By Micha Green, AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor, [email protected]

In a rare move, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed the D.C. Council’s decision to decriminalize metro fare evasion. Her second time issuing a veto, the mayor decided to send the bill back to the council in concerns that decriminalizing the act will exacerbate the metro fare evasion issue- losing several million dollars for the city.

The bill, was approved 10-2 by the District of Columbia Council, and is now being sent back for an override vote. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Metro Board Chairman and Council member Jack Evans (D- Ward 2) were the two Council members to initially oppose the bill.  Despite the mayor’s veto, if the Council approves the same bill, it will meet the requirements for the two-thirds threshold to inherently become law.

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed a bill that would have decriminalized metro fare evasion. (Courtesy Photo)

Last year the city made major strides for metro when it decided to provide $500 million of dedicated funding to the transit system.  Metro fare evasion, on the other hand, sets the city back financially, costing $25 million to $50 million per year.

“I am concerned that [the decriminalization bill] would exacerbate the problem,” Bowser said, according to The Washington Post.

An estimated $25 million of lost revenue is from bus fare evasion alone, as Metrobus operators have to record every instance where a passenger doesn’t pay.  Metrorail, on the other hand, is harder to track as there is no reliable system to notate when fare is evaded.

The loss of money is a critical issue to the mayor, and one that she believes should have real consequences.

“While I understand that [the] Council intended to change fare evasion to a civil offense, it is important to note that the bill simply removes criminal penalties while failing to set up a new civil adjudicative process,” Bowser wrote. “This leaves [Metro] without any meaningful tools to enforce the payment of fares and will encourage fare evasion, which will result in additional lost revenue for the Metro system.”

Currently there are fines up to $300 and up to 10 days in jail for metro fare evasion, penalties that advocates say are too harsh for the crime.

Proponents of the bill contend that decriminalizing metro fare evasion is a social justice issue- as many of those arrested for the crime are disproportionately African American.

Council members Charles Allen (D-6), Robert C. White (D-At Large) and Trayon White (D-8) championed the bill because of the fairness issue, pointing out a study by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, which found 91 percent of fare evasion penalties from January 2016 to February 2018 were issued to Black people.

“That is a problem,” Council member White Jr. said. “I’m sad that’s Metro’s losing money, but I’m more sad about what’s happening to Black people,” he said according to a Washington Post article about the original bill.

Council member Allen pointed out the larger implications of criminalizing the metro fare evasion. “The collateral consequences are numerous and devastating and they are vastly disproportionate to not paying the $2 fare,” Allen said last year.  His office released a statement saying it hoped to override the veto. “I will be moving to override the Mayor’s veto of this important criminal justice reform and working with my colleagues to ensure the will of the Council is upheld.”

Despite the civil rights argument being attached to decriminalization, Metro applauded the mayor’s decision to veto the bill.

“We truly appreciate Mayor Bowser’s leadership on this issue and stand ready to work with the Council to develop solutions that address their stated goal of making Metro accessible to people of limited means, while maintaining safety and fairness for the customers we serve,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.