NYC Turnstile Jumpers, Bus Fare Cheats Are Costing MTA $215 Million

(Bloomberg) -- Fare evaders on New York’s buses and subways are costing the cash-strapped Metropolitan Transportation Authority $215 million this year, a spike that transit officials say stems in part from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s announcement that he’ll end criminal charges against offenders.

“There is a correlation between that announcement being made and the decline” in fare collections, said Andy Byford, president of the New York Transit Authority, the MTA division that operates subways and buses. “The assumption is it’s always poor people. Quite often you find people who are well off and could have paid the fare.”

The MTA’s lost-revenue projection is double its 2015 estimate and adds to the financial woes gripping the nation’s biggest public-transit system. It comes after Vance announced in February that his office would decline to prosecute most subway turnstile jumpers, unless the offender posed a risk to public safety, in an effort to reduce costly and time-consuming arrests that predominantly affected minorities.

“Government entities should not rely on criminal prosecutions to collect fees or maintain fiscal solvency,” Vance spokesman Danny Frost said Monday in a prepared statement. “Restitution is not imposed and the MTA does not recoup the lost $2.75 fare.”

Byford, who after taking over in January began looking into how much revenue is lost from unpaid fares, said tougher enforcement stops violators expecting a free ride. “If the New York police department is going to come and arrest them I think that is going to become a big deterrent,” he said.

At a meeting of the MTA finance committee Monday, Byford said the agency lost $96 million in subway fares to evaders, and $119 million on buses, with a large number of them walking through the front door past the drivers, who have been instructed not to engage offenders to reduce the risk of getting assaulted. Fare evasion increased as enforcement actions began decreasing citywide in 2015, Byford said.

“We don’t encourage them to get involved because of the significant increase in assaults, and we’ve seen some egregious assaults on operators, all connected with trying to enforce the fare,” said Darryl Irick, the president of MTA Bus Company.

The lost revenue comes after years of inadequate funding and deferred maintenance have caused a crisis of delays, track fires and derailments that require both an immediate cash infusion and tens of billions of dollars in capital spending over the next decade, Byford has said.

The authority’s budget anticipates deficits of $510 million in 2020, $816 million in 2021 and $991 million in 2022, Robert Foran, the agency’s chief financial officer, said last month. Fare beating has contributed to as much as 50 percent of reduced revenue, Byford said Monday.

Uncollected revenue has increased by $110 million since 2015, when incidence of fare-beating behavior was less than 2 percent -- similar to other subway systems internationally, Byford said. Now it’s close to 4 percent on subways. Bus fare evasion, which averages about 3 percent elsewhere, spiked to about 13 percent for buses.

To combat the fare-beating, Byford said drivers should be equipped with a “dispute button” that could silently report the wrongdoer to police. Rather than immediately respond to the incident and cause delays for paying customers, the device could provide data to inform police about where and when fare-beating is most common so that officers could be deployed on those bus routes at specific times.

Byford told the MTA board that to save money, it was necessary to reduce headcount on the fare enforcement teams throughout the system while deploying them in a more efficient way based on where and when fare evasion is most common. Other agency actions include placing warning signs on buses and in subway stations, Byford said.

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