Fare-snubbing scofflaws riding the Twin Cities’ light-rail lines could cost Metro Transit up to $1.5 million annually in lost revenue, according to an audit released Tuesday by the Metropolitan Council.
The 20-page report prepared by the regional planning agency found that “fare evasion” is worse on the nearly year-old Green Line, which connects the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul. All told, the audit showed losses on the Blue Line of $4,600 to $6,400 a week while those on the Green Line ranged from $11,100 to $21,800 a week. If those losses were to continue, it could cost Metro Transit up to $1.47 million a year, the report found.
About 4.6 percent to 9 percent of Green Line riders queried in the audit failed to pay, compared with 2.6 percent to 3.6 percent of Blue Line passengers. Compliance on the Northstar Commuter Rail Line, linking Minneapolis to Big Lake, is about 98 percent.
The Green Line, which runs from downtown Minneapolis to Union Depot in St. Paul, opened in June 2014 and had been operating only four months when the fare compliance audit was conducted. The Blue Line from downtown Minneapolis to the Mall of America has been operating for a decade.
Both light-rail lines allow riders to board without passing through a turnstile or showing a conductor a ticket. Riders are supposed to swipe their electronic fare cards at readers on a rail platform or purchase a ticket from a machine. Passengers are required to have a ticket while on a platform or train or have proof that they swiped their card.
Metro Transit has about 200 full- and part-time police officers whose duties involve canvassing trains and platforms looking for fare flouters, and the number of officers is expected to increase in the coming year, said Metro Transit spokesman Howie Padilla.
Padilla emphasized that those who don’t pay will be warned and likely fined $180. Fares range from 50 cents within downtown zones to $2.25 at peak travel times. As of September, officers issued 1,180 citations.
Riders still green
Padilla said it will take time for Green Line riders to “get used to the system,” even though rail ridership on the line soared to more than 6.5 million last year, beating expectations.
The Blue Line, which includes a stop at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport as well as several Park-and-Ride lots, tends to serve commuters getting to and from work and special events in Minneapolis.
By contrast the Green Line includes multiple stops along busy University Avenue and through the University of Minnesota. The report noted, “if more passengers on the Green Line take shorter trips, some may perceive the risk of being caught without fare as less likely.”
Frogtown resident Thai Vang said Tuesday he bought a Go-To transit pass after being warned by a Metro Transit police officer. “I have my pass and I’m good to go,” he said. Other transit riders on Thursday reported either never seeing enforcement officers or just seeing them at certain stops, such as Union Depot in St. Paul.
The audit was conducted last September and October and involved checking 886 light-rail passengers. The report makes a number of recommendations, including increased training for transit officers, as well as more education for the traveling public. It will be discussed by the Met Council’s Audit Committee on Wednesday.
Are barriers worth it?
Other systems such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles require riders to pass through a barrier before boarding a train, as opposed to the honor system used by Metro Transit.
“Often when transit agencies that operate proof-of-purchase payment system report their revenue lost due to fare evasion, there are calls for barriers to be put up at stations,” the report said.
The cost of barriers also must be factored in, the report said. In 2009, Los Angeles County’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority began to install turnstiles at some Metro stations.
At the time the decision was made, Metro’s fare-evasion rate was 6 percent, and the agency estimated that it was losing $5 million a year.
Los Angeles said it believes that the $46 million investment in barriers will be made back in less than 10 years. That’s assuming the turnstiles will eliminate fare evasion, though, and five years later, fare evasion continues to be an issue in L.A., even at stations with turnstiles, the Met Council’s audit showed.