Despite warnings about its financial implications, a bill was recently passed in Washington, D.C. decriminalizing fare evasion on Metro trains.
Created by D.C. Councilmember Trayon White, the legislation passed with an 11 to two vote on Dec. 4, positioning the District to follow in the footsteps of similar bills going into effect next year in California, Seattle, Portland and New York, according to The Daily Caller.
White, who claimed the current laws meant citations were disproportionately “issued to black people,” has previously made headlines for leaving in the middle of a scheduled tour of Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum and for accusing Jews of controlling the weather.
“I’ve seen with my own eyes and read stories,” White said. “91 percent of citations given were issued to black people.”
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) argued against the bill prior to the council’s meeting in a letter.
“Metro loses about $25 million a year due to fare evasion on Metrobus alone,” read the letter.
Chairman of Metro’s Board of Directors, Jack Evans, estimated an additional $35-40 million on Metrorail.
“We have a big problem with fare evasion at Metro,” Evans said. “And when it is understood that you will just get a civil citation that is largely unenforceable, we’re looking at higher incidents. It will escalate when people realize there really is no penalty.”
“When you don’t pay your fare at Metro, you’re stealing,” Evans said. “That’s what you’re doing. It’s just like stealing something from a grocery store. You’re stealing money. So what we are doing is decriminalizing stealing.”
WMATA argued that only 8 percent of fare evasion stops lead to an arrest being made. Meanwhile, proponents of the legislation had maintained their concern over people getting arrested for a simple misdemeanor.
“Stopping individuals for fare evasion and the ability to check identification is an important tool for our Metro Transit police officers,” WMATA wrote, noting that the Metro Transit Police Department “has assured the WMATA Board of Directors that they will make no arrests solely for fare evasion where no other factors are present.”
The “other factors” include weapons offenses, disorderly conduct and more.
“It would be easy to criminalize every bad behavior we don’t like because we know we wouldn’t do it,” Councilmember Charles Allen said. “But there are serious, real life consequences that come with misdemeanors and just because I don’t have that burden to carry doesn’t mean our law is just.”
Evans was joined in his vote against the bill by Chairman Phil Mendelson.
“This about more than simply poor people who can’t pay the fare. These folks [are] deliberately and without evidence of inability to pay, deliberating avoiding the fare,” Mendelson said, according to the Daily Caller. “It’s people who are deliberately trying to cheat and they’re cheating the public transit system. It is theft. As legislators, we’re going to have to appropriate the subsidy to Metro. This is something that we have to pay for.”
That financial concern was echoed by WMATA which warned that “any increase in fare evasion as a result of a change in the law in the District would create additional requirements for subsidy increases or fare hikes to support Metro’s operating budget.”
But At-Large Councilmember Robert White dismissed those concerns.
“I’m upset that Metro is losing money, but I’m more upset about what’s happening to black people,” he said.
Mayor Muriel Bowser is set to weigh in on the bill which also decriminalizes other activities such as playing music without headphones, spitting, littering, smoking and eating on the Metro trains.
Thanks to @councilofdc, all of these activities will likely be much more common to see on Metro. #wmata pic.twitter.com/q8UDRH6YpD
— Unsuck DC Metro (@unsuckdcmetro) December 5, 2018
“We raised serious concerns around safety and security and the financial impact of this action,” Dan Stessel, chief communications officer for WMATA, said. “While we are extremely disappointed in the vote, it is our hope that the Council will revisit the issue once the effects are more fully understood.”
Evans warned of the long-term consequences.
“It’s a feel-good thing,” he said. “I got it, and it’ll pass, but mark my words — this is a concern that we should all have about decriminalizing stealing.”
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