Metro system looking for solutions to fare evasion in D.C.

The financial and service challenges Metro is facing amid a shift to telework and a nearly year-long train shortage are pushing the agency to seek assistance from regional leaders.

At the same time, a rise in fare evasion could stand between Metro and that help, a problem that has proliferated during the pandemic as the cash-strapped system looks for paying customers to bridge a yawning budget gap. Metro General Manager Randy Clarke has said he will release a plan in the coming days to address the rise in nonpaying riders.

Fare evasion, he said, ultimately hurts lower-income people most. When people don’t pay, he said, it robs the transit system of revenue, which could spiral into service cuts.

“We’d love everyone to actually respect your community transit system and pay your fare that funds your transit system,” he said after a recent meeting of Metro’s board. “I hear a lot about equity, and it’s something I think we deeply care about here as an organization. Anyone that has the means to avoid a fare is actually exasperating an equitable region and community.”

Fare evasion has worsened during the pandemic and is a visible reminder to riders of revenue Metro is not collecting — even as the agency calls on regional leaders to help with financial woes. The solutions aren’t easy for Metro or its transit police department, which has been accused of disproportionate enforcement against Black residents, leading the D.C. Council to decriminalize fare evasion in 2018.

Since that year, police records show, transit officers have dramatically shifted away from enforcing fare evasion across the rail and bus system, with citations and arrests numbering less than 300 last year, compared with more than 15,000 in 2017. Of that 2021 total, none took place in the District.

Metro GM looks for fare evasion solution while stressing customer service

The rise in fare evasion is coming at a bad time for transit systems in Washington and elsewhere. A shift to telework has created a nearly $185 million funding gap in the next fiscal year for Metro that will grow to more than $500 million the following year. Metrorail has also been operating with about half of its rail cars for nearly a year because of a wheel problem that has sidelined nearly 600 of its most advanced cars.

Metro officials say financial losses stemming from fare evasion are overstated because the fares of many nonpaying riders already have been paid by the District. Teenagers who go to D.C. schools receive free and unlimited transit usage through the city’s Kids Ride Free program.

The issue has put a spotlight on Metro’s recent $70 million replacement of more than 1,200 fare gates at its 91 stations. The new gates are touch-free, process mobile payments, display SmarTrip balances and improve Metro’s ability to collect ridership data, but do little to deter evasion of fares. The gates predate the arrival of Clarke, who acknowledges Metro may have erred in their design and has asked his staff to research possible modifications.

But transit officials note they couldn’t have foreseen the pandemic or its effects, which some say has exacerbated fare evasion alongside higher gas prices, inflation and fewer passengers in buses or stations to discourage evasions. They also say societal norms increasingly have been ignored during the pandemic, a problem that extends to airlines battling passenger disruptions, rising pedestrian deaths from reckless drivers and elevated crime rates.

Riders often avoid paying fares on Metrorail by jumping gates or pushing past emergency doors, while they can evade the fare box on Metrobus by entering through rear bus doors.

A Metro report earlier this year showed Metrobus riders skipped paying a fare on 34 percent of trips, a percentage that had doubled during the pandemic. The transit agency said 17 percent of bus trips were unpaid between July and the end of December 2019.

1 in 3 Metrobus rides goes unpaid amid rise in fare evasions during pandemic

Metrobus operators do not enforce fares, according to a bus operator training manual. After attacks on bus operators over the years, the transit agency told drivers to leave fare enforcement to transit police.

The rise in nonpaying riders comes as long waits are testing the patience of commuters in the jurisdictions Metro serves, which provide the transit agency with the bulk of its funding. While recurring safety violations have prompted some elected leaders to question Metro’s management, rising instances of fare evasion adds to perceptions of disorder.

Jeff McKay, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said evasion is among the problems Metro needs to “fix” before requesting subsidy increases.

“I know fare evasion is an important issue that must be addressed,” McKay (D) said in a statement. “This has been going on way too long. The fact that they can’t seem to address this one smaller issue is one of the many reasons people lose faith in the overall management of the system.”

The issue was among the top problems Clarke said riders mentioned during meet-and-greet sessions this past summer. Transit officials said the agency lost $10 million in revenue from fare evasion during the first half of the 2022 fiscal year. Nearly $8.6 million of the loss was attributed to fares skipped on Metrobus. By comparison, Metro’s annual operating budget is about $2 billion.

A push in March to reopen offices led to an increase in transit passengers and coincided with a rise in fare evasion. In New York, fare evasion arrests and summonses issued rose 16 percent from April through June compared with the first quarter of the year, according to New York police.

In April, that city’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced the creation of a “fareness” panel that includes activists, law enforcement officials, legal experts, school and transit officials to reduce evasion. Subway fare evasion has tripled in recent years while one-third of passengers on the bus system don’t pay a fare, the MTA said.

