A contentious debate has erupted among BART's board of directors over a bill in the California Legislature that seeks to decriminalize fare evasion in the state's public transit systems. The bill, Assembly Bill 819, introduced by Assembly Majority Leader Isaac Bryan, aims to eliminate the classification of fare evasion as a misdemeanor charge after the third violation, instead imposing a fine not exceeding $400. While proponents argue that the bill addresses potential racial disparities in enforcement, opponents express concerns over public safety, financial implications, and optics.
The Fare Evasion Dilemma:
Under current state law, fare evaders caught three or more times may face misdemeanor charges, with potential fines up to $400 and jail sentences up to 90 days. Assembly Bill 819 seeks to alleviate this burden by reducing the offense to a fine-only violation. Assemblyman Bryan contends that fare evasion rules are disproportionately enforced against people of color, prompting the need for legislative action.
During a recent board meeting, BART staff, including the transit system's police department, remained neutral, citing data showing that the percentage of fare evasion citations leading to misdemeanor charges was minimal. They argued that the bill's impact, if passed, would be insignificant. However, BART directors took opposing views.
Proponents of the bill, including Directors Mark Foley, Bevan Dufty, and others, raised concerns about public safety. They cited statistics suggesting that a significant number of individuals involved in crimes on the transit system were fare evaders. Director John McPartland emphasized the need to equip law enforcement officers with the necessary tools to ensure public safety.
Opponents, led by Director Debora Allen, echoed the public safety concerns but also raised an optics issue. BART heavily relies on fares for revenue, and a recent poll revealed that safety concerns were the main obstacle to restoring pre-pandemic ridership levels. Directors argued that supporting the decriminalization bill might exacerbate public fear of using BART trains, impacting the system's already precarious financial situation.
The board's 5-3 vote to formally oppose Assembly Bill 819 exposed the deep division among its members. President Janice Li and Directors Rebecca Saltzman and Lateefah Simon dissented, advocating that the bill's minimal impact on the system does not necessitate an official stance. Li also cautioned against alienating Bay Area politicians and lawmakers who widely support the bill.
The clash between BART directors over the proposed fare evasion decriminalization bill highlights the complex interplay of public safety concerns, financial considerations, and social optics. As the bill progresses through the state Legislature, it remains to be seen whether BART's opposition will sway its fate. Meanwhile, the debate underscores the challenges of striking a balance between promoting equitable practices and maintaining the public's trust and safety in the public transit system.