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King County Metro fare enforcement makes housing instability worse, report finds

The county auditor found that fare enforcement policies hurt more than they help

Courtesy of SDOT

Last week, a King County Auditor report found that fare enforcement on King County Metro impacts those experiencing homelessness the most—making bad situations worse—and may not be effective in recouping lost fares.

On most King County Metro lines, riders pay upon boarding. But on King County Metro’s Rapidride bus rapid transit lines, boarding happens through an expedited process—riders pay at kiosks and board the bus rather than interacting with an operator. Because fare isn’t enforced at the entrance, Metro contracts with a private security form to check for proof of payment and issue citations.

But here’s the rub: A disproportionate amount of people cited for fare evasion are homeless or low-income—25 percent of all citations and 30 percent of misdemeanors stemming from a third offense went to those experiencing housing instability. One out of every 10 citations and one in every three misdemeanor charges went to someone experiencing housing instability. Many of these individuals are unable to pay fare, much less the $124 fine that stems from fare evasion or the $1,000 fine that can come with the misdemeanor charge. And, as the saying goes, you can’t squeeze blood from a stone—so while $1.7 million in county resources are going into fare enforcement, these citations pile up, with more than 97 percent going unpaid.

Most importantly, this impacts Seattle’s snowballing problems with homelessness by exacerbating housing instability for individuals. Getting sent to collections or having interactions with the court system can make it more difficult to obtain housing, especially in areas that haven’t passed legislation protecting renters with criminal charges.

Out of all the citations and criminal charges, 99 people received 10 penalties each from 2015 to 2017—or six percent of all penalties in that time period. The majority of those individuals are experiencing homelessness, are people of color, or both.

Because the agency is just handing out citations as it goes with no benchmarks or goal associated with them, the report says, it leads to further inequity—and before this, the system hasn’t been analyzed for inequity issues.

Fare enforcement, according to the auditor’s report, isn’t even a reliable deterrent:

[Research] has not found a correlation between fare enforcement and fare evasion: [Systems] that have a lot of fare enforcement report fare evasion rates that are similar to those that have more limited coverage Research has also shown that there are certain transit riders that will evade fares no matter what the consequences. This means that no matter how many resources are deployed or fares checked, the fare evasion rate will never be zero.

The auditor’s report also found that Metro might not even be measuring its evasion issues accurately. Currently, fare evasion rates are reported by dividing the number of fares evaded by the number of riders checked. This is, according to the auditor, “not a reliable way to estimate fare evasion.”

Because fare enforcement auditors are clearly marked, people might be jumping off the bus before getting checked. Checks also aren’t random—officers are sent to buses with higher fare evasion rates—so it’s likely officers are finding more fare evasion on those lines. The auditor’s report points to periodic field audits as a potentially more accurate method of measurement.

The report recommends setting up a performance management system with benchmarks, conducting a “rigorous fare evasion study” at least every two years, and reviewing fare enforcement “for alignment with county and agency goals and equity principles.”

The Transit Riders Union (TRU), which advocates for low-income transit riders, went a step further in a recommendation released Monday morning: Continue checking fares, but halt penalties altogether for two years while Metro finds a better system. Perhaps, suggests TRU, staff could hand out literature about how to enroll in reduced fare programs.

“Immediate cessation of punitive fare enforcement is the only acceptable baseline from which to consider any new policy,” said TRU’s general secretary Katie Wilson in a statement. “It is simply wrong to continue harming vulnerable populations while this problem is studied further. King County cannot continue harassing, fining and criminalizing poor people by default while task forces and elected officials mull things over.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by county leadership. King County Councilor Claudia Balducci asked in an interview with KIRO 7 whether fare enforcement makes sense at all.

In a letter attached to the report, County Executive Dow Constantine doesn’t call for an immediate halt, but does recommend that the next contract with the contracted security firm contain a revised scope of work, and that Metro staff “develop ways to strengthen the relationship between the Rapidride program and the County’s [equity and social justice] goals.”

Update, April 10: Metro General Manager Rob Gannon published a blog post in response to the audit last week, noting that some changes had already been made to fare enforcement policy: misdemeanor cases are no longer referred to Metro Transit Police while alternatives are considered, juveniles are given an extra warning before a citation, and a new training program currently is in the works.