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Can you pay for another Seattle bus passenger’s fare? It’s complicated

In May, reader Lesa Sullivan was on a RapidRide bus in North Seattle when something caught her eye: a fare enforcement officer talking to a woman about an expired transfer ticket. Although Lesa offered to pay for the woman’s ticket with her ORCA card or cash, the officer refused to let her.

“He said it couldn’t be done like that and he proceeded to take the name and [date of birth] from [the] woman,” Lesa told us. “Though he wasn’t hostile to her, he did assert that her bus ticket was expired and that she’d have to pay a fine. She spoke no English, so I’m not sure how much of the transaction was successful.”

So what might’ve happened here?

We reached out to Scott Gutierrez, a spokesman for King County Metro, to find out. Scott doesn’t know exactly what went down on Lesa’s RapidRide bus, but here’s what he makes of what Lesa saw…

First, a little context: RapidRide passengers have the option of paying their bus fare before boarding, unlike on other King County Metro buses, which can only take payment at the door. Because of this, RapidRide buses have fare enforcement officers who occasionally board the bus and check to see if folks are paying for their rides.

Why is that important in Lesa’s case?

If a fare enforcement officer sees that someone boarded a RapidRide bus without paying or has an expired transfer, that passenger has violated Metro’s fare policy, Scott said. If it’s that passenger’s first time getting written up, the fare enforcement officer will take down their information and give them a warning. But if it’s their second violation, they’ll get a ticket — and that’s regardless of whether someone else can pay their fare.

“In most cases, [the passenger] pays the fare and remains on the bus or someone can pay for them, but it won’t change the fare violation,” Scott said.

So what may have happened in Lesa’s case is that this wasn’t the woman’s first time getting written up. If that’s true, then the fare enforcement officer probably issued her a violation and allowed her to stay on the bus. At that point, Lesa paying the woman’s fare would have made no difference, which might be why he didn’t allow her to do it.

Assuming this is what happened, is there anything Lesa could have done to get to a different outcome?

No. If the woman had asked Lesa if she could help her out with her fare before either of them boarded the bus, then Lesa might have had the opportunity to go to the front of the bus to ask the driver to charge her for two fares.

So to bring this back to all of you, if you want to pay for another passenger on any King County Metro buses — including RapidRide — here’s what you have to do:

  • go the front of the bus
  • let the driver know to ring you up for two (or more) people
  • boop your personal ORCA card at the farebox or pay in cash. (ORCA Lift and student- and government-issued passes won’t work.)

…then you can all be on your merry way!

And because this is an important point, we also asked Scott about the fact that this passenger didn’t speak English.

Scott says fare enforcement officers hand out brochures that include contact info for customer service and a translator. Buses also have “Riding the Bus” pamphlets on board, which explain things like bus fare in 13 different languages.

And ultimately, if someone feels like there was a miscommunication, Scott said a ticket recipient can always challenge an infraction in court “just like with a parking ticket.”

Some more good news

King County Metro staffers are working on improving how they enforce fares. A recent audit let ‘em know that people facing housing instability or homelessness are being disproportionately impacted by misdemeanors picked up because of fare violations — and they want to fix that.

Run into something in the city you want clarity on? Always feel free to email us at [email protected]. We’ll try our best to help out.