The D.C. Council voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to override Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s veto of its legislation decriminalizing fare evasion on Metro, the council’s first successful challenge of a mayoral veto.
The 11-to-2 vote to override the veto — Bowser’s second in office — means the legislation now heads to Congress for final review.
A two-thirds majority of council members was required to overrule Bowser (D), who announced last week she would seek to block the legislation, which would reduce the penalty for fare evasion to a $50 civil infraction. The offense is currently a misdemeanor that carries a potential penalty of jail time and a fine up to $300. Bowser expressed concern about the impact the legislation could have on Metro’s bottom line, arguing it could exacerbate the agency’s revenue problems and create potential safety issues. Metro, its largest workers union, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who serves as Metro board chairman, all opposed the decriminalization bill.
But the council overruled the mayor’s objections and rejected her argument that lessening the penalties for fare-jumping would encourage potential “lawlessness” and make Metro less safe.
“This bill does not say that crime is okay; similarly, this bill does not eliminate all responsibilities or consequences for fare evasion and other behaviors,” Council Member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) said. “This bill does not advocate lawlessness; rather, it advocates for fairness.”
It was Bowser’s first veto since her July 2018 decision to block emergency legislation that would have allowed chronically absent high school seniors to graduate amid D.C. Public Schools’ graduation scandal. In that case, the timing of her decision — after the council had adjourned for the summer — rendered an override vote unfeasible.
Metro had argued that it loses at least $25 million a year from passengers who fail to pay their bus fare and said that, combined with Metrorail fare evasion, the total lost probably exceeds $50 million annually — though there is no exact figure. But fare-jumping is not simply a financial concern, the agency argued. Similarly, Bowser’s opposition was not expressly in financial terms.
"We should not encourage lawlessness on Metro, which could exacerbate public safety concerns on our Metro and in our city,” Bowser wrote in a letter outlining her veto last week.
But activists, council members and advocates of criminal-justice reform rejected that line of thinking, likening it to “broken windows” policing, referring to the theory that policing minor offenses could prevent instances of more serious crime — which instead resulted in a disproportionately criminalized population without reducing the overall crime rate.
“There is no evidence that decriminalizing fare evasion will lead to an increase in crime or fare evasion,” Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) said. “The larger theory that informs that argument, broken windows theory, has been discredited.”
Proponents of the bill argued fare evasion enforcement was a problem of disproportionate policing and that the penalties saddled offenders with potential lifelong consequences for neglecting to pay a $2 fare.
They pointed to a Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs report that concluded fare evasion enforcement was most prominent at stations that served a high proportion of black riders, suggesting targeted policing was at play. The statistic that punctuated the report: Between January 2016 and February 2018, Metro Transit Police stopped 30,000 people for suspected fare-jumping. Among those, 91 percent of fare evasion citations and summons were issued to African Americans.
The American Civil Liberties Union applauded the Council’s decision in a statement Tuesday.
“With this vote, the Council has signaled that it will no longer tolerate the fundamental injustice of the current law, which punishes fare evasion with risk of arrest and jail for as little as a $2 fare,” said Nassim Moshiree, policy director for the ACLU of the District of Columbia. “We are especially grateful the Council has seen through the inflammatory rhetoric and fearmongering by Mayor Bowser and [Metro], and has chosen fairness and equity for all D.C. residents.”
Bowser said that while the council was free to make transit available for more District residents, decriminalization set Metro on the wrong path.
“The council always has the ability to come up with specialized or customized fare subsidies like I have done. I am proud to say nobody has done more free Metro than I have,” Bowser said, citing the Metro “Kids Ride Free” program she launched as a council member. The program allows students in the District to ride Metro to school and school events free. “It is possible as a city we can decide to support free Metro for whomever we want, to customize a program that works. But I am concerned about making sure that everybody follows the rules of the road, or the rules of the Metrorail, as it were,” Bowser said.
Metro also expressed disappointment in the Council’s decision.
“The Council missed an opportunity to address the significant issues with this legislation outlined in Mayor Bowser’s veto memo,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. “We continue to believe that decriminalizing fare theft without an enforceable alternative will have safety and financial consequences for the region.”
At the hearing, Evans remarked on the unique position in which the decriminalization fight had landed typically opposing groups.
“We’ve got Metro employees, Metro management, Metro police, all the representatives from Maryland and Virginia on one side,” he said. “When’s the last time that happened?”
But rather than restate his previous arguments that decriminalizing fare evasion would hurt the agency financially, Evans opted to read from a statement issued by the transit agency’s largest union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, expressing concern that decriminalizing fare evasion would create a more hostile environment for Metro’s workforce. The transit agency has said at least a quarter of assaults on bus operators stem from disputes over fares.
“To go forward with this, I believe, is a slap in the face at the Metro employees,” Evans said.
But Council Member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who championed the bill originally introduced by colleague Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), had a harsh response for those who equated fare evasion with potential criminality.
“We’ve been perpetuating criminalization based on the simple fact that many people in the District cannot afford this public good,” he said. “Some people are too poor to pay $2. And when you put it like that, it’s striking.”
Council Member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) addressed Metro employees, some of whom were in attendance, directly.
“While the issue of assaults and other things that you all experience is incredibly serious, I also think the issue of the lifelong collateral consequences associated with criminalizing fare evasion is extremely serious,” he said. “I support consequences for those who evade fares; I don’t support criminal consequences.”
Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.