Transit officers check for trolley tickets at the La Mesa station in 2016. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

As regional leaders have increasingly explored how to make transit more appealing to San Diegans, MTS has aggressively pursued enforcement actions against trolley riders who can’t prove they paid for their ride.

MTS officers wrote 61,560 fare evasion citations in 2018, more than double the number they handed out just two years earlier. And in the first six months of 2019, MTS data shows officers wrote nearly 36,600 citations – more than they gave out in all of 2016.

MTS fare evasion ticketing eclipsed enforcement by other transit agencies polled by Voice of San Diego – including systems that have far more riders.

The Bay Area Transit System, which annually pulls in about three times as many riders as San Diego’s trolley system, gave out just 9,659 citations for failure to show proof of payment or evade fares in 2018. The Washington Metro in the Washington D.C. area and the Philadelphia-area Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, which each boast ridership more than triple that of San Diego’s trolley and bus systems, also each wrote just a fraction of the citations MTS officers wrote.

Each of those agencies have gated systems, which means riders must pass through a turnstile to board their rail systems.

Agencies with open-air boarding like MTS – often called proof of payment systems, where more proactive fare enforcement is common – also reported doling out fewer tickets than MTS. Denver’s Regional Transportation District, which has a rail system with ridership similar to San Diego’s and a more packed bus system, gave out 3,238 tickets to riders who failed to show a valid pass in 2018 and recorded another 32,538 warnings. Officers employed by the Dallas Area Rapid Transit System, which has a lower ridership than MTS, wrote 22,052 fare evasion citations in 2018. Transit systems in the Seattle, Houston and Minneapolis metro areas also reported giving out fewer tickets.

The dramatic spike in fare evasion citations in San Diego has inspired calls for reform from MTS board members and advocates.

“We are citing too many people,” said City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, who chairs MTS’s public security committee and is urging an overhaul to the agency’s approach.

Despite the surge in ticketing, MTS officials acknowledge they haven’t seen an equally dramatic reduction in the system’s rate of unpaid trolley trips. The agency’s evasion rate has for years hovered around 3 percent.

MTS CEO Paul Jablonski and Police Chief Manny Guaderrama say a board-approved decision in 2017 to add 30 MTS code compliance officers who can write tickets – and the increased citations that have followed – have helped the agency maintain a low fare evasion rate and stem crime on the trolley.

“If people are always seeing officers, that they know they can get a citation, they’re gonna think twice about getting on a train with no fare, so visibility is a deterrence,” Jablonski said. “That’s the primary objective, to deter crime and bad behavior and not have to deal with it.”

Yet the increased ticketing has unsettled some riders concerned that MTS is more fixated on fare evasion than on other safety concerns, a premise MTS rejects. Activists have also decried the challenges trolley citations can present for low-income and homeless San Diegans.

The citation for failure to pay the $2.50 fare leads to far more substantial charges. A single offense can cost $193 once court fees are factored in – and those who don’t show up for a court hearing can be saddled with another $315 fine. Subsequent tickets can trigger steeper fines, and in some cases, even arrest warrants.

Mark Sheetz, 56, said he recently learned he owes more than $4,000 in fees and interest after failing to appear in court for a handful of trolley tickets.

“For people that are homeless or just barely getting by, it’s a big problem,” Sheetz said.

Sheetz, who is staying at Alpha Project’s Barrio Logan shelter tent, said he got three of those tickets in 2018 and 2019 after he abruptly decided not to wait to board arriving trollies to reload a monthly pass that had expired around the same time. He had been exhausted after weekend-long gigs selling newspapers. Sheetz is now hoping to address those cases through the local homeless court program.

Even riders who haven’t received fare evasion tickets question the increased enforcement.

Alondra Gonzalez, an 18-year-old who uses transit to get to school, said MTS officers have seemed “hyper focused” on checking passes the past couple years. A recent incident where a man followed her from the trolley to a bus left her rattled – and wishing MTS officers who regularly board to check riders’ passes remained on the trolley to provide more security.

“They should be more focused on how people are because people can get followed too,” Gonzalez said.

Paul Downey, CEO of nonprofit Serving Seniors, came away with a similar perspective after a knee injury forced him to ride the trolley for a stint last year. He recalled instances where people who seemed intoxicated were hassling passengers and wondered why MTS officers seemed to be prioritizing fare checks over safety patrols.

“It seemed odd you’d put this amount of resource into (fare enforcement) as opposed to providing better security throughout the trolley system,” Downey said.

Jablonski maintained that fare checking isn’t MTS’s primary enforcement goal. He said the system is trying to grapple with increased homelessness, drug issues and statewide criminal justice reforms that have meant more people who have served time in jail are on the street – and riding transit.

