Sound Transit board members express frustration with lack of 'accountability' for non-paying riders

The Sound Transit board adopted a new fare enforcement policy that is fraught with accountability issues and could be running afoul of state law, according to some of its members.

The latest projections show a $1.3 billion drop in revenues over the next 25 years if the transit agency can’t get everyone that takes a ride to pay for it.

Late last week, the Sound Transit Board adopted a new fare enforcement policy that, at its core, relies on non-police officers to do fare enforcement.

No longer will Transit Police be involved in detaining and citing riders who don’t pay. Instead, it will fall to fare ambassadors. 

If ambassadors catch a person who can’t produce a ticket or a debit on their Orca card to prove they paid for the ride, they can give at least two warnings before a potential penalty is imposed.  

If a person is caught a fifth time, a $124 fine can be issued, along with a potential trip to the district court.  An unpaid fine would go to a collection agency.

However, any type of enforcement is difficult because non-paying riders do not have to reveal who they are. 

During the meeting, a Sound Transit staff told board member said that the only person who can legally demand proof of identity is a police officer. Fare ambassadors are not police officers.

"Those cheating a******* that refuse to identify themselves are completely off the hook," Board Member and King County Council Member Dave Upthegrove said during the meeting.

Seattle Mayor and Board Member Bruce Harrell pointed out that state law doesn’t require anyone to carry identification.

"It puts the fare ambassador in a sort of precarious spot to really ask for something that that doesn't seem to be enforceable," Harrell said.

On Monday, Orca-- which provides a payment system that riders of seven different transit agencies use-- unveiled new ticket machines, a website, a mobile app, new card reader and cards to members of the media.

Should fare enforcement ambassadors scan a person’s Orca card to see if they paid for ride, all they will see is whether the person paid for that particular trip and not their history ridership or any past violations, an Orca official said. 

A Sound Transit staff member admitted there is a ‘deficiency’ in the issue of getting people to produce their identification when it’s not a police officer that is asking for it.

The agency says it hopes to can solve that problem, but it hasn’t "been able to figure it out".

Sound Transit says the average rider comes in contact with a fare compliance officer once every 23 trips.

Upthegrove as well as other Board Members harped on the issue of no accountability for a rider's non-payment if they can’t force a rider to produce identification.

"An ambassador that encounters a rider that did not pay their fare, and the rider gives the middle finger instead of identifying themselves, there's no accountability," Upthegrove said.

"It’s not about the $3.50. It’s about ensuring that riders have to pay for the system they’re using, as we promised the voters when we passed Sound Transit" said Board Member and Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin.

"If we don't have a consequence at the end of the day, why does anyone pay for this system?" Franklin said.

The Board ended up accepting the new policy that includes giving authority to fare ambassadors to ask for identification.