One of Sound Transit’s Light Rail cars. Courtesy photo

One of Sound Transit’s Light Rail cars. Courtesy photo

King, Pierce county officials want answers on Sound Transit fare enforcement disparities

The transit agency reported in October that black riders were more likely than others to get fined.

Officials from King and Pierce counties have asked Sound Transit to provide information about how fare enforcement is conducted following an October report that raised equity concerns.

The letter was addressed to Sound Transit’s CEO Peter Rogoff and asked questions they hope the Board of Directors will answer during its February meeting. The questions focus on a report from this fall that showed Sound Transit’s enforcement officers were disproportionately issuing citations to black riders. The report found that black riders made up 9% of all Light Rail riders in 2018, but accounted for 21% of all fare warnings and citations.

The letter was sent from eight officials, including King County Executive Dow Constantine, King County Council members and the mayors of Seattle and Tacoma. It stated that in 2016, King County District Court processed 3,515 citations, but only 94 were paid outright.

“This makes us question whether fare enforcement is actually a security issue, or if this is a customer accessibility issue that needs a different approach,” the letter said.

The eight signing members asked the board to explain how transit enforcement officers decide which cars to check, and what stations that the checks originate from. It also requested information on informal warnings, how they’re used and why data is showing a disparate impact on black riders. The group requested that fines be lowered from $124 to no more than $50, and that the fines be handled outside of the court system so people wouldn’t end up with criminal misdemeanor charges.

King County Council member Joe McDermott said he hopes people can access transit, especially lower-income and homeless residents and communities affected by racism.

“We shouldn’t be punishing people for trying to use transit, and we certainly need to fund our transit, but we should be compassionately trying to help people ride correctly,” McDermott said. “That’s the real underlying intent of the letter and the work that Sound Transit has undertaken.”

Sound Transit completed an online survey last week, said spokesperson Rachelle Cunningham. The transit authority has also finished listening sessions in local communities that will be used to inform transit fare decisions. Cunningham said the effort was looking into whether citations were an effective way to recover fares.

“Whether these citations are too high, whether they present an equity issue, that’s definitely one area the work group is looking at to find out how to sort of work with fare enforcement so it doesn’t unfairly penalize people who can’t necessarily pay these citations,” Cunningham said.

Court referrals for citations have been suspended while Sound Transit figures out what to do, Cunningham said. The courts decide whether to send people to collection agencies, so collections have also been suspended. Fare enforcement officers are assigned to zones in the service area, and the selection of cars and trains that they inspect is random, she said.

McDermott said he hopes Sound Transit will move to a model similar to King County Metro, where citations are handled in-house. Metro fines are $50, but are reduced to $25 if paid within a month.

“I really believe that this is an equity issue, and that people aren’t evading fares because they have the money and just don’t want to pay,” he said. “We find that there’s disproportional impact on low-income people, people experiencing homelessness, people who have experienced historical racial discrimination.”

Katie Wilson of the Transit Riders Union said Sound Transit could consider a program like one Metro will be rolling out next year that provides free transit passes for the lowest-income riders. But if it only applies to Metro buses, it could be challenging for riders, she said. Even though Sound Transit has suspended misdemeanor charges for citations, challenging them in person can be difficult for people who rely on transit.

“What we really want to see, and this is a very important point, we want to see the whole fare enforcement program taken out of the court system as Metro did,” Wilson said.

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