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Commuter rail cited as source of most T fare evasion

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/File

Of the $42 million annually that the MBTA may be losing from fare evasion, up to $35 million is estimated to come from the commuter rail system.

By Nicole Dungca Globe Staff 

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is losing as much as $42 million annually from fare evasion on commuter trains, Green Line trolleys, and buses, according to figures released Monday by the T and its commuter rail operator.

Officials believe that commuter rail customers are responsible for by far the biggest portion of the loss. They avoid paying up to $35 million each year, while Green Line customers avoid paying up to $4.5 million and bus customers avoid paying up to $2.4 million, according to estimates that the MBTA believes are the first of their kind.

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All told, it is equivalent to about 2 percent of the transit system’s $2 billion budget.

The T’s chief administrator, Brian Shortsleeve, said that officials believe improving fare collection is a “critical revenue opportunity” for the MBTA.

“It’s a matter of revenue, but it’s also a matter of fairness,” Shortsleeve told members of the MBTA’s fiscal control board during their Monday meeting.

The numbers lend some credence to a longtime complaint of monthly passholders on the Green Line and commuter rail, who say they believe fellow passengers often ride without paying.

Peter Williams, a Keolis official, said on Monday that fare evasion takes many forms on commuter line trains, which Keolis operates for the T. Because the commuter rail charges according to distance traveled, some customers pay less for a longer ride. Others try to reuse old tickets. Still others who want to buy tickets from a conductor aren’t able to when conductors don’t check fares.

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Williams said the T’s commuter rail payment system makes it relatively easy to avoid paying. For one thing, there are no fare gates at train stops. And because there are few ticket machines at stops outside of downtown Boston, there is no way to buy paper tickets in advance at many locations. Since passengers are allowed to buy tickets on board, conductors don’t penalize those who get on without paying — and the conductors become the ultimate gatekeeper for stopping fare evasion.

But the 362 conductors in charge of checking tickets sometimes don’t get to every customer because they are also performing inspections, assisting passengers, and checking doors and safety on the train.

That breeds a system in which some customers know they can risk not paying. Williams described the methods that some customers use, such as recording an image of a commuter rail ticket on a smartphone and flashing it to the conductor.

The $35 million estimate is a relatively hefty chunk of the commuter rail’s revenue, estimated at $215 million in the 2016 fiscal year.

“There’s a significant sum of money that’s been leaking from the system, and we need to plug that as a matter of urgency,” Williams said.

On commuter rail systems with similar rules, he said, 10 to 25 percent of revenue can go uncollected from riders. Joseph Aiello, chairman of the fiscal control board, called the number astounding.

Keolis officials say they are prepared to spend about $10 million on fare gates at North, South, and Back Bay stations that could help capture up to $24 million in lost revenue. But the company might attempt to split some of that additional revenue with the MBTA, an arrangement that would need to be negotiated.

Until such fare gates are approved, Keolis officials say they are encouraging riders to essentially help them catch fare evaders as well as conductors who aren’t doing their jobs. Witnesses to fare evasion can write to fareisfair@keoliscs.com.

Keolis will also complete some “blitzes” to catch riders who have not paid.

The MBTA also quantified estimated losses on the Green Line and buses for the first time. Because both systems make most of their stops above ground where there are no fare gates, they are more prone to fare evasion or uncollected fares.

On the Green Line, officials believe $1.3 million to $4.5 million is lost, based on recent studies by the Central Transportation Planning Staff, a regional planning organization, that show how many customers board the Green Line via the rear doors, which typically do not include a machine that can validate fares on tickets and monthly passes.

The Green Line collected about $99 million in fares in the 2015 fiscal year.

Using similar data, the T estimates that about $1 million to $2.4 million goes uncollected on buses, which accounted for about $102.6 million in revenue during the 2015 fiscal year.

Officials cautioned that the figures on the higher end would be true only if all the passengers who boarded through the rear doors don’t have monthly passes; the T believes it is more likely that about half have monthly passes and therefore aren’t evading fares.

Brian Kane, director of operations analysis, said the MBTA tried to cut down on fare evasion on the Green Line from April 2012 to July 2014 by allowing riders to enter only through the front door, as is done on most of the bus system. Though more revenue was collected, Kane said, it dramatically cut down on the quality of service, since passengers were taking much longer to board.

In addition, Kane said, the T completed evasion audits in cooperation with the Transit Police, whose officers hand out $100 fines if they catch people who haven’t paid. (The fine rises to $200 with a second offense and to $600 for a third.)

T officials said they are exploring other ways to cut down on Green Line fare evasion, such as placing new validators at the rear doors of the vehicles. The T estimates it loses millions in revenue partly because it allows customers to use all doors to board during peak periods, to avoid crowding and delays.

Kane said the authority also wants to propose a test program that would put contract employees out on the surface stops of the Green Line to validate fares.

But some control board members seemed wary of pouring more energy into such efforts when a new automated fare-collection system — one that the board wants to implement in two to three years — is on the horizon.

With the new system, people would be able to use all doors while boarding, because there would be validators on the rear doors.

“I’d like to use whatever resources we have to move that along as soon as possible,” said Monica Tibbits-Nutt, a board member.

Joe Pesaturo, a T spokesman, said officials are also evaluating how much is lost on other MBTA lines but chose to examine the Green Line first because it generated more fare- evasion complaints.


Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.