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Debate on fare evasion on Fresno's BRT becomes decriminalization flashpoint

The Brand Administration needs a framework to discourage fare-evaders. The proposed framework is actually rather detailed. Soria and Baines are concerned. They worry that BRT will “criminalize” good but impoverished riders. Bredefeld worries City Hall is about to take the side of lawbreakers. And everyone is now thinking about using government’s coercive power to ban persistent cheaters for an unspecified period.

That’s some framework.

The debate turned to the banned rider who ignores his ban and continues to ride BRT (whether with a ticket or not).

City Manager Rudd: “At some point in time you have to apply the law. I would recommend that you don’t change the language. You may want to allow us to actually get BRT up and running and have us report back after a year as to how many misdemeanor citations have been issued compared to administrative citations. I would encourage you to leave the language as is and allow staff to exercise the flexibility that was incorporated into the language.”

Baines didn’t want to go there. Baines was upset with the notion that elimination of the misdemeanor provision meant he and Soria don’t care about the integrity of the law.

“This is not about not enforcing the law,” Baines said. “An infraction is still a legal issue….Misdemeanors carry a different connotation on a person’s record.”

Baines said a person banned from BRT, yet boarding a BRT bus anyway, could be arrested for trespassing.

Said Olivier: “So, where are we now?”

He should have asked: Where are we headed next?

Bredefeld soon had the microphone again.

Said Bredefeld to Barfield: “What happens, Greg, if this passes (Soria’s motion) and the person is banned and they still get on the bus? Then we ask them, ‘Pretty please, don’t get on the bus’?”

Barfield said that’s essentially correct.

Said Bredefeld: “’Pretty please – don’t violate our laws.’ This is absurd. I don’t know how – well, I do understand how we’re in the state (of affairs) we’re in, and this is just a microcosm of what’s going on in the state (of California). I won’t support this motion.”

Brandau suggested that the council postpone everything for a week or two. Council Member Paul Caprioglio said he liked that idea.

The thought was nothing but dust in the wind.

Baines was still hot under the collar. He didn’t like being portrayed as somehow soft on crime or misbehavior.

Said Baines: “I just want to make sure – this is not ‘pretty please.’… If someone tries to board the bus and we have FAX police, they would be arrested for trespassing. While I understand all the fervor for wanting to enforce the law, this in no way minimizes that. This in no way prevents us from carrying out the law. The ‘pretty please’ is a gross mischaracterization of what would actually occur in the field.”

A sense of powerlessness clearly was sweeping over the council. Council members didn’t want fare evaders. They didn’t want to be mean to people. And they didn’t want to approve penalties that everyone just laughed at.

Caprioglio at this point added another layer of helplessness.

Said Caprioglio: “As a practicing attorney, a misdemeanor of this level will get zero response from the court or probation or anyone else. I hate to say that, but I’ve been there long enough to know that. But I think on the other hand if there’s actually a banning of the person and prevention from riding the bus, that’s more effective…I would put their picture on the front of the bus. Everybody could see who these fare-evaders are who are making it rough on the system.”

Bredefeld couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

Said Bredefeld: “Let’s have real teeth in what we do or criminals know we don’t mean it. And that’s what’s going to happen here.”

Six of the council members appeared to have exhausted their anger. The microphone belonged to the council president, who always speaks last.

“We’re talking about somebody who gets on the bus without paying because they don’t happen to have a dollar,” Olivier said. “We’re not talking about a hardened criminal; we’re talking about fare evasion. I think I think in terms of fare evasion – we’re going to see a lot of it.”

Olivier offered a solution guaranteed to make everyone happy.

“There’s only one answer to fixing the problem of fare evasion, and that’s to make the Bus Rapid Transit system complimentary for our constituents,” Olivier said. “In my opinion, everybody’s going to ride this for free.”

