Transit officers swarm a trolley platform in La Mesa, checking for unticketed passengers. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

At the final public safety committee meeting of 2019, we learned that MTS is looking into adding homeless outreach services, and we encourage the MTS to do so. It is always a great idea to provide outreach where our unsheltered are.

At the same time, our basic questions went unanswered. We have been appearing before the MTS board and its public safety committee for 12 months, asking MTS to provide more data on fare violations in order to understand the financial impact on the criminal justice system and the social costs to the poor.

Before the meeting, we were led to believe we would get more data on the criminal impact of the fare violations. As of June, MTS had written 36,592 fare violations in six months. That means MTS security officers increased the number of citations by 300 percent, putting them on track to write 72,000 fare violation tickets for 2019. In comparison, Los Angeles, the second largest public transit system in the nation, has issued roughly 25,000 fare citations and San Francisco BART had 12,000.

Why are we concerned? Let’s put it into perspective. If you failed to put $2.50 into a parking meter, you would receive a $42.50 ticket. If you didn’t pay it, the worst that would happen would be that you’d be sent to a collections agency. Never will traffic enforcement be waiting to arrest you. If you fail to pay a $2.50 fare, however, your ticket can be a minimum of $180 and can lead to a warrant for your arrest and possible jail time.

Our transit system provides 88 million annual passenger trips, 300,000 each workday. All of this is primarily funded by our federal, state and local tax dollars. According to the MTS website, the agency has a $278 million operating budget – $96 million of which is from fares. The agency reports that this is one of the highest farebox recovery ratios among similar transit systems, which simply means we use fare enforcement much more aggressively than other systems.

We have repeatedly asked what the deeper cost of enforcing these fare violations is. How many of these fare violations are civil versus criminal? How many are paid? What is the cost to San Diegans of criminalizing a $2.50 fare violation?

As of the last meeting, we still have no answers. The lack of data meant no meaningful recommendations on enforcement policy changes could be made. In January 2020, the board will change hands again, and our concerns will have been punted again to another team in another year.

We are not saying that the San Diego MTS should not be proud of its low fare violation rate, nor are we saying that regular fare scofflaws should not be penalized. We are simply asking for data so the people of San Diego can understand what the true costs of fare violations are.

What are the costs in MTS staff time versus time spent on security versus fare violation revenue generated from these violations? What are the costs to our legal system both in court time and jail time?

Once we have that information we can more effectively evaluate the collateral consequences of these penalties and how they continue to perpetuate poverty.

John Brady is the director of advocacy for the Voices of Our City Choir. Mitchelle Woodson is executive director of the nonprofit Think Dignity. Together they operate Voices of Dignity, a public speaking and advocacy program for the unsheltered.

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