s report found that:

  • 25 percent of all citations and 30 percent of misdemeanor charges for fare evasion are given to people experiencing homelessness or housing instability;
  • less than 3 percent of fare evasion fines were paid in 2016 — only 94 people out of 3,911 cited in 2016 paid the $124 fine; and
  • King County spends $1.7 million per year enforcing fares, including over $300,000 in court costs to process fines that often go unpaid.

For background, RapidRide riders pay at kiosks on the street and may board the bus at any door, which speeds up overall boarding times, saving Metro money and increasing reliability. Fare enforcement officers check proof of payment on the bus and issue citations for those who cannot demonstrate that they have paid. The first offense is a verbal warning, second is a $124 infraction, and the third offense is a misdemeanor citation referral to the King County District Court and contact with the court system. When fines are left unpaid, they go into collections, causing a legal headache and may impact a person’s ability to obtain housing. These enforcement procedures are currently similar to Sound Transit’s light rail enforcement program.

Steps to advance an equitable enforcement program

It is urgent to fix the enforcement system as soon as possible, as King County is in the midst of expanding its RapidRide system. As RapidRide and off-board payment expands, fare enforcement will expand and negative impacts and high costs revealed in the audit will likely continue.

King County Executive Dow Constantine’s legislation will reduce fines and minimize the chances of riders entering a cycle of debt and the court system. The legislation will give Metro the authority to:

  • Take civil infractions out of district court and handle within Metro;
  • reduce fines from $124 to $50 or less, with the ability for fines paid within 30 days to be further reduced by half;
  • allow community service time with local nonprofits in lieu of payment;
  • if eligible, enroll in ORCA LIFT, the county’s reduced-fare program, in lieu of payment; and
  • conduct surveys later this year to better understand why some transit riders do not have valid proof of payment and the barriers they face to affording transit fare.

Beyond the legislation — there’s more to do

As Metro and its partners work to improve the program, we’d like to see continued engagement with those most affected by fare enforcement, including immigrants, refugees, people of color, people with limited English, and those with low or no income, as well as cross-agency collaboration to establish consistency. It is also necessary to address the underlying issues that make it difficult for people to pay for a transit trip. Our concerns are:

  • people might not know what payment options and programs are available to them, such as ORCA LIFT;
  • people may not know how to use RapidRide or have the opportunity to pay or load their cards before boarding;
  • people with very low or no income cannot afford to pay for a bus ticket;
  • people of color, people with limited english proficiency, and people with mental health conditions may feel disproportionately unsafe interacting with officers and are likely to experience bias in interactions that could escalate into dangerous situations;
  • King County Metro currently does not have data to understand whether and the extent of fare enforcement’s disproportionate impacts on people of color and people with limited English; and
  • even the best enforcement program will have elements of bias — enforcement officers need robust implicit bias and de-escalation trainings.

We look forward to continue working with Metro and our partners at Puget Sound Sage, Transit Riders Union, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, OneAmerica, and more as we reform the fare enforcement program so transit is safe and accessible for all.

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