“It’s unfair to categorize that we’re overly focused on fare collection,” Jablonski said. “We do that, but I can tell you that our primary concern is people’s safety and the feeling of safety.”

MTS spokesman Rob Schupp separately pointed to a safety and security survey of about 1,150 riders conducted in early 2019 in which more than 80 percent of riders somewhat or strongly agreed that the presence of security on board made them feel more safe. Nearly 88 percent reported that they were comfortable with MTS’s fare checks. The same survey found that about a quarter of riders wanted to see more security presence on the MTS transit system.

Polly Hanson, senior director of security, risk and emergency management for the Washington D.C.-based American Public Transportation Association, said transit enforcement officials have long viewed fare checks as a basic security priority to help establish that presence and limit quality-of-life crimes. Jablonski serves on the association’s more than 135-member board of directors.

“The general school of thought is it does contribute to a safer environment,” Hanson said.

But Hanson, the former police chief for the Amtrak system, cautioned that it’s difficult to compare transit agencies’ approaches and even enforcement statistics given the differences associated with each system – and the lack of information the industry has about practices across the country.

She said that the national Transportation Research Board has ordered a study on how transit agencies across the country conduct fare enforcement and even calculate their fare evasion rates to nail down processes nationwide.

MTS has long policed its system with a unique security corps. Today the agency has 62 MTS code compliance officers who are authorized to enforce transit system and certain quality of life violations, and 145 private security guards who are not. None are sworn police officers. MTS partners with other agencies to do more serious enforcement, including via a task force of three San Diego police officers and a sheriff’s deputy who team up with an MTS officer and security guard four nights a week.

In February 2017, Guaderrama asked the MTS board to double the number of MTS-employed code compliance officers and to trim the number of security guards employed by private firm Allied Universal by 50 in a bid to boost efficiency and allow for more enforcement of MTS violations.

At the time, Guaderrama noted that the move – which also saved cash – would allow MTS to hire more officers who could write tickets.

“It triples our enforcement capability,” Guaderrama told the board.

The MTS board unanimously approved his proposal.

Since that vote, fare evasion enforcement has soared.

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Now some members of the MTS board are calling for changes, including MTS Board Chairman Nathan Fletcher.

“I think a lot of us have a lot of concerns about the system as currently designed and implemented and I think there is clearly a need to make revisions and to make changes,” Fletcher said.

At an MTS public security committee meeting last month, Fletcher joined Montgomery in urging MTS staffers to evaluate the impact of the system’s current approach and to explore administrative processes and decriminalization efforts that other transit systems have pursued to lessen the burden of fare evasion tickets.

For example, the Los Angeles Metro system established a transit court in 2012 to allow violators to avoid criminal infractions and instead resolve tickets through a civil administrative process. The process has ushered in lower fees and alternative options for low-income riders to address outstanding charges. That system, which has a rail and bus ridership four times larger than MTS’s, reports it gave out 61,734 administrative citations during the 2018 fiscal year and 30,574 tickets during the 2019 fiscal year that ended in June. Its rail system is gated.

Montgomery said she hopes that MTS can pursue an alternative process that makes transit tickets less onerous for those who receive them. Montgomery, Fletcher and others on the board have also urged MTS staffers to explore potential homeless outreach initiatives.

“This has an impact on their entire lives – from either not buying the right ticket or not having a ticket,” Montgomery said. “It is not helping. It is hurting, so we have to change that.”

Circulate San Diego Executive Director Colin Parent, whose organization advocates for increased transit access, has firsthand experience with MTS enforcement.

In December 2018, Parent received a ticket on the trolley after forgetting to update the MTS app on his phone when he got a new credit card. He learned he hadn’t made his monthly Compass card payment when an MTS officer checked his fare during an enforcement operation.

A few months later, Parent opted to pay the nearly $200 ticket rather than spend hours in court.

Parent, a lawyer who once represented homeless San Diegans with trolley tickets pro bono in homeless court, recalled thinking about the disproportionate punishment associated with those tickets. By comparison, Parent said, a parking ticket would cost closer to $40.

Parent said he has appreciated MTS’s increased focus on safety in recent years but is concerned about the impact of its fare evasion enforcement, particularly on homeless and low-income San Diegans.

“It’s very problematic,” Parent said.

Ben Fried, a spokesman for New York-based advocacy group TransitCenter, said MTS and other transit agencies should follow the lead of cities including Washington D.C. and San Francisco that have decriminalized fare evasion and ensure the punishment for those tickets more closely matches the severity of the violation.

He questioned the need for such aggressive fare enforcement on a system with a low fare evasion rate.

“Agencies just don’t get a rate lower than that,” Fried said. “To me, that’s saying that a lot of this activity is excessive, punitive and an unnecessary burden on the ridership.”

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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