Fare enforcement efforts on Metro Transit's RapidRide buses cost the county about $1.7 million a year. But according to a new report from the King County Auditor's Office, the county's fare enforcement structure may not make much sense at all: Nearly a quarter of fare enforcement fines to go people who are homeless or experiencing some form of housing instability.
Within that $1.7 million figure, $300,000 goes to court costs in chasing down unpaid tickets. But compared to other counties' transit systems, RapidRide has an average, or lower-than-average, estimated rate of fare evasion. Between 2010 and 2016, the county estimates that between 0.9 and three percent of RapidRide trips were unpaid. On TriMet, Portland's light rail system, the estimated evasion rate is 14.5 percent.
The King County Auditor's report on fare enforcement also raises a question of how much the county may be criminalizing poverty. While first-time fare-skippers may receive a warning, fare evasion can also lead to a $124 fine and citation or a misdemeanor charge. According to county data, many people who receive a citation are unable to pay it. In 2016, only 2.7 percent of people who received citations paid them.
As penalties increase, the county report notes, people who are homeless make up a larger proportion of people punished. Among misdemeanors for fare evasion, people who are in unstable housing situations make up 31 percent of people charged. That, in turn, can further impact their ability to find housing.
"Those experiencing housing instability may have difficulty paying the fare or fine, which could create additional negative impacts beyond the citation," the report reads. "For example, the fines for individuals experiencing housing instability totaled just over $290,000 from 2015-2017. These fines, when unpaid, go into collections, which can then impact a person’s ability to obtain housing."
A small number of people also are also disproportionately penalized by the county. Just 99 people received six percent of all penalties between 2015 and 2017, and the majority of them were people of color experiencing housing instability.
According to the county auditor, Metro Transit hasn't examined its fare enforcement efforts for equity impacts—nor does it have a particularly strong set of goals or metrics for success. For this reason, the county auditor is recommending that Metro Transit implement a program to study fare evasion and change its fare enforcement model.
After the report was released, King County Metro general manager Rob Gannon announced that the agency would temporarily stop referring fare evasion cases to the courts. In a letter written to the county auditor, King County Executive Dow Constantine also pledged to fulfill the auditor's recommendations in 2019 and 2020, but left the auditor's third recommendation—on changing the fare enforcement model—to be determined. Legislative changes to King County's fare enforcement model would certainly impact fare enforcement officers, whose contracts are up for renegotiation in 2018.
The King County Auditor's Office stressed that the county should review its fare enforcement practices for equity impacts and make changes to the model before then.