Sacramento light rail hiring 30 fare checkers to crack down on cheats

Sacramento police conduct 'blitz' to catch fare evaders on light rail

Sacramento police recently converged on light rail trains to check fares. Most of the time, though, there is nobody on trains making sure passengers have valid tickets. It has led to widespread fare evasion.
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Sacramento police recently converged on light rail trains to check fares. Most of the time, though, there is nobody on trains making sure passengers have valid tickets. It has led to widespread fare evasion.

Hoping to improve its light-rail train system before the downtown arena opens this fall, Sacramento Regional Transit announced Wednesday that it will hire 30 fare checkers this spring and have them patrolling most trains in the system by summer.

Fare evasion has been an ongoing problem at RT, which does not have turnstiles at its stations to keep out people who don’t pay. RT security officials say as many as 10 percent of light-rail riders do not buy tickets, and recently acknowledged that it is a serious problem that cuts into revenue at the financially struggling agency.

“People have come to believe they can get away with riding without fare,” said Sacramento police Capt. Norm Leong, RT’s security chief. “We need to change that culture.”

Leong said the 30 new fare checkers are expected to be hired next month, trained in May and working on trains by June. That gives RT three months of extra security on trains before an expected increase in ridership when the Golden 1 Center arena opens in downtown in late September.

We are hoping to eliminate that group of people that engages in nuisance behavior.

RT security chief Norm Leong

The goal, Leong said, is to dramatically increase the likelihood that train riders will be asked to show their ticket or pass on a daily basis.

“The majority of the trains will be covered every day,” he said, “and there will be times when every train will be covered.”

The entry-level job will pay $16.26 an hour with benefits. RT will post for applications on Thursday. The fare-checker program is a two-year pilot program. If it works out, Leong said, the agency will attempt to negotiate with the Amalgamated Transit Union to make it permanent.

Leong said the test program is revenue neutral for RT, partly because the agency expects to hire some existing private security guards as fare checkers from G4S, the company that provides security at light-rail stations, allowing RT to lower its annual G4S contract by $1.2 million. Those private guards currently are not allowed to check for fares because they do not work for RT.

Leong said the agency will look for people with good customer service and communications skills, and who have some experience working security or in enforcing rules.

“The philosophy is that they are there to make people feel safer and to provide good customer service,” Leong said. “We are hoping to eliminate that group of people that engages in nuisance behavior.”

RT General Manager Mike Wiley made the announcement Wednesday at the annual State of RT breakfast, where he emphasized the agency’s efforts to improve service and cleanliness this year.

“When the Golden 1 Center opens in six months, RT will be ready,” Wiley said.

The agency has struggled financially since the recession nearly 10 years ago, and has had to dip into its reserve fund the last two years to balance its budget.

RT officials are expected to propose fare increases at the Monday agency board meeting. Staff members recently proposed a 20 percent increase, to be instituted in July, but a majority of board members said they would reject that steep of an increase. Officials are expected to offer the board options Monday for lesser fare increases.

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

RT board Chairman Jay Schenirer, a Sacramento city councilman, said the beefed-up fare-checker program has board support. He applauded the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents drivers, train operators and transit officers, for agreeing to the pilot program.

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

A typical ticket for fare evasion is $150, when court and state fees are included.

A bill just introduced by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, would disallow RT and other transit agencies from issuing citations under the state Penal Code to riders under age 18. RT officials have expressed concern about the bill. Transit agencies could change their procedures, and fine juveniles under an administrative process, similar to a parking ticket.

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, Leong said. RT employs two dozen officers from the Sacramento Police Department, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department and the Folsom Police Department. Those officers have been required in recent years to help transit officers check tickets on trains.

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.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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