Fare Enforcement Officer on Link (image: Sound Transit)

This afternoon, the Sound Transit Board will consider participating in King County’s program to offer free transit passes to participants of several state benefit programs that are income-based. King County intends to eventually expand the program to all households with income below 80% of the federal poverty level. At the same meeting, the Board is expected to update fare enforcement policies and reduce penalties for non-payment.

Very low income transit passes

The free transit passes for very low income households complements the existing ORCA lift program. While the existing program offers 50% discounts for households with low incomes, the expanded program reduces to zero the cost of passes for the very lowest income households. In combination, this means a single person could have a free transit pass if their income is below $9,992, or a 50% discount with income up to $24,980. A four person household could avail themselves of free transit if their income is below $20,600 or a 50% discount with income below $51,500.

When first proposed by King County, the free transit passes looked set to cause some confusion because it could not be used across all local agencies. Riders could travel for free on King County Metro services, but would have to pay on Sound Transit. With Sound Transit now set to participate in the program, this inconsistency is resolved, but a new inconsistency arises unless Pierce and Snohomish County agencies also participate.

The very low income program is anticipated to launch in July, and will be administered by King County. Sound Transit estimates the cost at under $2 million over two years for Sound Transit’s share of program costs. Foregone fare revenue adds about another $900,000 per year, much lower than the $9-10 million King County Metro is anticipating as the cost of the program on their services.

Fare enforcement

Several revisions to fare policies are included in a resolution to be considered by the Board. Penalties for non-payment will be reduced from $124 to $50. That brings Sound Transit more closely in line with Metro policies. Fare enforcement officers will issue up to two warnings in a 12-month period (vs one today) before writing a citation.

Near term plan for fare enforcement changes (table: Sound Transit, click to enlarge)

Along with the very low income fare-free passes, the new fare enforcement policies are anticipated to greatly reduce the number of citations. Early concerns about fare enforcement policy focused on disparate impacts of enforcement and questioned whether enforcement was effective against those who were unable to pay. However, Sound Transit’s surveys of non-paying riders found non-payment more often about rider confusion than inability to pay. Only a small fraction of those contacted by FEOs said they couldn’t afford the fare.

A fare enforcement plan details a long list of further steps Sound Transit may take, most of which don’t require board action. There are parallel work streams too, to more clearly demarcate fare paid zones and to ease access to ORCA in the next generation of ORCA.

Despite requests from some advocate groups, Sound Transit is not considering handling fines in-house and out of the District Court system. Apart from being required by statute, the court has an advantage as a third party arbiter. Sound Transit is however looking into whether fare infractions could be better handled by the community courts within the District Court system.

The policy updates are therefore complementary. With very low income free fares addressing those who are unable to pay, the looser enforcement policies make it less likely those who fail to pay for other reasons will be ticketed.

More clearly defined fare paid zones are being considered (image: Sound Transit)

23 Replies to “Sound Transit set to adopt low income fare program, update enforcement policies”

  1. A four person household could avail themselves of free transit if their income is below $20,600 or a 50% discount with income below $51,500.

    A full time minimum wage salary (and there are traditionally in Seattle no shortage of minimum wage jobs) is 31,200.

    Who is this bloated administrative program targeting? If we can’t do remote school because we have to treat everyone the same, let’s treat everyone the same and reduce fares for all. Not come up with these acrobatic feats of bureaucracy.

    1. It’s to avoid cycles of poverty where someone doesn’t currently have a job, but can’t get a job because they can’t afford the bus fares to go interview (or work for the first couple of weeks before getting paid).

      That part makes sense. I do wish, though, that low-income fares had some sort of gradual phase out rather than hard threshold where if your income is $1 below the threshold, you get it, if it’s $1 above the threshold, you don’t. I can just imagine people going into their boss’s office and asking to have their salary reduced by $100 so that they can qualify for reduced fares, worth $500. Or, intentionally avoiding banks so that $5/month in interest doesn’t put their income over the eligibility cutoff.

      1. Nope, they’ll just get free fare because their employer pays for it, or at least most of it. If they are going to bargain with their bosses, it will be to get the employer to pay for their pass, among other benefits.

        Those with ORCA LIFT, but not the very-low-income free pass, may still have the highest typical out-of-pocket fare.

      2. That’s assuming the employer is willing to pay for it. If we’re talking minimum wage jobs, unless there’s a law requiring it, they probably won’t. But they’ll be plenty willing to reduce your salary to put you just under the threshold so that the taxpayers pay for it.

        (I do think more employers should be required to buy transit passes for their employees; in some ways, this can act as a backdoor head tax to fund transit, but that’s another issue).

    2. The target for the free transit pass is people on SSI. That maxes out at $783.00 per month, or $9396.00 per year. The $9,992.00 number is likely an attempt to accommodate some level of COLA between now and a program renewal.

