Just how egregious is Metro fare evasion?
Decriminalizing the practice may not be the right move.
THE EXECUTIVE leadership of Metro’s transit authority has written a letter to the D.C. Council expressing its concerns about a proposal to decriminalize fare evasion. Those worries — about the potential harm to Metro’s efforts to reduce fare evasion and the impact on Metro finances, as well as on the safety of customers and employees — should not be shrugged off. Instead of rushing the measure to a final vote, the council should probe more deeply and be guided by fact and reason, rather than the hyperbole that has shaped much of the debate.
The council is set Tuesday to take a second and final vote on a bill that would change the law so that riding Metrorail or Metrobus without paying would be a civil offense that incurs a fine; currently it is a crime punishable by a fine of not more than $300 or imprisonment of not more than 10 days. We don’t for a minute think anyone should be arrested, hauled off to jail and saddled with a criminal record for jumping a fare gate or bypassing a bus fare box. But is that really happening?
Metro says no, and even the data from advocates for decriminalization show that the vast majority of those stopped for fare evasion — 92 percent, according to Metro — receive a warning or citation. Juveniles only receive warning notices for fare evasion. The fine is typically $50; while failure to pay could result in an arrest warrant, again, it’s questionable that really occurs. Metro says it doesn’t seek warrants for nonpayment of fines — which go to the jurisdictions and not Metro — and it doesn’t appear the office of the D.C. attorney general does, either.
There is no question that Metro in recent years has greatly stepped up enforcement of fare evasion, and with lost annual revenue estimated in the tens of millions of dollars, that’s only fair to the Metro customers who do pay their way. Metro officials also contend that being able to stop people for fare evasion and identification checks is an important tool in keeping the system safe.
We don’t discount the concerns that African Americans are disproportionately affected. But if Metro police are unfairly targeting African Americans — and it is not clear that is the case — this bill doesn’t address that problem. Metro has suggested eliminating jail as a possible penalty in the statute, and said it is willing to work with the city in setting up a new program to provide subsidized fare cards to low-income residents. It also has offered its assurance that no arrests solely for fare evasion will be made by transit police.
Decriminalizing fare evasion, which essentially amounts to theft from the transit system, sends the signal that failing to pay to ride the bus or rail is not a serious infraction; that could lead to more problems. We urge the council to work with Metro in addressing its concerns.