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Sunday, June 16, 2024

New Bill Would Strengthen Metro Fare Evasion Law

Metro Fare Evasion is back in the news again. That’s because late last week, Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto (D) introduced a bill to give the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) more clout to enforce fines.

Basically, it ups the ante by allowing transit police to stop those evading fares and compels them to provide their correct address.

Thats new. Right now, there’s a $50 fine for people who don’t pay to get on trains and busses. But there’s nothing on the books if those people don’t actually stop, or if they don’t give their real name and address to police That means a fare evader has to cooperate in order to get a ticket.

Pinto’s bill would close that gap, providing that if someone doesn’t pay to board they can be stopped by officers. If they don’t provide their real name and address, they can be detained and fined up to $100. It does not mean that identification has to be provided, however.

The bill is co-sponsored by Phil Mendelson and Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Grey. Pinto chairs the councils Judiciary and Public Safety Public Committee.

In 2018, DC Council decriminalized fare evasion, making it a civil offense like a parking ticket, rather than a criminal offense like a robbery. When council voted to pass the law, they referenced the fact that those stopped for fare evasion are overwhelmingly Black and young; a 2018 study by the Washington Lawyers committee found that 90 percent of tickets were given to people of color.

Pinto said there have been unintentional consequences. Council wanted to ensure that people don’t get involved with the criminal system for a low dollar offense. However, she said in a press release, “without a true enforcement mechanism for the civil offense, the effect has been a lack of consequences for fare evasion,” Pinto said.

Metro’s board had been asking DC to close this loophole in the law for some time. In a letter supporting the move, WMATA CEO Randy Clarke said that since fare evasion was decriminalized, WMATA has seen an increase in violent crimes, like assault, homicide, or rape.

“WMATA’s experience is that the vast majority of persons who commit criminal acts within Metro fare-evade,” he said.

The move comes amid a spate of violent criminal activity on WMATA property.

MTPD statistics up to the end of May 2023 show that crime on the metro system is far above where it was last year. There have been four homicides in 2023 versus 0 in 2022 and 104 aggravated assaults, versus 82 through the end of May 2022. But arrests are also nearly double what they were last year to date, 1239 in 2023 versus 664 in 2022

There’s been violence this year. On Feb. 1, a WMATA employee was shot at Potomac Avenue Station. In early may an 18-year-old was shot at Wheaton station as he fled from other teenagers during an altercation. A 16-year-old has been charged in that case. In May, a 17-year-old was shot during a dispute on a Metro Green Line train as it pulled into Waterfront Station. A 23-year-old was later arrested and charged with homicide.

Three days before the incident on the green line, police arrested a 24-year-old man at Pentagon City Station in Virginia. Initially detained for fare evasion, the man was arrested by Metro Transit Police Department (MTPD) officers after he refused to show identification for a citation. During a search, police said he had two semi-automatic weapons and a set of brass knuckles. That man was charged with fare evasion and carrying concealed firearms. Clarke cited the incident in his letter of support for the legislation.

But many said the bill was misguided. On Twitter, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Anthony Lorenzo Green wrote that in closing the loophole, the bill again opens up the possibility of unnecessary and negative police interactions between police and youth —something the 2018 legislation was trying to address as well —all for a $2 fare. Green noted that people are never detained for parking tickets, a higher cost item. “But we don’t feel like we’re doing anything unless there’s some form of police violence on the table,” Green said.

“Regardless of how it’s phrased in a press release, this is going to have the impact of criminalization,” tweeted activist Pranav Nanda in the same thread.

Many people say it is going to be Ward 7 and 8 youth that are impacted by the rule change. According to a Post report, only about 1 in 4 eligible DCPS students claimed the Kids Ride Free SmarTrip card this year; families have said the process to get one is difficult and tedious. Unsurprisingly, the kids least likely to have their cards live in the places where they are also least likely to walk to school. One Ward 7 High School PTO noted that schools only get 100 smart trip cards at a time, making mass distribution to every student impossible.

Pinto followed up her announcement about the bill with a letter to the Deputy Mayor of Education (DME), Department of Transportation, Human Services and WMATA asking them to coordinate and do a better job of getting cards to kid. It suggests they make registration simpler and make the cards more accessible, such as via a smartphone app. The agencies are supposed to submit an approach for next school year to Council, but no date is specified. —also for some reason, DCPS is not included on the letter—

Council has been struggling to come up with ways to address issues with metro fare for a long time. After two years of discussion, in December 2022, Councilmember Charles Allen’s Metro for DC Bill was passed by council. That bill would have made Metrobuses free to ride and provided a $100 monthly balance on SmartTrip cards starting in 2024. But Metro asked for a one year delay to implement the bill, frustrating Allen and Council Chair Phil Mendelson, who co-introduced the bill. Allen said the transit agency approached them with the idea in the first place. It later became tied up in controversy over the K Street Transitway.

Last week, WMATA announced it will launch a reduced fare program on June 20. Called “Metro Lift,” the program provides a 50 percent discount on bus and rail fares to anyone who qualifies for the US Dept of Agricultures  Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) program. Eligible residents can enroll online June 20, and in-person June 26 at Metro Center, Metro Headquarters and New Carrollton Metro Offices.

But Community leaders said Pinto’s fare evasion bill is the wrong next step.

Some pointed out that many kids don’t know their official address, or have any identification to produce, which could result in them being detained on a technicality (identification is not a required part of the bill in DC, tho its a factor in Virginia and MD).

On social media, ANC Commissioner Tiffani Nichole Johnson (4B06) pointed out there is still no allowance for kids who have lost or forgotten Metro cards, worrying that children would be detained without their parents even knowing about it.

She wrote on Twitter: Johnson said: “So we’re going to further penalize people who have already made it clear they can’t afford the fare and then, work on the problems with the Kids Ride Free program. That’s putting the cart before the horse,”

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