The San Francisco region’s Bay Area Rapid Transit, which estimated up to $25 million a year in losses to fare evasion before the pandemic, is testing fare gate prototypes in rail stations to deter evasion for its next generation of gates.

“The program is still in its early stages as we hope to eventually replace 715 fare gates across the system,” BART spokesman Chris Filippi said in an email.

The transit agency is also securing areas vulnerable to evasion and “hardening” stations, such as raising the height of barriers separating free and paid areas, said James K. Allison, another BART spokesman.

Since 2018, BART has also used uniformed police department employees to monitor riders for proof of payment. Inspectors wear body cameras and ask riders for proof of payment. Sound Transit, in the Seattle area, is starting a similar “fare ambassador” program, hiring more than 45 employees next year to conduct fare payment checks.

Metro uses transit police to enforce fare evasion, but records show the number of citations issued has fallen significantly in each of the past five years. In 2017, police recorded 15,409 citations and arrests. In 2019, a year after D.C. stopped recognizing fare evasion as a crime, citations and arrests dropped by nearly half to 7,926.

D.C. Council decriminalizes Metro fare evasion

In 2020 — a year also marked by lower ridership as the pandemic emerged — Metro reported 1,695 citations or arrests for fare evasion. That number fell to 297 last year.

Through August, fare evasion arrests are up 19 percent compared with the same time last year, according to transit police, with all occurring in Maryland and Virginia. Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said nearly all fare evasion arrests are a secondary charge to more serious crimes, such as outstanding warrants, drug violations and assaulting police officers.

Most fare enforcement in the Washington region occurs in Maryland, where 291 evasion arrests or citations originated this year as of mid-July, compared with 126 in all of last year. Transit police fare evasion arrests or citations in Virginia stood at 89 as of mid-July, about half of the 171 that occurred in 2021.

In the District, transit police have not cited anyone with a fare evasion citation — a civil penalty that can still be issued in the city — during all of last year and the first half of this year, records show. District officials said Metro has not set up a citation system with the District Office of Administrative Hearings since fare evasion was decriminalized, a city moved that essentially erased criminal sanctions that transit police had relied on to enforce the offense.

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who voted for decriminalization, said council members who supported the change believed skipping a fare did not warrant an arrest and that police were disproportionately targeting Black riders. In 2020, transit police union officials called for changes in performance evaluations that they said focused too heavily on arrests — supporting the contention of some Black residents that police sometimes elevated minor situations into confrontations that led to excessive force or arrests.

Allen said he wants Metro to enforce fare evasion violations, saying the agency has had plenty of time to set up a civil citation process.

“Think about it this way,” Allen said. “[Metro] cites … what they think may be lost revenue from fare evasion. But what steps are they taking to change that?”

Metro officials contend they are legally unable to write citations in the city because of unresolved issues in D.C. law.

“Metro does not have the authority to adjudicate civil infractions under D.C. law,” Ly said.

Metro officials declined to elaborate, but in the past have said that when the D.C. Council decriminalized fare evasion, its members overlooked that they did not leave the transit agency a process to make civil citations binding. In spring 2019, then-transit police chief Ron Pavlik Jr. ordered officers to stop enforcement in D.C. because of the issue. Council members responded, passing emergency legislation that set up legal necessities such as payment and appeals processes for citations through D.C.’s administrative hearing office. Metro officials say the agency hasn’t taken steps to finalize the process because legal issues remain.

Whatever Metro’s next move, Carlean Ponder, co-chair of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition, said enforcement needs to be tightly monitored by the transit agency’s board and an independent panel.

Ponder said police stops too frequently turn into unnecessary arrests that can entangle young people in the criminal justice system with a lifetime of consequences. She cited the recent case of a Howard University student whose fare evasion stop escalated into him being restrained and handcuffed at the Silver Spring station. Court records show prosecutors dropped the fare evasion charge but obtained a conviction for resisting arrest. He had no prior criminal record.

“This young man has been convicted of resisting arrest on the basis of a non-crime,” she said. “How absurd is that?”

Allen said the appointment of Clarke, named general manager this spring, will allow Metro to address fare evasions while considering options beyond enforcement, such as modifying fare gates or installing fare card readers at the rear door of buses that require or encourage payment. Transit officials say some of those changes are coming.

Allen said fare evasion is a financial issue for many riders and has proposed a bill to give all D.C. residents $100 in monthly SmarTrip credits. The bill, co-introduced by the majority of the D.C. Council, passed unanimously through a council committee this past week.

Regional leaders said reduced fare evasion would ease their discussions about how to help the transit agency.

“It’s part of the backdrop of issues facing Metro,” said Maryland state Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery).

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