Sacramento RT draws red line against loiterers, fare cheats

Sacramento RT security chief explains decision to paint train stations red

Sacramento Regional Transit has created passenger-only zones in its light rail stations, using red paint to mark where the station starts. Passengers must possess a ticket to be within the red-marked zone.
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Sacramento Regional Transit has created passenger-only zones in its light rail stations, using red paint to mark where the station starts. Passengers must possess a ticket to be within the red-marked zone.

Sacramento’s transit agency is painting red lines around its light-rail stations – an effort to keep out fare cheats and loiterers without building walls and turnstiles.

Five stations now have red lines on the pavement, designating station boundaries. Guards have begun approaching people at those stations asking to see their tickets. Guards require those without tickets to buy one immediately at a ticket machine or leave the red-lined area.

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.

Security chief Norm Leong says it’s part of the cash-strapped agency’s effort to make stations feel safer and reduce the number of people boarding trains without paying.

Some light-rail stations suffer from loitering and bad behavior by people who have no intention of boarding trains, Leong said. Problems include occasional drug dealing.

“The goal is to get our fare inspections done in a ‘virtual closure’ space at our stations” rather than wait until people are on trains, said Leong, who has emerged as a creative force at RT as the agency works to improve performance, image, and customer service. “Our hope is that we get more fare compliance and less loitering and problems at our station platforms.”

New signs are going up at six test stations designating the area inside the red lines as a Paid Fare Zone where smoking, bike riding, skateboarding and open containers of alcohol are prohibited.

Fare evasion has emerged as one of the agency’s Achilles’ heels, reducing RT’s fare revenues, upsetting paying riders and giving the rail system and its stations the image of being uncontrolled and at times unsafe.

14 Number of robberies on Sacramento RT buses and trains so far this year.

22Number of robberies on Sacramento RT buses and trains in the same period of 2015

The transit agency will add 25 fare checkers this summer. They will join RT’s existing fare checkers, as well as the agency’s police force and contracted guards.

The initial red-line stations include three in the Central City: 12th Street in Alkali Flat, 16th Street, and Ninth and K streets. Zones also have been set up at Mather Field/Mills in Rancho Cordova, and at Arden/Del Paso in north Sacramento. The Broadway station also is being tested as a Paid Fare Zone, although red lines have not been painted there because the station boundaries are more obvious.

If the project works well, RT will paint red lines and put up signs at most of the rest of its stations, Leong said.

The effort is low-cost, Leong said. In fact, the red paint at the 16th Street station, done inexpensively during the rainy season, is already wearing away at spots.

RT doesn’t have much money to work with as it tries to improve its image. The agency’s budget has been in the red for the last two years, putting a strain on maintenance and security. In July, it will raise fares an average of 10 percent, an increase that will make some of RT’s passes and tickets among the most expensive in the country.

A group of downtown Sacramento downtown business leaders last year publicly called the agency out, telling RT it should improve customer service, upgrade its product, reduce fare evasion and increase security.

The group pointed to the opening this fall of Golden 1 Center downtown. The arrival of the new Kings arena is expected to prompt more people to give transit a try as they attend evening games or concerts downtown. But the business leaders said they worry these new riders could quickly get turned off if they have a bad experience.

RT has since contracted with several organizations and cities to increase power washing at some stations and bus stops. In the past month, it brought on Sacramento Steps Forward, the lead agency on homeless issues in the Sacramento region. One of the group’s “homeless navigators” now works daily on trains and around some light-rail stations, approaching homeless people and talking with them about finding housing and other services.

Our hope is that we get more fare compliance and less loitering and problems at our station platforms.

RT security chief Norm Leong

“We have people experience homelessness who ride light rail often, so it is a good place to start a conversation,” said Ryan Loofbourrow, Sacramento Steps Forward executive director. “The navigator is the front door to our system of care for services and housing.”

RT police say the number of thefts and robberies on buses and light-rail trains is dropping. There have been 14 robberies so far this calendar year, down from 22 for the same period in 2015, and 29 in 2014. Leong said police can never be certain what is behind changing crime numbers, but he said he believes some of it may stem from more follow-up work RT police are doing, using train cameras to identify suspects.

RT and local businesses have been talking about modest upgrades at some stations, as well as contracting for some food services and possibly even bringing in musicians to perform at stations to create a more communal feel.

Light-rail riders and others have at times questioned RT’s open station system, with no turnstiles or barriers to keep nonpaying people out. RT officials point out that light-rail systems in most cities have open stations. They are far less expensive and intrusive than closed systems with turnstiles, such as the Bay Area Rapid Transit, in which stations and lines are generally underground or elevated above city streets.

RT riders offered mixed opinions when asked about the red-line experiment. In order for the program to work, guards will have to proactively approach passengers before they get on trains, explain the rules and watch afterward to make sure the person buys a ticket or leaves the station. If a person refuses to comply, contract guards must call an RT police officer or a fare checker to issue a ticket.

“Good luck, especially during commuter time when semesters are in,” said Loreen Willenberg, among several riders who had not noticed the red lines on the pavement. “I think it is not going to be effective.”

Kammy Bhala said it sounds like it’s worth a try. “They need to get more people to pay.”

“It’s a lot cheaper than turnstiles,” she said. “I guess it puts a lot more responsibility on the guards. Not all stations have guards.”

On Friday, the first morning of enforcement at the 16th Street station, Leong said almost everyone whom guards approached had valid tickets. A few had passes that they had not yet validated. Some riders try to ride with unvalidated passes, if they think they are not going to be caught, Leong said.

Leong called the red lines an attempt to change the culture at stations. “We want to start that process of getting people to think of our stations requiring fares.”

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak