PA: COLTS Acts on Phantom Ridership Probe

Aug. 20--The County of Lackawanna Transit System will move quickly to get to the bottom of its phantom riders issue.

Meeting for the first time since the state Department of Transportation ordered the agency to repay $5.7 million for inflating senior ridership figures, the COLTS board Tuesday authorized solicitor Timothy Hinton to find a firm to conduct an independent investigation.

Mr. Hinton said he hoped to identify an appropriate company within 10 days. Once he is ready to make a recommendation, he will ask the board to meet in a special session to approve its hiring.

"We do want to find out how this happened and whether we are doing everything possible to make certain it doesn't happen again," he said.

A PennDOT review found COLTS overstated the number of senior citizens who rode its buses by hundreds of thousands of passengers annually over a six-year period beginning in 2005-06. It notified the bus system Aug. 5 that it must repay $5.7 million in state operating subsidies and will forfeit another $771,000 in capital improvement funds.

The COLTS board voted unanimously with no discussion to authorize Mr. Hinton to act to retain an independent firm to perform the investigation.

The solicitor said the agency is looking for a law firm, certified public accountant or consultant experienced in forensic investigations with no potential conflicts of interest "either through the county or through COLTS." He has already been in touch with a number of prospects.

In addition to determining how the inflated ridership numbers came about, the firm will look into the revised figures PennDOT came up with, he said.

Beyond that, the firm will have broad latitude in the direction of the investigation, Mr. Hinton said.

"We are going to kind of let them say what they want to review," he said. "We don't want to set all the parameters for them."

PennDOT has said it will recoup the overpayment to COLTS by reducing the bus system's operating subsidy by $1.9 million annually for three years.

COLTS Executive Director Robert Fiume said PennDOT will consider allowing the agency to spread the repayment out over a longer term, but there is not yet an agreement.

Contact the writer:

dsingleton@timesshamrock.com

Copyright 2014 - The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa.

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