Getting a Free Ride ... from the Bus Fare Box
By Ibby Caputo
April 25, 2012
BOSTON — When it comes to chipping away at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority budget gap, every fare counts. "We do need to collect every single fare that is due us," said Jonathan Davis, acting general manager of the MBTA, in an April 24 interview.
As part of a new campaign, the T is cracking down on fare evaders: Plainclothed officials on the Green Line are issuing more tickets to people who try to ride for free. "What we want to be able to prove to our customers is that we are doing everything we can to make sure that everybody pays their fair share," Davis explained.
But as the T goes after freeloaders, some riders believe the T is losing money due to broken fare boxes.
The driver waves his hand over the box
Edward Clarke lives in Malden and rides the 105 bus. He brought up this issue at an MBTA public hearing in February.
"Two weeks ago I rode a bus that I ride every day back and forth from the senior center where I volunteer, and the meters aren’t working. Three days in a row," he said. "That same week coming home, same bus, meters not working, buses are jammed, people riding for nothing."
The fare boxes are meant to collect cash and coins and read Charlie Cards. But when they’re not working, Clarke said he’s seen the bus driver wave his hand over the box, indicating it’s broken, and everyone gets on without paying. He’s seen it happen on weekdays, when the bus is filled, and he’s heard the same story from other people who ride different buses.
"I don’t know how widespread it is, but it seems to me that it is pretty widespread," he concluded.
At the same public hearing in Malden, which was packed with angry riders facing service cuts and fare hikes, Davis addressed the crowd, saying he'd encountered the problem himself.
"I’m a daily bus rider, and over the past two weeks I have found the bus fare box on my bus not to work. So I called it in and they are now looking at all bus fare boxes to make sure they are working," he said.
According to the MBTA, the malfunctioning fare box Davis encountered was on the Route 326 bus from Medford Square to Haymarket. Despite his own experience, Davis said the problem was not widespread. But some frequent riders disagree.
"At least once or twice a week"
A few weeks later at the Senior Center in Malden, where Clarke volunteers, the cafeteria was packed before bingo. Clarke asked participants to raise their hands if they'd been on buses with broken meters. Several hands went up.
"I take the 99 bus every morning to go to work and the fare boxes never work," Janet O’Brien said.
Patricia Bainton takes the #106."The fare boxes are broken at least once or twice a week." When that happens, the drivers "just tell you to get on and sit down."
Dianne Colson, 75, also rides the #106. "It didn’t work at all yesterday," she said. "It wouldn’t take my money. It wouldn’t take my change. It just wasn’t working. He kept flagging everybody on. Coming home was the same way. So I drove home and back for nothing. It’s not something that I would do, but I couldn’t pay."
And Kerry Madola has taken the 105 bus when the fare boxes weren’t working. "He just waves us in, don’t even try," she said.
This group of seniors was clearly upset. They wondered: How can fares go up when the T’s not even collecting fares from all of its riders?
The scale of the problem
Lee Matsueda of the T Riders Union wants to know how widespread the problem is.
"People are saying, ‘Listen, we want to make sure that if we are being asked to pay more, then the T is doing everything it can, like it's trying to say it does, to make sure its system is running as efficiently as possible,'" he said.
In an interview with WGBH News, Davis said that over 1,000 fare boxes were in the system. "We do have occasional service issues with the fare boxes not working," he said. When that happens, "the bus drivers report that incident to the operation control center and we try and get it repaired as quickly as we can. It is equipment that is aging, first put into effect in 2007, but generally I think it is reliable."
The fare boxes, only 5 years old, were part of a massive $75 million project to upgrade the T’s fare collection system with automated equipment.
In 2009, only a few years after the new equipment was installed, a state audit (pdf) found that the T had spent more than $600,000 to repair its new equipment. The audit also stated that the manufacturer, Scheidt and Bachmann, had never developed a working fare box prior to its contract with the MBTA and that "the MBTA was paying S&B for the opportunity to create one."
Davis said he didn't know how much revenue is lost due to malfunctioning fare boxes. "It’s hard to estimate," he said.
It might not seem hard to estimate — if the system knows the typical ridership of a bus and how frequently the boxes break. But the X factor is how customers are paying, he said: "Without the fare box working, we don’t really know who is on that bus with a pass versus paying by cash." If a rider had a monthly pass, there would be no loss of revenue.
When asked if he considered it important to figure out how much revenue was lost to malfunctioning fare boxes, Davis said, "I think what is important is to make sure that we do collect all the fares that are due us. And we need to make sure the equipment is working properly."
The question of accountability
Although WGBH has been working on this story for months, Davis, just in this April 24 interview, said that he was looking for more answers.
"I did charge the engineering and maintenance group, yesterday, with a mission to go out and see what they can do to ramp up the preventative maintenance program so we can have all of our equipment working, all of the time," he said.
Someone else looking for answers is state auditor Suzanne Bump, who is a few months away from releasing her 2012 audit of the T’s automated fare collection system.
"People rightly are demanding accountability from the MBTA, as they are from all agencies of government, for the effective and efficient spending of their dollars," she said.
When asked if she thought the T was being accountable to taxpayers, Bump said, "I’m going to let my audit speak for itself."
Until then, the riders at the Malden Senior Center may have more stories to share.
> > READ: The 2009 audit noted that the winning fare box contractor got lower points for technical quality than its competitor. Download the audit (pdf).
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