With MARTA's tall Breeze Card fare gates, there's no turnstile to jump. MARTA did some surveillance to study the enemy's maneuvers, which is gumming up MARTA's planning for distance-based fares. (Video by Ryon Horne and Ariel Hart)

MARTA fare dodging down but still costly

Colin Harris agrees MARTA fare dodging is a problem. He even admits to past transgressions himself.

“I’ve done it before,” said the 24-year-old Georgia State University film student. “I’ll try and get a free ride.”

MARTA loses $3.35 million a year to cheaters on buses and trains, according to a study recently completed by the transit agency. That may be small change in its $427 million operating budget, but it could have a big impact.

To put the amount in perspective, it would cost approximately $2 million annually to reduce wait times at rail stations from 15 minutes to 10 minutes. That five-minute reduction could be a key to attracting more riders, according to Rich Krisak, the chief operating officer.

And making the agency fiscally sound, in reality and perception, is of paramount importance to General Manager Keith Parker, who is trying to build confidence with the public and the legislature.

Fare dodging to transit is what shoplifting is to retail: a costly crime that can be reduced but not eliminated. And the cost of prevention eventually could outweigh the loss. The money lost to fare theft is harder to calculate than shoplifting. MARTA made estimates based on observing the acts at rail stations and bus stops.

“Many of the complaints we got were from riders who said, ‘These people are cheating,’” said Ken Gregor, a former MARTA general manager and board member. “There were a lot of shots in the dark in terms of estimates about how much they were losing.”

Seven years ago, MARTA replaced an aging turnstile system at rail stations with barrier gates to hamstring cheaters. Now gates open when paying customers tap their Breeze card on the entry pad. But artful dodgers can get past the gate by closely following someone else in or manipulating the gate. Most entry points are unmonitored by police or staff.

David Emory has felt fare dodgers on his back, figuratively and nearly literally, and he said they rub paying customers the wrong way.

“I’ll sometimes feel people sneaking in behind me,” said Emory, who heads Citizens for Better Transit. “I know MARTA has the ability to crack down on this. I just don’t see it happening.”

That may be about to change.

Parker, the general manager, has formed a task force to study possible solutions — more cops or station agents, even faster closing gates.

Stopping some free rides could be as simple as locking the doors.

More than two-thirds of the estimated loss — 6.6 percent — comes from buses, not trains. Parker explained that the bulk of the cheaters simply board the buses when the driver is taking a mandatory break.

“They get on the bus, and, when the driver comes back, they say they tapped in,” said Parker. “There is nothing he can do.”

MARTA may start forcing passengers to wait outside the bus when drivers are absent, although there is some fear of backlash from the patrons forced to wait in the heat or rain.

“Under these economic constraints, we are looking at everything we can do,” said Carol Smith, MARTA director of research and analysis. Smith oversaw the fare-evasion study.

How MARTA compares to other transit stations is hard to measure because the statistics are often apples and oranges, said Tom Larwin, former general manager of the San Diego transit agency. Larwin oversaw a national study of honor-based, non-barrier systems last year. The systems require patrons to maintain proof of payment if asked. Those systems had an average evasion rate of about 3 percent, Larwin said.

MARTA has nearly a 2 percent overall fare-evasion rate during the week on rail alone. The Dome-GWCC-Philips Arena-CNN station — had a rate of 8 percent, while Lindbergh’s rate was nearly 4 percent.

It’s a hard problem to eliminate, Larwin said. “You are going to spend a lot of money on gates and enforcement and you still have fare evasion,” he said. “You can’t just get rid of that element of our society. Some people are out of jobs or have youthful vigor and want to beat the system.”

MARTA spent $120 million to replace its old turnstile system with 6-foot electronic gates that were supposed to virtually eliminate fare dodging that MARTA officials then estimated was costing $10 million a year.

Before the breeze system, dodgers easily hopped over turnstiles. Moreover, cheaters could enter the rail stations through the handicap-entrance gates.

Two years ago, MARTA tried to eliminate more fare dodging by speeding up the fare gates to curb piggybacking and recalibrating the handicap gates so customers have to use breeze cards to enter. Parker said he may crack down on those who continue to find a way to ride for free. The study noted that transit stations without police or station agents, such as high-volume Georgia State, or ones with multiple entrances, such as high-volume Lindbergh, had the most fare leakage. Only 17 stations have station agents.

A small percentage of free rides is caused by malfunctioning fare boxes or because a driver waves a rider through when it takes the person too long to find money to pay the fare.

“Our system takes pennies,”Smith said “There are times when the patron might have truly 250 pennies.”

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