Freeloaders on board: Can Sacramento tackle its train problem?

Anyone can just walk onto a Sacramento light-rail train. There are no turnstiles at the stations, no ticket checkers at train doors.

Hundreds of fare cheats play “catch me if you can” on Sacramento Regional Transit trains every day. If they see a transit officer on board, they hop off and take the next train. Fare evasion is RT’s long-standing Achilles heel, costing the agency money, angering riders and discouraging potential customers who feel uncomfortable riding with rule breakers.

“It’s irritating,” said regular rider John Holland. He’s among those who say they go weeks without seeing a fare checker. “I paid for my fare. It always struck me that they don’t check more fares. It’s outright silly not to check fares.”

After downplaying the issue for years, transit officials acknowledge they have a problem that needs fixing. RT security chief Norm Leong and General Manager Mike Wiley say they hope this summer to launch what could be the biggest crackdown on fare cheats in the system’s near 30-year history.

“The system of fare inspection is broken,” Leong said. “People have come to believe they can get away with riding without fare. We need to change that culture.”

The plan would involve hiring 30 additional people to do fare inspections and having them on trains by summer. Leong said that would allow the agency to check fares on almost every train. “People will get checked just about every ride,” Leong said. “I think that is a game changer for us.”

RT currently has only nine transit officers, also known as fare checkers, and their presence on trains is sporadic. For a while last year, RT says its crews were checking 16 percent of passengers. But that number dropped below 10 percent in several recent months, RT data show.

How bad is fare evasion? RT officials say they can only estimate. Leong said the number may range between 5 and 10 percent of riders. Some riders say they think the figure is much higher, especially on evening and other non-commuter hour trains, although most agree it is hard to tell for sure who has a ticket.

RT board Chairman Jay Schenirer, a Sacramento city councilman, agrees the transit agency needs intervention to reduce fare evasion. Paid ridership is down, the agency is in the red, and community leaders are pushing RT to improve cleanliness and security before the downtown arena opens in the fall.

“We want to do this as soon as possible,” Schenirer said. “It’s critical. We need to increase revenues rather than raise fares. We (will then) make the system safer and more attractive.”

The trick is to do it without costing RT more money, officials said. RT wants to create a new job classification that will allow it to hire the new fare checkers at lower salaries. The agency will need the cooperation of the local Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents drivers, train operators and transit officers.

RT officials have asked union leaders to agree to the new job classification on a test basis this year. If it works out, the agency would like to make it permanent next year when the current union contract ends and a new one is negotiated. The union has not yet agreed, but ATU local President Ralph Niz said RT needs to improve safety for drivers, operators and riders.

“People have to feel safe to ride,” he said. “Something like that would help.”

RT General Manager Wiley said the agency would likely reduce the number of private security guards at stations and hire some of them at a slight pay bump for the new RT fare checker job. Private security guards are not allowed to issue citations. The change would give some of those now working for private security firms a chance to get an entry level job with the agency then move up to better paying RT jobs later.

RT officials also are talking about a change in the way fare checkers will deal with nonpaying passengers. Currently, transit officers issue standard $35 tickets. State court fees and charges pump the actual ticket cost up to $150. Most of that money goes to the state, not RT, local officials say.

Leong said the agency has begun to look into whether its fare checkers can give nonpaying riders the option to avoid the $150 ticket by paying RT a fee on the spot when they are caught – possibly $18, which is triple the cost of a daily pass. The entire amount would go to RT. The passenger would receive a daily pass. That program may require RT to buy electronic fare payment devices, however, so that fare checkers will not have to deal in cash with customers.

The proposed plan to hire fare checkers would mean RT’s main law enforcement group can get back to spending more time working on crime response. RT employs two dozen officers from the Sacramento Police Department, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department and Folsom Police Department. Those officers have been required in recent years to help transit officers with some ticket checking on trains.

The officers still would participate in regular “fare evasion blitzes,” where officers and fare checkers congregate at one station to check tickets for everyone on board several trains in a row. Fare blitzes continue to be one of the agency’s best weapons against freeloading passengers.

RT employees checked the fares of 775 passengers during an hourlong blitz at the Broadway station two weeks ago. They issued 52 citations to riders who didn’t have a ticket or pass.

One of the riders ticketed that day told The Bee he was a student at Sacramento City College and was headed to the school to get his pass. Another said he was an employee at a midtown restaurant and didn’t have time to validate his daily ticket because he was late to work. RT officials say they hear such excuses repeatedly. They usually cite, but not always.

A man getting off the train at the 65th Street station during a recent blitz told officers he had tried to buy a ticket at the previous station, but the fare machine was broken. Officers determined his story was true and allowed him to buy a ticket when he exited the train.

RT’s “open” station light-rail system was built in the mid-1980s on a shoestring budget. Officials said Sacramento could not afford to build a gated system, which would have been far more expensive. It’s a typical setup for a light-rail system – one shared by Portland, Ore. Officials there told The Bee via email that an estimated 8 percent to 10 percent of Portland train riders get on without paying. Portland riders also complain about fare evaders, according to news reports.

In contrast, “medium rail” systems such as BART in the Bay Area are separated from city streets and have turnstiles at their entrances. Longer distance, or “heavy rail” systems, such as Amtrak, have conductors on every train checking tickets at the beginning of the ride.

RT riders complain about loiterers at stations. In response, the RT board recently gave fare checkers and transit police the right to exclude anyone from the station area who does not have a ticket or pass in hand. RT crews are painting red lines on the pavement at the outer edges of light-rail stations. The agency plans to put signs up telling people they cannot loiter inside the red line if they do not have a ticket. If they refuse to leave, they can be cited.

“We think a ‘virtual’ closure of our stations is a secondary layer that will make people feel people have a fare,” Leong said. “A guard and staff can point, and say that is where the line is.”

The RT plan to bring on 30 lower-paid fare checkers prompts the question of how well those employees can handle a tough job. Transit officer Jim Farrall, a fare-checking transit officer for 10 years, said he likes his job, especially the aspects that involve helping riders, but he says confronting unticketed passengers every day can be tough.

“If you’re not a people person, you’re definitely going to have a hard time, and if you are a people person, you’ll still have a little rough time,” he said.

At a recent blitz at the 65th Street station, Farrall and other transit officers ran into several unticketed passengers who became indignant and confrontational when caught. One woman tried to slip away and had to be ordered to stop by an officer.

“Why you arresting me?” she shouted in front of other passengers.

“We’re not arresting you,” you’re being cited, a transit officer said.

“Same s---,” she said.

Leong, RT’s security chief, acknowledged the fare-checking job can be difficult and cause burnout, but he said he thinks entry-level employees can use it as a career steppingstone.

RT officials said they hope the proposed program will lead to increased fare payment and more revenue. But the main goal is to reduce nuisance behavior on trains, making paying passengers feel more comfortable and attracting new passengers.

“When we get to the point when we can robustly check for fare, it’s our hope some of the people who cause some of the feelings of an unsafe system and create some of the nuisance behavior are eliminated,” Leong said. “It is not just about revenue for RT, but rather trying to create a system where people feel safer.”

Jeffrey Callison is among many riders who take the train during commute hours and say they don’t feel uneasy on board. But he said he recognizes the need for RT to improve service and improve its financial position.

“I don’t see that people riding Sacramento light rail without tickets necessarily makes the trains more dangerous,” he said, “but it probably makes it more likely that other people will also choose to ride without tickets, and that loss of revenue undermines the quality of the system for everyone.”

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak