Roughly a quarter of all fines and levied misdemeanor charges for not paying fares on King County Metro’s RapidRide bus lines were given to homeless riders in recent years, a recent report from the King County Auditor’s office shows.
The report, which was released by the Auditor’s Office on April 4, states that 25 percent of all financial penalty citations and 30 percent of all misdemeanor charges for fare evasion between 2015 and 2017 were given to individuals experiencing homelessness. The audit also found that of the 19,000 individuals penalized in that time period, 99 riders accounted for 6 percent of all fare evasion penalties. The majority of those who were frequently penalized were either people of color or people experiencing homelessness, or both.
Additionally, the report found that fare enforcement on RapidRide lines costs the county $1.7 million annually—a fifth of which goes toward District Court processing of fare evasion citations. However, the vast majority of these fare evasion citations go unpaid. In 2016, less than three percent of fines were paid.
The frequency of fare violations is due in part to the design of the system. Launched by King County Metro in 2010, the RapidRide system provides frequent runs on fixed, high-demand routes where passengers pay their bus fare at terminals before boarding instead of onboard the bus, allowing riders to board from multiple doors on the buses. Rather than the bus drivers enforcing fares, Metro contracts with a private company, Securitas, to do the dirty work.
The report comes on the heels of a planned expansion of the RapidRide system, which would increase the number of routes from the six current lines to 19 by 2025 and 26 by 2040.
The audit has prompted swift responses from Metro. The day the report was released, General Manager of King County Metro Rob Gannon stated in a blog post that he welcomed the report, and that an internal review by Metro has revealed similar issues.
“We fully welcome the auditors’ guidance to improve our fare enforcement program. The program needs to encourage fare payment while also including options that work for people with little or no money,” he wrote.
In the blog post, Gannon said that Metro has already adjusted its policies to give juveniles one additional warning before levying a $124 citation and will temporarily decline to refer repeat fare evasion offenders to the Metro Transit Police who, along with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, could levy misdemeanor charges.
“A lot of things have changed since 2010. We have a severe homelessness crisis,” said Scott Gutierrez, a spokesperson for King County Metro. “We recognize that.”
Metro plans to convene a stakeholder group to devise a fare enforcement system that doesn’t disproportionately penalize low-income and homeless riders, according to Gutierrez. The plan is to have formal recommendations by September.
Metro officials have floated the idea of directing repeat offenders who lack the money to pay for transit away from the court system and to a theoretical in-house center where they would be provided access to discounted ORCA Lift cards—a discounted bus pass for low-income riders—and other services.
“We really see this as an opportunity to reinvent our fare enforcement model,” Guitierrez said. “We want to explore some other options that don’t needlessly penalize people and send them into the court system.”