MTS officers carry out a special enforcement unit at the La Mesa trolley station. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Metropolitan Transit System officials are considering a pilot program to try to lessen the burden of fare evasion enforcement the agency has dramatically increased.

MTS’s Public Security Committee on Thursday discussed a diversion initiative that could allow riders ticketed for not paying a $2.50 fare to avoid court time and up to hundreds of dollars in fines. Instead, riders might opt into a diversion program allowing them to do community service, pay a reduced fine or submit proof that they had paid their fare. Once completed, MTS would void the citation rather than send it to Superior Court.

The initial proposal follows a boom in fare evasion ticketing on MTS trolleys. MTS officers wrote 61,560 fare evasion citations in 2018, more than double the number they handed out just two years earlier and more than other transit agencies polled by Voice of San Diego. In the first half of 2019, MTS data shows officers wrote nearly 36,600 citations – more than they gave out in all of 2016.

MTS reports that its fare evasion rate is just under 3 percent, a low rate that has not significantly shifted since the agency ramped up enforcement.

The surge in ticketing, combined with anecdotes about how those tickets have impacted those who receive them, inspired MTS board members including Chairman Nathan Fletcher and San Diego City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery to urge MTS staff to explore administrative processes and decriminalization efforts.

On Thursday, MTS staff described their initial vision for their pilot diversion program as similar to reforms pursued by Portland’s TriMet system two years ago. They expect to provide more specifics to the committee in May.

Security committee members welcomed local transit officials’ early work on reforms though some, including Imperial Beach City Councilwoman Paloma Aguirre and Montgomery, urged staffers to consider doing more. For example, both questioned whether MTS could allow violators to immediately pay fares to MTS officers in some instances and Aguirre asked whether fare evasion tickets could be pursued as administrative violations, like parking tickets.

Montgomery, who chairs the committee, has previously highlighted the Los Angeles Metro system, which established a transit court in 2012 to allow violators to avoid criminal infractions.

MTS staffers cautioned that the proposed San Diego program might affect the agency’s low evasion rate and thus its budget if it’s not carefully crafted. They also emphasized the need to ensure riders understand there are consequences for not paying fares.

“If there’s no accountability in fare evasion, the number will increase,” MTS CEO Paul Jablonski said.

He said Los Angeles Metro and TriMet have higher fare evasion rates than MTS. LA Metro did not immediately respond to a request to confirm its evasion rate.

In a written report to the MTS committee, Jablonski wrote that TriMet, which last year reported an 18 percent evasion rate, has said its evasion rate increased after its fare program was implemented though it believes there are also other reasons for the spike.

TriMet could not provide data on the outcomes of its fare evasion changes this week.

This year, MTS expects to pull in $97.1 million in fare revenue, which makes up nearly a third of MTS’s budget.

MTS General Counsel Karen Landers estimated that last year’s 2.79 percent fare evasion rate cost MTS $2.7 million and warned that costs associated with fare evasion could grow with a new enforcement model.

“Every 1 percent increase in fare evasion at MTS costs us just under a million dollars and so that’s a big budget hit that we’re worried about, even small incremental changes,” Landers said.

But MTS’s existing approach to fare enforcement isn’t directly drawing significant money to the agency’s budget.

Last fiscal year, the agency collected just $223,288 in citation revenue from the San Diego County Superior Court, the equivalent of less than 1 percent of the agency’s fare revenue.

Montgomery emphasized that MTS knows little about the outcomes of those citations, including what percentage of fare evaders pay fines, which also complicates discussions about changes.

“I am also just still struggling with us not having the data to connect the deterrent piece of how we currently run our system or provide security for our system, and the effect that it will have on fare evasion,” Montgomery said. “All we have is the numbers.”

Landers said she is hopeful that the pilot program, which will eventually require a full board vote, can give MTS more data on the impact of its enforcement efforts.

Homeless advocate John Brady, who has for months raised concerns about how MTS enforcement affects homeless San Diegans, also said he was frustrated by the lack of data about existing enforcement but said he appreciated the diversion proposal.

“It really looks like a step in the right direction,” Brady said.

The new program is unlikely to roll out anytime soon.

MTS officials expect they will need to hire new staffers, develop partnerships with community service organizations and ensure MTS officers can access information on past citations, a task they cannot currently complete while they are out in the field.

Landers said MTS officials plan to flesh out additional details, including costs associated with the new program, in the next few months.

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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