This post is part one of a three post series on fare enforcement on Seattle area transit.
Patrick Burke got on a RapidRide E bus at Third and Pike one evening with a transfer in his backpack. At least, he thought it was in his backpack, until he tried to get it out for a fare enforcement check. Usually, Burke puts his transfers in the same pocket in his bag. This time, it wasn’t in the usual place.
Burke had seen the fare enforcement officers (FEOs) get on at the next stop, and started digging around in his other pockets for the slip of paper when they started checking passengers for proof of payment. When one of the officers got to Burke, he still hadn’t found it. Burke was still searching for the ticket when the other officer completed his check of the rest of the bus. The second officer approached Burke and his partner.
“He comes to the back [of the bus] and gets this immediate attitude,” Burke says. “Saying I was wasting their time, and that I was playing games with them. And I said, ‘No, sir, I was just looking for my transfer.’ I even pointed at the pocket. ‘I typically have it in this pocket but I just got back from a very document-heavy meeting, and I just misplaced it. I’m looking for it.’”
The rest of the passengers got off the bus at the next stop, leaving Burke alone with the fare enforcement officers and driver. Burke still hadn’t found the transfer a few stops later.
“They were starting to get puffy chest, and I didn’t understand what was going on. They started to say that, if I didn’t start cooperating with them, that they would have to call the sheriff.”
Burke finally found the transfer and showed it to the officers. The officer who initially approached Burke went to the front of the bus, but the other officer continued to stand near Burke.
“He just gave me this staredown,” Burke says. “The second one stood right by me and stared me down until we got to the very last stop. They got off the bus, and he did this, like, two finger eye thing, and he does it back at me, like, ‘I’m watching you.’”
Over the course of 2018, transit leaders and advocates have begun to question the effectiveness, usefulness, and fairness of that fare enforcement regime. Metro rolled out fare enforcement operations in 2010, at the same time that it introduced RapidRide lines. Initially, Metro adopted the same fare enforcement policy that Sound Transit developed with the launch of Central Link in 2009.
A King County audit said it “cannot determine whether its model of fare enforcement makes sense, in terms of costs and outcomes, or identify ways to improve it.” The report also found that:
- The 2009 fare enforcement model cost $1.7 million per year, including court costs.
- Officers checked about 300,000 riders per year—1.4 percent of RapidRide’s ridership.
- Each $124 citation issued cost $435 worth of resources to issue, though Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer emphasized that operational expenses were not “focused solely” on citations.
- RapidRide fare evasion rate is much lower than the fare evasion rate in 31 U.S. transit systems, but “although a link between evasion and fare enforcement is often assumed, the relationship is actually not clear.”
In response to the findings, Metro revised its fare enforcement policy, with help from transit advocates and social justice groups, over the summer.
Sound Transit has so far stuck with the original policy, though members of the agency’s board of elected officials have indicated their interest in reforms. Revenue collection covers a portion of operating costs: for Link, the budget plans for 40% cost recovery through fares. According to Sound Transit spokesperson Kimberly Reason, September 2018 revenue very nearly matched that projection.
In 2017, the agency collected about $90 million in fares, or about 4 percent of its overall revenue. Overall security operations cost $60 million that year, a figure that includes internal costs and contracted local law enforcement. Internal security and safety, which includes fare enforcement operations, security, and law enforcement support, cost $21 million, or roughly one third of the operating budget.
The mission of any transit agency is to get as many people as possible on board, to where they need to go. At its essence, fare enforcement’s job contradicts that mission: its purpose is to keep people who won’t or can’t pay fare off trains and buses.
That contradiction is trouble for low-income riders. Transit is crucial for working class people, or people in poverty, but it’s exactly those groups that are most likely to try to dodge fares. At the end of a paycheck, low-income riders might need to choose between food or transit, but they might then need to ride the bus to a faraway grocery store.
The choice can become more than a hassle: impeding low-income riders’ access to high quality transit makes poverty harder to escape. If reliable, frequent transit isn’t available, arriving on time to work becomes difficult—which can get a worker fired. Delays are especially costly for working parents: many child care programs have punitive, compounding fees if children aren’t picked up on time at the end of the day.
A citation from fare enforcement can also kick off a financial crisis for low-income riders. That dovetails with a growing body of scholarship and reporting that demonstrates that even the smallest legal fees and fines can spark a financial crisis for people in poverty.
Aaron Hill got a citation from fare enforcement officers on the Rapid Ride D line. He was homeless at the time. Hill had only a few dollars, so he didn’t pay his fare. The officers fined Hill and gave him a formal citation. Hill didn’t pay the initial fine, because he already owed creditors other outstanding debts, and couldn’t pay.
“I was working for a while at the Millionaires’ Club, saving up all my money for an apartment,” Hill says. “I’d been saving up my money in a Wells Fargo bank account for a while, and I had about $1,600. I get this email notice: ‘your bank account is now at zero.’ I went down to the bank, and I find out that there’s a court order. Some creditor seized my bank account.”
“So now I have literally no money whatsoever. For a homeless person, you’re already at the lowest of the low, and you’re just going to pile on another headache—it just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Hill was saving for an apartment, but when his bank account was garnished he ran out of money. With no funds, and an already low credit score further damaged by the fare enforcement fee’s move to collections, Hill struggled to find a landlord that would rent him an apartment. Hill says the financial crisis also worsened his existing mental health problems.
Hill’s experience is not unusual. According to the auditor’s report, “people experiencing homelessness or housing instability received nearly 25 percent of citations between 2015 and 2017” on RapidRide buses.
In part two, we’ll look at how fare enforcement intersects with racial bias.
This post has been corrected: the April 2018 report was prepared by the King County Auditor, not Metro.