Passengers moved through the Metro Center station on March 30, 2016. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

The D.C. Council voted Tuesday to decriminalize Metro fare evasion in the District, citing concerns over soaring enforcement levels and disproportionate enforcement against African Americans.

The law passed an initial vote of 11 to 2; Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans (D) — who also is a Ward 2 council member — and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) cast the dissenting votes. Under the legislation, criminal fare evasion penalties of up to $300 would be replaced by a $50 civil infraction that would not appear on a criminal record.

Council members sparred over the issue upon the bill’s final reading, as statistics reflected the reality of Metro’s fare evasion crackdown. Data show fare evasion arrests, citations and warnings have risen dramatically — from 4,000 in 2013 to 15,000 in 2017.

“It is endemic of a systemic issue and problem which this legislation is trying to get at, and decriminalizing is an appropriate and necessary way of trying to get at the problems we’re trying to solve,” said Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chairman of the panel’s committee on the judiciary and public safety.

Allen and other backers pointed to a disparity in fare evasion arrests that shows police disproportionately target African Americans. The bill, introduced in 2017, cited statistics from a Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs report that found 91 percent of Metro Transit Police citations and summons for fare evasion from January 2016 to February 2018 were issued to African Americans.

Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) argued that inaction on the measure would mean “condoning” that pattern, “with an overwhelming number of black people being arrested unnecessarily.”

Evans said fare evasion citations do not typically result in arrest, though stops that begin as a failure to pay have escalated into arrests when disputes arise as police have leveled charges such as assault of a police officer. Metro Transit Police listed dozens of arrests for fare evasion — with no other charges listed — in October police blotters.

Metro does not have exact figures on how much revenue it loses annually to fare evasion, but has estimated the figure to be up to $25 million.

Evans argued against the measure, calling into question how Metro would enforce civil penalties when it can’t levy the same mechanisms someone would face if, for example, outstanding parking citations prevented them from registering their vehicle.

“By decriminalizing fare evasion we are only encouraging people to not pay their fare,” he said. “Because there is absolutely no mechanism to collect from a civil infraction.”

He and Mendelson argued fare evasion should remain a criminal offense because it constitutes theft.

“You cannot steal from Metro. You can’t steal period,” Evans said. “And if we get to a point where we say it’s okay to steal, I’m not sure where we are at this point in time.”

Mendelson argued for an alternative that would bar jail time, for example — existing law allowed jail time of up to 10 days for evasion — but not decriminalize the act itself.

“Theft has a victim even if it’s a big system like Metro,” Mendelson said. “It’s possible to have no jail time, to have a $50 fine and to avoid even a custodial arrest. But that’s not what this bill does.”

He argued decriminalizing the act itself would not solve the disproportionate policing of people of color, an underlying problem he pegged as systemic and said plagues D.C. police as well.

But Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) called the bill “one attempt to remedy” the issue, one that “creates some justice in a place where it doesn’t currently exist.”

The council still needs to take a final vote on the measure, which would take effect in 2019.