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Why Metro’s crackdown on fare evasion isn’t just about the money

Surveillance video at the Fort Totten Metro station shows how a new alarm at gates is stopping would-be fare skippers. (Video: Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority)
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Metro Transit Police are aggressively ramping up efforts to crack down on fare evasion, doubling the number of citations issued for the offense in the first six months of 2017, according to agency statistics.

According to data released by Metro this week, transit police handed out nearly 7,000 citations or summonses for fare evasion between January and June of this year. That’s a 116 percent jump from the number of citations issued during the same six-month period of 2016.

Transit police also issued 2,130 written warnings and arrested 780 people in the first half of this year.

The crackdown is part of a concerted effort by Metro officials to get people to pay their fares — a strategy that’s only partially aimed at averting revenue losses from unpaid rides.

Sure, the budget-challenged transit agency can use all the cash it can get. Sixty-five percent of fare evasion citations and summonses in early 2017 were handed out at Metro stations, where it can be easier to slip by a station manager unnoticed.  And for Metro, the lost revenue from foregone fares is especially high when people take free trips on rail, which could be up to $6 in value during peak periods.

Depending on the jurisdiction, fines for fare evasion can be as high as $300 — though it is often far less, and the money is paid to each jurisdictions.

The prospect of lost train fare revenue is why Metro’s newly instituted “Fair Share” program focuses on preventing people from slipping through station fare gates unnoticed. Starting last May, officials began placing audio alarms and magnetic “gate stops” in Gallery Place and Fort Totten stations, an experiment in how to prevent fare scofflaws.

But identifying and penalizing SmarTrip cheats also is part of a plan to reduce incidents of assaults on transit workers, and particularly bus drivers.

According to Metro’s latest crime data, 23 percent of attacks by riders on bus operators are sparked by a dispute over fares. Workers are trained to avoid conflict in situations when a rider refuses to pay a fare, and plastic shields on some of Metro’s fleet of buses can help prevent serious injury if there is an attack.

But Metro believes that if police demonstrate a zero-tolerance approach to fare evasion, riders will stop trying it — thus cutting risks for Metro staff.

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld acknowledged as much on Tuesday, when he spoke in an interview about the need for bus operator assaults to be taken more seriously as a crime. Thwarting fare evasion, he said, is part of that effort to create a don’t-mess-with-the-driver atmosphere for Metro customers.

“It’s the same way I feel about fare enforcement. The revenue is fine — but the big issue for me is the culture,” Wiedefeld said. “This is a system where we expect people to play by certain rules. And if you let people just walk through the gates, and no one says anything to them, then what message does that send? We want to say, No, we expect certain behavior when you get on our buses or on our trains, and if you don’t, there are penalties.”

At least in theory. When a 29-year-old man was arrested by Metro Transit Police last week after allegedly committing an act of sexual battery and public masturbation at the West Falls Church station, it turned out he had an extensive history of arrests for various crimes on the Metro system.

He had been cited 11 times for fare evasion, but Metro said no judge had ever granted a permanent stay-away order from the system.

Clarification: A previous version of this story indicated that fines for fare evasion are $300. In D.C., the maximum fine for a fare evasion citation is $300, but the penalty is often well below that amount. Revenue from fare evasion citations goes to the jurisdiction where the incident occurred, and not to Metro.

After more than 20 indecent-exposure arrests, Metro still can’t ban this man from the trains