      1. It’s not so much the target, as it is that that is the easiest to administrate. Metro chose a threshold that would capture people who already used certain social service programs, so they would have a population that they knew was prequalified. They were also limited in budget and timeline, so that is why the program is not more complex and does not have a higher income threshold. I do hear everyone’s concerns about the benefits cliff, but on the bright side these are year long passes, so hopefully that gives a user enough time to stabilize in a new job before they have to requalify for the program.

    3. The Commute Trip Reduction law is already a de facto head tax insofar as businesses fulfill their CTR requirements by participating in the Business Passport program.

      Reducing fares for everyone will reduce fare revenue from business passports. Therefore, a general fare cut has the same policy outcome as a cut to a head tax: cost savings for businesses, less revenue for KCM, and no impact on out of pocket expenses for the vast majority of riders. In other words, asdf2’s backdoor head tax already exists.

      The number of riders paying full fare with Orca passes is very low (<1/4?), and if you exclude out of town riders I'd imagine it is even lower. Treating everyone the same will hurt KCM far more than it will help local riders.

    4. If you’re trying to support a family of four on one minimum wage job in Seattle you’re going to have a hard time, even if you do get half-price bus fare through Orca Lift. Every little bit helps though.

      If you’re a single person making minimum wage, that $31,200 income will put you above the income thresholds for even the discounted fares.

      As to your question of why not give free or discounted fares to everyone, that’s something that many communities around the country have been looking at. Olympia is doing it already. King County has a much bigger portion of its costs paid through fares than Olympia ever did, so figuring out how to switch to a fare-free model is a much bigger budgetary trade-off. A targeted low-income discount program, despite arguably being an “acrobatic feat of bureaucracy,” is much less of a hit to the budget.

    5. Back east in this great country they provide free transit on any public transportation(also free tuitions at any State University) for Veterans.. Washington is strictly profit based and even more unfortunate the division between haves /have nots seems to be more apparent here. Until that is reduced nothing will be done…

  2. “Sound Transit’s surveys of non-paying riders found non-payment more often about rider confusion than inability to pay.”

    “The main reasons for not paying fares, across income groups, however, have more to do with the complexities of the ORCA system than malicious intent.”

    And here’s proof-of-guilt in one of the System’s own bullying and intimidating “RCW’s”. (Under real station conditions, who in the bright blue plains of Hell has time or training to look up any of them? Law schools have waiting lists.)

    “(3) If fare payment is required before entering a transit vehicle, as defined in RCW 9.91.025(2)(b), or before entering a fare paid area in a transit facility, as defined in RCW 9.91.025(2)(a), signage must be conspicuously posted at the place of boarding or within ten feet of the nearest entrance to a transit facility that clearly indicates: (a) The locations where tickets or fare media may be purchased; and (b) that a person using an electronic fare payment card must present the card to an electronic card reader before entering a transit vehicle or before entering a restricted fare paid area.”

    -RCW 81. 112. 220

    Somebody with a smart-phone, take a walk past the fare machines at Sea-Tac Station and give us a link. “Tapping On”, is depicted showing a uniformed officer. But show me any mention of max fine for Fare Evasion for wrong number of “taps-off.” On a fully-prepaid monthly ORCA pass! Unless words are on the ceiling a la Sistine Chapel.

    Compounded by the fact that real purpose is not to discourage evasion, but to enforce compliance with a revenue-apportionment regimen that’s always violated an ST campaign promise of a “seamless” fare system. “Frankenstein” was seamless too.

    In matters of law, aren’t words like this generally classed as a confession? Wouldn’t it only be basic justice to refund, with interest, every fine so issued over the whole life of ORCA? Put ST out of business? Mission Accomplished. Routinely- and defensively- hurt innocent passengers like this and you don’t deserve to have any.

    Privatize? Worker-owned cooperative much better. Truly wish I could read this out loud to the Board in person this afternoon. Really did load my monthly ORCA pass at Tacoma Dome for that purpose around 3/1. Not my fault the Governor now says it’s no longer Essential.

    Mark Dublin

    1. The policy changes this afternoon include an extra warning per year, so fewer riders will be frightened out of riding again, at least by FEOs.

      OTOH, when the pandemic is over, FEOs might cease giving passholders a pass when they catch them failing to tap, but see a history of frequent tapping.

      There is still a possibility that even riders who get a free pass through a program that ST will now be signed onto could get warnings and then a $50 fine. That’s still annoying in a couple ways. The fine is still not proportional to the fare. And the failure to accept clear-and-obvious proof of prepayment still probably doesn’t pass the laugh test at the Better Business Bureau.

      I think this afternoon’s actions on fare policy are all wonderful stuff and support them 100%. But I think there is more to do, including more effort by the finance department to produce a back-end-solution that merely counts up missed taps by passholders and adjusts STs share of ORCA revenue based on that tally, instead of being rude and scary to riders who have passes that fully cover the cost of the ride. It isn’t rocket science. It is simple statistics.

