TX: With Inspectors in Place, Metro Ups Fare Warning

Feb. 14--In just more than a month as a fare inspector on Metro's Red Line, Toilicia Caldwell has heard some pretty good excuses for why people didn't pay to ride -- but one sticks out.

"He said, 'I got pushed on the train and the doors closed, and I could not get off,' " Caldwell said.

Caldwell assisted him, as she does many who hop aboard without a valid ticket, by telling him to get off at the next stop and pay. Though stiffer penalties are available, Metro and its fare inspectors are easing into a job that combines making sure people play by the rules and getting them where they need to go.

Seven new fare inspectors joined the Metropolitan Transit Authority's ranks in January, weeks after the agency opened its 5.3-mile extension of the Red Line. The inspectors, paired up with Metro police, are easily visible in bright yellow jackets and shoulder badges similar to a police uniform.

By the end of January, the new hires had already left a mark, issuing 3,079 warnings to riders for evading $1.25 fare payments. Metro police issued 74 citations during the month.

In December 2013, before the inspectors started work, 474 warnings and 68 tickets were issued.

Fare inspectors are focused now on warnings, awaiting final approval to issue tickets.

After some initial problems with passengers thinking the fare inspectors couldn't check for tickets, and some frequent freeloaders trying to evade them, inspectors said customers generally have learned to expect them.

"They have to make sure you're not stealing," said Dan Perry, who rides the train from classes at the University of Houston-Downtown. "I get it. I hand them the card, and I'm done."

Most of the time, riders have their Q cards or paper tickets at the ready, inspector Stacy Hart said.

"Everybody is usually OK with it," she said. "If you paid, it's no big deal."

If a passenger doesn't have proof of fare payment, the inspector or Metro police officer must decide how to respond. On a recent inspection, a man presented as proof of payment a card with no value remaining that had not been swiped for three days. Police opted to give him a ticket.

A rider who is issued a citation has the choice of contesting the ticket in municipal court or paying Metro a $75 administrative fee to quash the citation.

About 15% cheat

Transit officials estimate about 15 percent of riders evade fares -- higher than most other U.S. light rail systems, though non-payment estimates vary significantly. Restricting access to platforms would likely cost more than the agency would recoup in fares, Metro officials say.

Instead, as other transit agencies have done, Metro opted to add inspectors who also act as guides to help visitors and new riders navigate the system. Previously, Metro police handled all fare enforcement. State law was amended in 2013 to allow Metro to use non-deputized workers to issue citations or warnings for failure to pay.

Metro officials timed the new hires to coincide with the rail line expansion, hoping to put the inspectors in place as more people -- some new to Houston transit -- hop aboard. Hart said people often ask her for directions, advice on transferring to bus service and how to use the machines that dispense tickets at train platforms.

Riders also voice their complaints. On a recent trip, many lambasted Metro's policy of making train riders pay another fare to switch to bus service, arguing the transfers should be free and seamless.

Another eight inspectors will be hired by September, in advance of the Green Line (East) and Purple Line (Southeast) opening later this year.

Expecting more riders

With the extension and two new rail lines, officials predict rail ridership will increase significantly as bus riders shift to expanded rail routes and new riders opt for transit service.

The northern extension of the Red Line, from UH Downtown to the Northline Transit Center near Northline Commons, had higher-than-expected use in January, Metro officials said. The extension averaged 4,200 weekday boardings, or 62 percent more than the 2,600 riders officials expected.

With that growth, passengers learned quickly that Metro was paying more attention to enforcing fares, occasional rider Jasmine Ferguson said.

"Word got out they were doing more checks," Ferguson said.

Still, scofflaws remain. On a sweep of a northbound train on Thursday, Hart found three riders who had not paid. All three men got off at the next stop.

"It's OK. We'll hop the next one," one mumbled to another as they exited.

Copyright 2014 - Houston Chronicle

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