Sound Transit Board expands low-income fares

To launch pilot project changing fare inspection practices

The Sound Transit Board decided to further reduce costs and increase access to service for people with low incomes, and to confirm 2021 actions to replace fare enforcement officers with ambassadors who will conduct fare inspections, provide education and focus on warnings to reduce fare evasion.

The board on Dec. 17 adopted new, lower fares for low income adults, youths, seniors and people with disabilities on Sounder commuter rail, expanding the low-income ORCA LIFT options already available on Link light rail trains and ST Express buses, according to a Sound Transit news release.

Starting March 1, low income and youth fares on Sounder will reduce from current levels ranging between $4.25 and $2.50 to a flat $1.50 for all destinations. Current fares ranging between $2.75 and $1.50 for seniors and people will disabilities will reduce to a flat $1 for all destinations.

Under a Fare Engagement Pilot Project that will go into effect next year on Link and Sounder, fare ambassadors will be Sound Transit staff members rather than contractor employees, and they will wear new uniforms and receive enhanced training on avoiding bias and de-escalating. Sound Transit will continue the current suspension of issuing citations for non-payment of fares throughout the pilot project. Ambassadors will continue to encourage income-eligible riders to sign up for ORCA LIFT and subsidized annual passes.

By January 2022 the staff will report back to the Board on the pilot project and recommend permanent fare inspection approaches and implementation plans.

As part of Sound Transit’s work to continuously improve, and based on board member and community concerns, the agency set up an internal interdisciplinary workgroup to evaluate current fare enforcement policies, procedures, protocols, and to gather community feedback on where improvements should be made.

As a result of this work, the agency developed a Fare Enforcement Action Plan to achieve the vision of a system where everyone taps, where everyone who has fare media can get to where they want to go, and everyone who needs fare media can get access to it. The action plan outlines multiple steps the agency will take, including:

• Increasing the number of warnings from 1 to 2 in a 12-month period.

• Suspending the practice of calling law enforcement for fare evasion-only situations (for both youth and adults).

• Participating in the income-based fare pilot.

• Expanding communications and public education on how to access and use ORCA cards.

• Developing a youth-focused fare engagement program.

• Allowing riders to complete their trips even if they received a warning or citation.

• Defining parameters to suspend citations and warnings during extreme weather.

• Adding new signage clearly marking fare-paid areas.

The pilot project will inform continuing work to evaluate and clarify long-term approaches for addressing non-payment. Riders with no or low income are at greater risk of not being able to pay citations, ending up in court and possibly becoming involved with collections agencies. The board’s action recognized the impact of criminal penalties or financial hardship caused by collections, including credit damage, stating intent to avoid inequitable and lasting adverse consequences associated with fare evasion.

The board’s action anticipates updating the agency’s Fare Enforcement Policy to reflect the changes already underway and consider recommendations for a new citation resolution process without court adjudication, as well as a lower fine amount that is no more than $50 at such time the agency resumes issuing citations.