      But I thank ST for its willingness to participate in programs to take the regressive sting out of fares. Progress, not perfection.

  3. “ Sound Transit’s surveys of non-paying riders found non-payment more often about rider confusion than inability to pay. ”

    I found the report lacking in contrition for very user-unfriendly station design and positioning of signage, fare machines and readers. I also expect that the recommended, more pronounced “yellow barrier” — if ST follows through — will do more to reduce fare evasion than anything else they do.

    1. That yellow doorway is the best I’ve ever seen on Link outside the surface stations. The current problem is that ORCA readers aren’t in the line of sight and some of the “Fare Paid Zone” signs are high up so you don’t see them if you’re looking straight ahead.

      This addresses both of these. The yellow stripes are noticeable and connect the readers to the floor threshold and the sign above. The line on the floor with the readers sticking up is aesthetically pleasing, like trees sprouting from a log.

      I would add vertical lines on the sides to make a rectangle and draw the eye up to the sign. It would also make it look more like a doorway rather than two separate pieces. Another thing to look at is whether the space between the readers is too wide. Are there three readers because that’s the narrowest wheelchairs can negotiate, or are there three readers arbitrarily and excess spac between them? If there is excess space it should be shrunk by adding a reader or some other design feature, like a vertical yellow stripe behind the reader from floor to ceiling. Something to make it look like a one-person doorway rather than a wide space between the readers.

    1. Maybe the order is only about in person meetings and Sound Transit conducted this one remotely over the internet?

      1. This came up in the meeting – Executive Dammeier raised the question in exactly this context. And after some quick legal advice, the fare enforcement policy changes were tabled.

        Permanent policy changes, such as the permanent change to fare enforcement policy, are now generally on hold until there has been an opportunity for in-person public comment. The very low income fares are technically a limited duration pilot, so they were able to approve those.

      2. It sounds like an archaic law tripping over itself. Most feedback nowadays is not in-person speeches but online or via mail, and the hearings immediately before decisions are the most useless because the boardmembers should have studied the issue before then and made up their mind and not be swayed by one last-minute speech, but the law requires these speeches anyway.

  4. Brent and everybody else, you might pass along to your representatives a cost-free solution to the “Paid-up But-Guilty” problem that will also make absolutely sure that every imaginable destination-point and sub-agency gets every dime it’s due:

    Been told the instrument will show details on the last ten rides. So should be in range of Fare-Reader capability to have Fare Inspection simply charge maximum fare for the ride. Which I’ll cheerfully pay verdict-free , not least because I already have.

    But Al, Diminished-Contrition Condition (DCC?) is the kind of thing that the deeper it digs in, the worse it smells. Going far beyond what an agency does, right into the core of what it is. To the shame of a lot of its workforce whose good performance simply puts them among the victims.

    Reason I now keep stressing citizen-action, individual and coordinated, ATU-Local-587-I’m-Talking-To-You, high school student government and Transit-Riders’ Union, to restore something of yours to being something you’re proud of. And can be proud of itself.

    And Dub, along with the section drawings I keep demanding for tunnel-boring discussions, what’s really Essential is an accurate balance sheet reading of the Cost of Cash Counting.

    Special attention to every minute the whole fleet has to stop to enforce, collect, discuss, and distribute fares. When it should be moving. Take the bill to the taxpayers like we’ve long done with most roads…..and we’ll all likely have enough left over to buy every fresh handkerchief we can use.

    Mark Dublin

  5. To the OP,
    Earlier this week I read the pending board resolution associated with the proposed fare enforcement policy change and have some questions regarding the costs being cited.

    Per ST Board Resolution 2020-05:

    “The action plan includes multiple actions that will be implemented within six to twelve months starting March 2020. The action plan can be implemented through administrative actions.”

    “Fiscal information
    The action plan associated with this policy update is anticipated to require an additional 3 full-time positions and funding of approximately $800,000 over the next 12 months. Funding for 2020 is expected to be $400,000 and will be provipded from various operating budgets. Funding for future years will be
    included in future annual budget requests.”

    Perhaps you can clarify what the additional $800,000 annual cost entails. Is this solely payroll costs? If that is indeed the case, it seems unreasonably high for just three FTE’s. Frankly I don’t see the rationalization for creating the equivalent of three new positions on an ONGOING BASIS to simply implement the action plan which the agency expects to do within the next six to twelve months. This has all the earmarks of the kind of public agency bloat that irks taxpayers.

    For example, if the action plan calls for the remedial training of the agency’s contracted FEO’s, I would think that the agency already has the necessary staffing for that. If that’s not the case, then how exactly has ST been implementing its current policy training?

    Thanks in advance for any clarification you can give. Overall, this was an excellent piece (as usual).

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