Bus drivers are stuck between enforcing policy and drawing complaints from passengers
A year ago, most passengers who illegally rode TriMet for free got away with it.
But since last July, when the regional transit agency officials announced they were cracking down on fare evasion by hiring six new fare inspectors and cutting straight to citations for first-time offenders, the days of worry-free fare jumping are long gone.
Although the new policies drastically altered TriMet for some transit users, particularly those on light rail, they didn’t change the role bus drivers play in the fight against free rides, putting them in a tough spot when it comes to fare enforcement, and that stress may have contributed to a dispute in Forest Grove June 7 that triggered an investigation by TriMet.
The incident, first reported by the News-Times, began as passenger Maria Ruiz boarded a bus operated by driver Claudeen Hendren late June 7. Hendren reportedly told Ruiz that her fare was invalid, which kick-started a dispute that left Ruiz and her children in tears and a police officer driving them home.
Fare enforcement causes friction
Jeff Ackerson, an officer with the union that represents TriMet drivers -- Amalgamated Transit Union local 757-- said the new policy hasn’t made his job as a bus driver any easier.
“They want us to be fare informers, not fare enforcers,” he said. “It’s like a whole can of worms.”
Bus drivers have a complicated role, Ackerson said. They are responsible for telling the passenger that they need to pay fare, but can’t write citations or exclusions.
When passengers board without valid fare, a bus operator is supposed to tell them their fare is invalid, Ackerson said. If the passenger refuses to pay, Ackerson said operators log that they had a fare evasion and continue on their route. If a passenger becomes confrontational or upset, drivers are supposed to stop the bus and call dispatch for help. Bus operators also have the authority to ask a passenger to get off the bus.
That often puts drivers in the middle of TriMet policy and riders who may be defensive or confused about the fare rules.
TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch agrees that bus drivers have a tough job, as they have to consider what else is happening on the bus.
“They have to get a sense of not escalating the situation,” she said. “They have to take into account the circumstances.”
Ackerson said a bus driver’s responsibility as an informer is what can lead to trouble with passengers. He said bus drivers sometimes ignore a passenger with an invalid fare, because if they do tell the passenger that they need to pay, the situation can quickly get out of control and prompt a formal complaint from the passenger.
“We’ve been conditioned that anytime we go ahead and become confrontational with a passenger, even if it’s a matter of informing them, they call in a complaint,” Ackerson said.
Fetsch said the job of fare enforcement falls on the fare inspectors, who focus mostly on making sure MAX riders pay before they step onto a light rail car.
“It’s a matter of targeting areas outside the Free Rail Zone,” she said, referring to the stretch of central Portland where MAX is free to ride.
Fetsch said fare inspectors do go on buses at times as well, especially where there are more incidents of fare evasion. TriMet tracks fare evasion to pinpoint which areas have the biggest problem.
Drivers who enforce rules draw complaints
But across TriMet’s service area, Ackerson said bus operators like Hendren who enforce the rules and inform passengers when they do not have a valid fare get the most complaints.
After asking Ruiz to pay fare, Hendren and Ruiz got in an argument intense enough that Hendren asked another passenger to call 9-1-1. The night ended with the Forest Grove police department driving an emotional Ruiz and her four children home to Cornelius, even though the officer told Hendren that Ruiz would pay the bus fare.
This isn’t the first time Hendren has had a passenger complain because she asked for fare.
According to disciplinary records, in April of 2004, TriMet investigated a complaint that Hendren asked a passenger accompanying his disabled son to pay to ride the bus, though he was legally allowed to ride for free. In August of 2005, a passenger said that Hendren rudely confronted her because she needed to sit down after boarding the bus to get out her bus pass, and that Hendren called the police to remove the passenger.
TriMet ruled in the first investigation that there was not enough evidence to discipline Hendren, and in the second that she didn’t violate policy.
In the most recent case, Ackerson said Hendren is principled and thinks that not paying for fares is stealing.
“All she did was try to do her job,” he said.
TriMet spokeswoman Roberta Altstadt said the increased enforcement has been successful, as the transit agency is making money from citations and more passengers are paying fare.
Fetsch said that passengers are catching on that they have a greater chance of getting their fare checked than in the past.
“The message is getting out there,” she said. “Why put yourself at risk for a $175 fine?”
But with increased citations, the Multnomah County Courthouse is also buzzing with more passengers trying to reduce or get rid of their fines.
Fetsch said cited passengers can choose to take their chances with a judge, instead of pay the full $175 fee.
According to the Multnomah County Courthouse, cited passengers have options; plead no contest or not guilty and go to trial, plead guilty and pay $60 for a first offense, or plead guilty and do eight hours of community service to get the citation waived.
Jonathan Ostar, the executive director for OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, a nonprofit that advocates for transit riders, said OPAL is concerned about how TriMet is targeting areas with low-income riders and not equitably inspecting everyone’s fare. He said it opens up the possibility of racial and class profiling and the effective criminalization of poverty.
“TriMet has set up a fare inspection and enforcement system that allows too much room for profiling and violations of equal protection and civil rights,” Ostar said.
Ackerson said the new policy is hard for everyone, from passengers to bus operators and supervisors.
“The whole thing is a mess,” he said.
Go to original Story here-Portland Tribune communities“It’s a very confusing thing we are dealing with here.”