"Sometimes they just don't realize that you're supposed to buy the fare before you get onto the vehicle."
Almost 66 percent of San Diego transit riders are low income. And living on the edge can mean a $75 ticket for a missed fare will go unpaid, sending a simple violation to a criminal court where the costs soar into the hundreds.
San Diego Metropolitan Transit System officials hope a new fare enforcement pilot program starting in September will change all that by reducing fines, and providing more ways to resolve violations.
The program, developed by the Public Security Committee, and approved unanimously by the transit board last week, affects all riders – but the poor will benefit most from a fine reduced to $25 if paid within 120 days, and options that include 3-4 hours of community service in lieu of a fine or a direct appeal. Riders who can't prove they have a fare will be allowed to de-board to buy a ticket.
"Sometimes they just don't realize that you're supposed to buy the fare before you get onto the vehicle," said city councilmember Monica Montgomery, who led the effort to re-think enforcement. With some rail systems, you buy on board from the conductor."
"We want to balance those things."
At Montgomery's urging, the board directed staff to create a policy to establish a civil citation process for fare evasion, to prevent unpaid tickets being sent to Superior Court, and often – to collections.
But officials worry that the relaxed terms may invite more people to skip fare, hurting the agency's bottom line. A staff report notes that a one percent increase in fare evasion could have a big impact on the budget.
If it goes up, revenue goes down.
Other cities that have made a switch have seen fare evasion shoot up 2.7-11 percent, said Karen Landers, MTS general counsel, at the June 19 board meeting. If that happened, the agency would lose from $2.6 to 7 million dollars each year. The current fare evasion rate is just under three percent.
Loss of ticket revenue is not a big concern, as MTS only gets a sliver of the court fine. "The biggest concern we want to monitor is loss of fare revenue."
The agency has a $278 million annual operating budget, and $97 million is expected in fares. According to their website, fares are almost 35 percent of the budget.
But what are the hidden costs?
"Imagine your credit and income being damaged by a $2.50 unpaid fare, or going to jail, or your subsistence minimum wages being garnished while not being able to lease a place to live or get a job," said John Brady, director of advocacy for the Voices of Our City Choir.
Brady suggested they save money "by dismantling the fare box citation team which has resulted in no significant change."
Councilmember Vivian Moreno agreed. "I'm not clear that enforcement at this level reduces fare evasion at all." She asked if a sharp increase in citations issued between 2014-18 had reduced fare evasion at all?
Landers wasn't sure. "Over the last three years, our rate has remained steady."
Montgomery called on staff to be innovative. People may take transit because they have to, but they're still helping meet climate action goals, she said. "We need to treat riders the way we treat drivers. Right now, drivers are getting a lot of incentives, and we're worried about someone not paying a $2.50 fare."
Fare recovery is important, but it's "not sustainable as a main source of operations."