Fare evasion accounts for a relatively small slice of the MBTA’s financial woes but infuriates those who pay, as riders made abundantly clear at public hearings held about the fare increases that took effect this month.
Now, even as the Legislature provides an infusion of financial aid to help the T get through the year, lawmakers have moved to crack down on those who are taking the transit system for a ride.
Legislation signed by Governor Deval Patrick allowing the MBTA to tap a little-known surplus from motor vehicle inspection fees — and, thus, avoid even higher fare hikes — substantially increases fines for scofflaws caught trying to ride for free. It also requires them to pay up sooner.
Though the loss from fare evasion in all its forms is hard to calculate, planners estimate it may be in the tens of millions of dollars annually.
Transit Police have devoted increasing attention to the problem, with uniformed and undercover officers writing a record 3,482 tickets last year. But most of those $15 fines went unpaid.
The tickets are noncriminal citations, similar to parking tickets, and the T’s only means of compelling payment until now has been to send a warning after one year, wait three months, and then tell the Registry of Motor Vehicles not to let offenders renew their licenses without paying.
But that was often a hollow, or at best delayed, threat. Licenses expire only every five years, and many malefactors are unlicensed or have out-of-state licenses.
That was the case with a college student from California who made a show of tearing up his citation when undercover Transit Police officers caught him last fall, while the Globe observed.
The new law makes the fine $50 for a first offense and requires payment or a request for an appeal hearing within 30 days. But the Registry remains the only real tool for compelling payment.
The Patrick administration asked the Legislature to allow the MBTA to elevate the offense to a crime if a fare evader is older than 17, ignores a citation, and lacks a Massachusetts driver’s license. Lawmakers thought that was unduly harsh but allowed the T to tack a $100 surcharge onto ignored citations. Still, it remains to be seen how the MBTA will compel payment in those cases.
Representative William M. Straus, House chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation, said lawmakers believe that higher fines send a signal that the citations are serious, making riders think twice about sneaking through and compelling payment when caught.
“[We think] it was the low dollar amount which was the reason why a lot of people said, ‘Well, I’ll take a chance not paying this,’ ” said Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat.
If fines continue to go unpaid, lawmakers may revisit the question of criminality, he said. “The real goal here is to stop fare evasion.”
Transit Police Chief Paul MacMillan said in a statement that he would “welcome the opportunity to work with [lawmakers] to include language that would ensure the payment of the fine for those who do not possess driver’s licenses.”
Already, the higher fines have given the department momentum in a ticketing blitz. By last week, Transit Police were on pace to eclipse last year’s record, issuing about a dozen citations a day.
But this week, officers issued 51 tickets Monday; they wrote 36 more Tuesday.
The intensified enforcement is as much about sending a message as recovering lost revenue.
Even if all outstanding fines get paid, they would not equal the amount lost through what the T calls “fare leakage.”
The T has a budget of nearly $1.8 billion this year and expects to collect about $540 million in fares and pass sales, but it owes billions in long-term debt.
In the turnstile era, the loss through fare evasion was estimated at about 3 to 5 percent. The automated fare system eliminated some evasion, but opened the door to other forms.
Public complaints have centered largely on passengers who board through the back of Green Line trolleys without paying when all doors are opened at peak hours to let people off or ride for free when conductors do not collect all fares on crowded commuter rail trains.
But rider Paul Cravedi says more attention should be paid to another form of fare evasion: the free rides invited by the electronic gates installed at all rapid transit stations in late 2006, in anticipation of the replacement of tokens with the CharlieCard.
“It’s a joke,” Cravedi said, urging the T to crack down.
Demonstrating the ease with which the gates can be breached gratis, Cravedi paid his own way to board at the Central Square station, then illustrated at several Red Line stops what he called frequent offenses: slipping in behind someone who had just paid or who was leaving, in the beat or two before the gates closed; holding gates open and beckoning for others to follow; even waltzing through a malfunctioning gate that had failed in the open position. He did it with ease, never being stopped.
“Try and cheat in Washington, try and cheat in New York; they slam,” said Cravedi, a Watertown resident and a Newton business owner who considers the Paris Metro a paragon of impregnability, combining turnstiles with gates. “It’s like trying to get into Fort Knox,” he said.
The electronic gates came as part of $58 million the T invested six years ago in station modifications, including ripping out turnstiles and token-sales booths, to accompany the $99 million automated fare system, spokesman Joshua K. Robin said.
Jonathan R. Davis, the T’s acting general manager, defended the gates, saying that officials believe they have cut down on fare evasion.
He called the seemingly prolonged opening of the gates for each rider a safety precaution. The decision to keep gates open when they are blocked or if they fail altogether, rather than slamming on a customer or locking out riders, was also motivated by safety, Davis said.
“I don’t think it’s opened more fare evasion,” he said, adding that he believes that the gates are superior to turnstiles, which could be hopped or squeezed through.
“Do we still have fare evasion?” he asked. “Yes. I think our customers, to some extent, can be creative in the way they find opportunities to not pay the fares. But it’s just a few out there.”
Eric Moskowitz can be reached at email@example.com.