Link’s 2009 opening inaugurated the proof-of-payment system and introduced the Puget Sound to the concept of the Fare Enforcement Officer. Over the last decade, as POP and FEOs have expanded to RapidRide and Link’s ridership has exploded, FEOs have come under much scrutiny. Following King County Metro’s 2018 examination of fare policy, Sound Transit has spent much of 2019 doing its own investigation.
Last week, Sound Transit staff presented a preliminary report on fare enforcement to the board’s executive committee. Over the past year, the staff have been collecting feedback using three methods: a self-selected online survey, a series of rider surveys, and focus groups designed to seek out underrepresented communities. The committee seemed receptive to major changes, and seemingly no one wanted to defend the current system of one warning then $124 fine. (At least you don’t have to go to Shoreline any more to pay it.)
The report showed, unsurprisingly, those most likely to be unable to provide proof of payment tended to have incomes below $50,000/year. More surprisingly, the vast majority of those surveyed – even those who didn’t have a fare – said the FEOs were “professional” and “approached every rider near me.” This contrasts with some of the community focus group findings, where “participants perceived fare enforcement as being racially biased and targeting youth.”
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.
There are several features of the current system that make it customer-hostile: the 24 hour delay before fares are loaded on your card, the lack of a customer service office in Westlake, the lack of ticket machines in general. These and many more are detailed in the report, along with some sensible reforms like re-prioritizing FEOs to focus on customer service or not doing enforcement on the first day of school. `
The committee wanted more data and more understanding of the current fines: how many are collected, how much money is spent in the court system, and more. As always, though, there’s a tradeoff between moving quickly and being thorough. We’ll see how quickly the agency moves to make changes.
The entire report is available online; the 4-page executive summary is a concise overview of the methods and findings if you’re interested in learning more. If you have feedback for the agency, they will be hosting a public meeting, sponsored by Transit Riders Union and others, at El Centro in Beacon Hill next Wednesday February 19th.