The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mayor Bowser vetoes D.C. Council bill decriminalizing Metro fare evasion

In rare veto, Bowser expressed concern that decriminalizing fare evasion would exacerbate Metro’s revenue woes.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser exercised her second-ever veto Wednesday on D.C. Council legislation decriminalizing fare evasion. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has rejected the D.C. Council’s decision to decriminalize Metro fare evasion, issuing her second-ever veto Wednesday amid concern the measure would exacerbate the transit agency’s financial problems.

Bowser’s veto sends the bill back to the council — which approved the measure 10 to 2 — for an override vote. If the same vote holds, it would meet the required two-thirds threshold to become law.

In a letter to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who along with Council member and Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) opposed the measure, Bowser noted that the region had come together last year in a historic agreement to provide the transit system with $500 million a year in dedicated funding for capital projects. Decriminalizing fare evasion, she said, would set back the agency’s finances.

Fare evasion costs Metro $25 million to $50 million per year, Bowser said, “and I am concerned that [the decriminalization bill] would exacerbate the problem.”

Metro says the $25 million loss estimate is from bus revenue alone. Bus operators log every instance where passengers fail to pay. (Fare evasion is an operating loss, and while fare evasion on Metrobus is recorded — operators record instances with the push of a button — there are no reliable statistics on the extent of fare evasion on the rail system.)

D.C. Council votes to decriminalize Metro fare evasion

“While I understand that [the] Council intended to change fare evasion to a civil offense, it is important to note that the bill simply removes criminal penalties while failing to set up a new civil adjudicative process,” Bowser wrote. “This leaves [Metro] without any meaningful tools to enforce the payment of fares and will encourage fare evasion, which will result in additional lost revenue for the Metro system.”

Flagging ridership on the heels of its year-long SafeTrack rebuilding program has cut into Metro’s operating revenue, most notably forcing fare hikes and service cuts at the beginning of the fiscal year that began in July 2017.

Bowser also made clear that her objections were not merely due to the potential revenue losses. “We should not encourage lawlessness on Metro, which could exacerbate public safety concerns on our Metro and in our city,” she wrote.

In their arguments for the bill, council members and advocates were skeptical that merely lessening the penalties would encourage fare-jumping. Those who championed the bill, including Council members Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) — who introduced the legislation — said the issue was fairness.

The existing criminal penalties of potential arrest, fines up to $300 and up to 10 days in jail, are overly harsh and disproportionately target African Americans, the bill’s backers argued. They pointed to a study from the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs that found 91 percent of fare evasion citations and summons from January 2016 to February 2018 were issued to African Americans.

White told his colleagues that inaction would amount to “condoning” a pattern “with an overwhelming number of black people being arrested unnecessarily.”

“I’m sad that’s Metro’s losing money, but I’m more sad about what’s happening to black people,” he said later.

D.C. Council decriminalizes Metro fare evasion: ‘I’m sad that’s Metro’s losing money, but I’m more sad about what’s happening to black people.’

The office of Councilmember Allen, who championed the bill’s passage, said Allen would move swiftly for an override vote. In a lengthy statement calling decriminalization a “just and safe decision,” Allen reaffirmed his support for the measure.

In his statement, Allen highlighted what he sees as the “real-life effects” of criminalizing the offense — with implications on jobs, housing and financial aid.

“We create more public safety problems than we solve by criminalizing something as small as not being able to pay a $2 bus fare,” he said in the statement. “I will be moving to override the Mayor’s veto of this important criminal justice reform and working with my colleagues to ensure the will of the Council is upheld.”

Metro, in a statement, applauded Bowser’s veto decision.

“We truly appreciate Mayor Bowser’s leadership on this issue and stand ready to work with the Council to develop solutions that address their stated goal of making Metro accessible to people of limited means, while maintaining safety and fairness for the customers we serve,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.

The agency’s largest union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, also threw its support behind Bowser, arguing that while it understands the impact of disproportionate policing, members believe that fare evasion puts workers at risk. Metro Transit Police have said at least a quarter of bus operator assaults begin with a dispute over the fares.

“ATU Local 689 applauds Mayor Bowser’s rejection of the D.C. Council’s decriminalization of fare evasion bill,” the union said in a statement Thursday. “Our union’s membership is made up of more than 80% people of color. We are mindful of the disproportionate effect of fare evasion citations, but we do not believe that decriminalizing theft is a reasonable way to resolve this issue.”