This was too much for City Manager Rudd, who somehow kept his temper below the boiling point. Rudd said it would be easy to make BRT free for everyone – just subsidize the system with mountains of money from the general fund.

Make no mistake – Rudd was exaggerating to highlight the silliness of Olivier’s idea.

Turned out that Olivier wasn’t the last speaker before the vote. Caprioglio somehow regained control of the microphone.

Marc Kapetan, a local attorney with an office in Downtown, was in the audience minding his own business. Caprioglio asked Kapetan to come to the public microphone and opine on the proceedings.

“You’re a good friend and one of the best lawyers in town,” Caprioglio said as Kapetan made his way forward.

I have no idea what Caprioglio expected from the Kapetan invitation. But if Caprioglio thought Kapetan would sound the trumpet for moral relativism in the public arena, he thought wrong.

“I’m amazed at the (council) conversation and how it takes a tone of political correctness instead of what we all know as right and wrong,” Kapetan said. “I can’t imagine that we’re sitting here having a debate as to whether it’s right or wrong to commit a theft of a city service. You can call it fare evasion all you want, but it’s a theft of a city service….At some point you have to get to a point where it’s right and wrong and there’s punishment or there’s no punishment. Because the small little whittling away to society that all this kind of stuff does makes us feel like there’s no hope. And if there’s no hope that there’s going to be right and wrong and punishment or no punishment, then we do as we’re now starting to do…. We become apathetic. And when the public starts becoming apathetic, then it’s a breakdown of society. At some point you’ve got to stand up and say, ‘There’s right and wrong.’”

Bredefeld had the last word before the vote: “I want to thank you, Mr. Kapetan, for providing some logic and rationality to this argument. You’re exactly right.”

As noted above, the Soria motion carried, 4-3.

BRT in some form has been on City Hall’s plate for 20 years. The system carried a lot of political baggage prior to Thursday’s debate. Fare evasion, however, opens a new looming issue for City Hall far away from the Municipal Yard and the bus stops scattered across the city.

George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

3 Comments

  1. Some thoughts:

    1) the current version of BRT is a watered down version due to a majority of the council bulking at the original concept.

    2) BRT is unlikely to pay for itself, at least in the short term.

    3) FAX (though I prefer the original proposed name change of FART back in the day) needs a makeover. It’s needed one for decades. What we have is a baling wire and duct tape system of routes that have been added or adapted as Fresno grew.

    4) I haven’t ridden the bus in a long time but I doubt the demographics have changed: students, poor people and the elderly, all of whom don’t drive. FAX became a replacement for school buses in my day riding.

    5) Fare jumping or evasion has always been a problem. It was back in the 1970s and if anything has likely gotten worse. Caprioglio is right in that the court system has bigger fish to fry than someone who “forgot” to pay the bus fare.

    6) The other legal beagle is right too. However what do you spend scarce resources on? The service or busting people for a low grade crime that’ll carry no jail time.

  2. One more thought. The monetary fines likely will never be collected. If you examine the current traffic infraction fine debate, you’ll realize it’s being driven by two realizations: (1) poor people don’t have $250 or more to pay a fine/penalty assessments and (2) driver license suspensions just make things worse. California cities barrage homeless folks with citations for such activities as sleeping in public or panhandling as part of “tough love” or “we’ll make life so miserable they’ll leave” campaigns. Two things happen: (1) people ignore the tickets and so they go to warrant and (2) even if they’re arrested for warrant(s) the sheriff just kicks them out the jail door and the fines are never collected because they don’t have the money to ever pay. It’s a Catch-22 for the city.

  3. I’m sure other big cities have worked out the logistics for such payment system of its transit. See what they have done.

    As an example, San Francisco has the Clipper Card. I have one and use it every time I’m in the bay area. I can use it on BART, Muni, city bus, cable cars, ferries, and Cal Train. I have my card set to reload from my bank when it gets low, but there could be places for people to reload their card with cash. If your card doesn’t work, you don’t get to board the transportation.

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