The fare enforcement program on Metro's six Rapid Ride lines uses contracted private security officers to check if riders are paying the fare, but the new audit found that of the 3,911 citations issued in 2016, only 94 people actually paid the fines. It costs Metro more than $300,000 alone just to pay court costs for processing evasion fines.
"That amount of money is wasted," bus rider Chauncey Moylan said. "This money is clearly wasted."
The report also revealed that the equipment used by fare enforcement officers to check if someone has paid with their ORCA card often doesn't work, "making it difficult for officers to determine whether a passenger has paid their fare."
When riders are caught skipping the fare, officers give them a verbal warning first. After that, they get a $124 fine. Receiving several of those leads to a misdemeanor charge for theft.
KIRO 7 asked King County Council member Claudia Balducci, chair of the county's mobility committee, for her reaction to the numbers.
"I think that part of the question we need to ask ourselves -- once we get an understanding of how well our system is actually working -- is, does it makes sense do to this kind of fare enforcement at all?" she said.
Auditors also found Metro is not using an accurate method to estimate just how many people are skipping fares, that it doesn't have a target for fare evasion levels, and that a quarter of the people who get fined are dealing with housing instability.
"I don't know that it makes any sense to be fining people who are coming onto the buses for shelter because they don't have shelter," Balducci said.
Mark Norton, Metro's head of transit security, said they've already started making changes after an internal review of their own earlier this year.
Those include giving juveniles one more warning before issuing a citation and putting a hold on misdemeanors for fare evasion.
In a statement online, Metro's general manager Rob Gannon said in part, "This pause gives us time to consider alternatives to this process, which has resulted in only a small percentage of court-issued penalties being paid."
"We see this as this great opportunity to kind of reinvent the thing that we call fare enforcement from the ground up," Norton said.
Some riders said Metro should be spending more money getting discounted fare passes to people who need them.
"The bus is pretty expensive in Seattle," bus rider Sally Jordan said, "and it seems like that's what they should be focusing their time and money on."
Metro plans to expand to 26 Rapid Ride lines by 2040.