When the MBTA asked customers last year to weigh in on proposed fare increases and service cuts, one complaint came through over and over: If the T was asking riders to pay more for less, it should do something about freeloaders.
Piggybacking through subway station fare gates, slipping onto the back of Green Line trolleys without paying, even riding for free on the commuter rail through luck, charm, or overcrowding — the T tried to crack down on all of it in 2012.
Transit Police issued 4,753 fare-evasion citations in 2012, a nearly 40 percent increase over 2011, Superintendent in Chief Joseph O’Connor said Wednesday.
“People spend their hard-earned money buying passes or paying their fare,” O’Connor told reporters. “And they expect everyone else to pay their part as well.”
Undercover and uniformed officers are expected to watch for fare evasion while patrolling the transit system, and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has periodically supplemented its efforts in recent years with plainclothes teams sent out specifically to catch free-riders. The number of citations issued rose from fewer than 1,000 annually to more than 3,000 from 2007 to 2010.
Last year, the department intensified that through blitzes dubbed “Operation Fare Game,” which included nabbing 51 alleged gate-crashers during a single three-hour period at Downtown Crossing.
People who think they are slipping through unnoticed are “very surprised when the person that is standing on the other side of the fare gates, who’s reading a newspaper, asks them to stop and identifies themselves as a police officer,” said O’Connor.
The superintendent said customers have thanked the department for the crackdown in person and via social media, though some have questioned if it is a wise use of police resources.
O’Connor said fighting fare evasion is part of a “point of entry policing strategy” to catch small offenses as a way to deter more serious crime throughout the T. Full statistics for 2012 crimes occurring on MBTA vehicles and property will not be released until later this month, but they will indicate that strategy is working, he said.
In stopping fare evaders to issue civil citations, the Transit Police have found several people with active arrest warrants, including a 43-year-old Salem woman whose apparent decision to sneak through the Chinatown Station gates Monday led to her arrest on an outstanding warrant from Salem District Court for violating an abuse order.
Security-camera footage from the station shows the woman waiting for a paying customer, slipping in behind her, and disappearing from view, only to be escorted out several minutes later by police.
Transit Police data analysts were not immediately able to say how many of the people stopped for fare evasion had outstanding warrants. They also could not say how many paid citations promptly.
Most citations have gone unpaid in recent years, partly because the T’s sole method for compelling payment is blocking driver’s license renewal through the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Many of those who are cited have no licenses, are students with out-of-state licenses, or are not scheduled for renewal for several years.
Lawmakers stopped short last year of adding new ways to compel payment but raised the fine for a first offense from $15 to $50 and asked evaders to pay fines within 30 days instead of one year.
It is difficult to estimate the dollar value of unpaid fares in all their forms, but past estimates from transit planners have pegged it at roughly 3 percent to 5 percent, meaning it probably costs the T several million dollars annually.
In addition to the police push to cite offenders, the T sought to deter free rides in other ways in 2012. The agency shortened the expiration period for multiride commuter rail passes to reduce opportunities to milk the passes for free rides. And it introduced smartphone ticketing to help speed payment and reduce time-consuming cash transactions on board.
Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, said the efforts are worthwhile.
“One of the constant complaints I’ve heard . . . is that people who show up and pay are furious at the people who don’t pay,” said Regan, whose board represents the cities and towns that pay a portion of the T’s budget. “The idea that the T is taking it seriously is something that I think all riders will appreciate.”