Representatives of the Port Authority of Allegheny County are scheduled to meet soon with a group of community advocates concerned about the new fare enforcement policy for light rail riders.
The fare enforcement policy has been a point of contention between the authority and several advocacy groups including Pittsburghers for Public Transit and the Alliance for Policy Accountability, who say the policy will criminalize riders for fare evasion which could lead to fines, jail time and possibly deportation for undocumented riders.
Molly Nichols, director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit, asked the board Friday during its regular meeting to consider using a similar system that the Pennsylvania Turnpike commission uses to enforce toll payment.
“Where instead of someone getting a citation and then facing a judge and spending 30 days in jail and then having warrant checks," she said, "they would get a bill and if they pay their bill or don’t, a debt collector, and a civil process."
The Port Authority is on schedule to roll out its education campaign next week with advertisements and announcements on the platform reminding riders that in August the light rail system will be cashless and riders will have to use a Connect Card.
Outgoing CEO Ellen McClean said she expects the cashless system to begin August 1. At that time, fare enforcement officers will be stationed at platforms and on train cars checking proof of payment for everyone entering the car with validating machines.
McLean said most riders are paying, but enforcement is needed. The Port Authority currently employs 50 officers who she said are trained in the same way city police officers are. One concern the advocacy groups raise is to enforce extensive, annual training in de-escalation. McLean said officers receive implicit bias training and how to interact with people with mental health challenges.
Still, Gabe McMorland, campaign organizer for the Thomas Merton Center, echoed concerns of threatening fines and jail time. He noted Friday that in other parts of the country, criminal charges for fare enforcement have led to deportation of undocumented riders because the authority didn’t have a policy for interacting with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.
“I think what we need to think about here is, is this a moral question? Because we need to make sure it doesn’t happen that way? Or are we trying to increase ridership? Because I hope we can have a plan to help increase ridership, and this does not sound like a plan to increase ridership,” he said.
The groups have asked for the policy to explicitly state that Port Authority Police will not inquire about anyone’s immigration status and that the names of individuals who are cited will not be shared publicly or with ICE.