July 20--In the year since Neil McFarlane took the wheel of Oregon's largest transit agency, he has heard the same gripe over and over again from riders: When is he going to crack down on fare cheats?
Apparently, he has an answer.
TriMet's general manager is expected to announce today that the agency will make a major shift "from education to enforcement" when it comes to people who ride without paying.
After last year's deep cuts to fare-inspection operations, the agency's newly adopted budget includes $580,000 to hire six new supervisors to better enforce the rules on trains and buses.
McFarlane could not be reached for comment. But Mary Fetsch, a TriMet spokeswoman, said that the general manager "has regularly heard concerns from folks around the region about collecting revenue from riders."
The base fine for fare evasion is $175. The crackdown, which will be announced at press conference outside Jeld-Wen Field this morning, is a reversal for an agency that just a few months ago said it preferred to give freeloaders a slap on the wrist.
Earlier this year, The Oregonian showed how TriMet, despite a budget crisis and a spike in crime on the system, was getting increasingly lax with fare cheats on MAX.
In 2010, as the agency struggled with a $27 million shortfall, inspectors gave 20,139 verbal warnings to people caught without paid fare while issuing just 5,102 citations, according to TriMet records. The year before, they gave out 6,027 citations and issued about the same number of warnings, 20,154.
Inspectors also issued fewer bans, or "exclusions," to trouble-prone riders last year -- 3,319 compared with 3,816 in 2009.
On buses, TriMet doesn't require drivers to enforce fares, which might lead to confrontations. Rather, they are trained to push a dashboard button to help the agency keep track of where hundreds of no-pay riders a week board.
A year ago, Oregon's largest transit agency had 30 staff members dedicated to going after fare evaders while deterring troublemakers on trains and station platforms. After last fall's cutbacks, however, there were only seven.
Rail supervisors were supposed to dedicate one-hour per shift to checking fares, but The Oregonian found that they often had no time to do so because of other duties.
During a TriMet board meeting in June, McFarlane said research showed fare evasion on the increase. He told the board it was time to get tougher.
Concerned by a 14 percent jump in crime on MAX, Shelly Lomax, the agency's chief operations executive, said that the agency had "started to look into whether TriMet went too far" with taking fare inspectors off the lines to avoid further service cuts.
At the time of The Oregonian story, however, Lomax said she didn't expect TriMet to change its philosophy. She insisted that warnings are "an important tool" for inspectors on trains, saying not everyone caught without a valid fare should get slapped with a fine.
She did not return phone calls seeking comment on her boss' change in philosophy.
TriMet officials have insisted that fare evasion isn't a huge drain on revenue. Even with the staffing cuts, Fetsch said TriMet's estimated rate of riders riding without fares is in line with the "industry standard" of 8 to 9 percent.
At the Lloyd Center MAX station Tuesday afternoon, riders waiting on the train platforms expressed frustration that TriMet has been so lenient with freeloaders. Many couldn't remember the last time they saw a fare inspector on a train. Others hoped the new enforcement push would scare away unruly riders and crime.
"About time they cracked down," said Pearl District resident Steve Roberts, flashing two thumbs up. "If you're going to ride, you need to follow the rules. I wish they'd do the same thing with the Portland Streetcar."
-- Joseph Rose
Copyright 2011 - The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.