SEATTLE – For the first time since 2020, passengers aboard Sound Transit’s light rail and Sounder service will receive a citation if they ride enough times without paying, beginning this month.
While transit users may have been approached by a Sound Transit employee and asked for proof of payment in recent years, the agency has issued only warnings, stopping short of sending out tickets. Sound Transit in the meantime has slowly ramped up a new fare enforcement squad, made up of “ambassadors” instead of security or law enforcement.
With staffing improving and fare payment lagging, the agency will begin writing tickets Nov. 15. After years of discussion, the rollout of a monetary punishment will be the fullest test of a new fare system intended to deliver a lighter and more equitable touch. Whether it can be both those things and a source of operating dollars for Sound Transit will become clearer in the coming months and years.
Previously, passengers would receive a $124 civil infraction, filed in King County District Court, for not paying the fare after one warning. That approach raised concerns about disproportionality – Black riders were more likely to receive an infraction – as well as the ripple effects of wrapping people up in the court system over the relatively small offense.
The new system has many more steps. Now, riders receive two warnings. On the third time not paying, they will receive a $50 citation, followed by a $75 citation after the fourth. Only at the fifth time will passengers receive a civil infraction, which, if gone unpaid, could eventually result in a misdemeanor. King County is still in discussions with Sound Transit to process the infractions, spokesperson Troy Brown said, but a contract has not been signed.
People could waive fines by loading money onto an ORCA card or taking part in some educational activity. All warnings previously given by fare ambassadors will be wiped clean, so everyone will begin at zero.
“Our hope is that with this expanded policy, and through the Fare Ambassadors’ educational outreach, we can help people learn how to use the system and access affordable fare before they ever get to that point,” Sound Transit spokesperson Rachelle Cunningham said.
One concern board members raised while writing the new policy was how the agency would keep track of warnings; it’s not uncommon for riders to not have ID or refuse to provide a real name.
Russ Arnold, deputy CEO at Sound Transit, said about 30% of passengers who didn’t have proof of payment under the new tiered system either didn’t provide an ID or provided information that couldn’t be verified later.
Sound Transit may eventually take a photograph of people who do not provide ID, which would “be retained by Sound Transit for the purpose of tracking warnings,” but that step is not being implemented for now, Cunningham said.
Fare collections are forecast to cover 7% of Sound Transit’s budget over the next 25 years – significant but nevertheless dwarfed by tax dollars . Staff recently told board members they’re revising down the amount they expect to collect in fares through 2046 by $931 million. That relatively small proportion has spurred some to question the need for boosted enforcement.
But leadership and board members have remained committed.
“I think this is an area where we can substantially improve but it’s going to take some effort, and I think effort beyond what we’re talking about now,” board member and Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said in a meeting last week.
Enforcement used to be carried out by security officers. The practice was halted in the early months of the pandemic to reduce coronavirus exposure and never returned as policymakers, in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, grappled with how to make enforcement less punitive and more educational.
Security officers were replaced with fare ambassadors, whose mission was to provide resources and options for reduced fares to passengers before resorting to fines. Security and transit police are still present on and around the transit lines, but they don’t collect fares.
But the new ambassador team was beset by turnover, and enforcement was, as Somers said, “almost invisible when you get on the light rail.” After hiring 26 ambassadors to start, the team bottomed out at just two, said Arnold.
“When you’re hiring an engineer, you get a good pool and hire them and they’re probably going to be there for 15 years,” said Arnold. “We didn’t anticipate at the beginning that some people would leave in two months. That hasn’t been the experience at Sound Transit.”
Pay increases and training have helped and now the agency is approaching 50 ambassadors, with a longer-term goal of 125.
Inspection rates over the last six months have been just 1.16% – a small fraction of Sound Transit’s 10% goal. Of that small number who interacted with a fare ambassador, 87% had paid their fare. Staff cautioned, however, that the overall number of riders who’ve paid is likely closer to 55%. Many of those who didn’t pay did so because they didn’t have to, including anyone under 18. Still, the goal is to bring the number up to 75%.
Board member and King County Councilmember Joe McDermott urged patience regarding the rollout of the new-look approach to enforcement.
“I would encourage us to make sure that we fully implemented the policy we adopted 14 months ago before we chuck it and decide it isn’t working,” he said.
Sound Transit is also weighing ways to make payment and enforcement easier, including zones on the platform where riders should have already tapped and flat rates of either $3, $3.25 or $3.50 per trip to reduce the complexity of tapping on and off.