Taxpayers paying for free loaders on METRO light rail

A critic of METRO says very little money is being collected from fares to pay for operating the light rail and taxpayers are the ones paying for it
February 5, 2014 2:06:32 AM PST
You may never ride Houston's light rail, but you're paying for it with your taxes.

Those who ride the rails are supposed to pay, but a 13 Undercover hidden camera investigation found that doesn't always happen.

Since light rail opened in 2004, METRO has carried more than 100 million passengers. But METRO has only collected just over $40 million in fares. That number should be a lot bigger considering a fare cost a $1.25.

So we went undercover to see if METRO is doing enough to make sure those on board are paying to ride the rails. Most mornings and evenings METRO's light rail is bustling with riders, but are they all paying to ride?

It didn't take long to find out.

"Do you have to pay to ride these trains?" we asked.

"You're supposed to but I ride for free," said a passenger.

That passenger even has a card to pay, but says she won't be using it.

"I've got a Q-card but I'm just going to get on here and get off down there," she said.

And here's what other riders told us.

"I ain't got no fare, you wouldn't be the only one," said another passenger.

Another guy even tells us how he avoids METRO police when he hasn't paid his fare.

"I look out for them, they got on the train, I just get off the next stop," said this passenger.

And they're not the only ones who don't always pay up.

"We get a lot of criticism, be very up front, about people that don't think that people are paying their fares," said Lambert

METRO says about 15 percent of riders don't pay.

"Do you do enough to crack down on people who ride for free," we asked.

"I think we can always do more. And I will say right now we're working with our police chief and police department right now that they're going to come up with a different deployment strategy," said METRO's CEO Tom Lambert.

That new strategy includes these newly deployed fare inspectors.

Up to fifteen will now be working the rails, reminding riders to pay up for the first few months.

Then they'll start issuing citation, just like a METRO police officer.

We recently rode along with METRO cops working fare enforcement.

Nate Whitehead and his girlfriend Jasmine Camilo are each getting violations for not paying.

Violation tickets will run them $75 a piece in municipal court.

"We did tap. We weren't paying attention, so the cards must have run out," said Whitehead.

METRO records show from 2011 until last October, METRO police wrote 14,583 tickets and 3,468 warnings to those on board who did not buy a ticket.

But Bill King, a critic of METRO, says it's just too easy for freeloaders because of METRO's decision to use open platforms.

"It's easy control access if you're at a different horizontal plane, if you're going down into a tunnel or up on a platform that's a place to capture people and make they're paying to get into the system," King said. "But where you've got an open platform on a city street, anybody can walk up to the platform and get on; it's very difficult to enforce the fares."

And King says that also means, very little money is collected from fares to pay for operating the city's light rail.

"What do you say to taxpayers who say you know what, 'I don't want to subsidies this?' It needs to be funded by ridership. There shouldn't be this big disparity between ridership and fares," we asked.

"The reality is, every form of transportation is subsidized," Lambert said.

Another problem, even when riders want to pay, sometimes they can't use the ticket machines.

"There are some consistently malfunctioning, it will say encode error," said Whitehead.

METRO records we obtained show since 2011, ticket machines have been out of service more than 4,000 times.

The Transit Authority say repairs are typically done within 40 minutes. METRO is automatically alerted when there is a malfunction.

But whatever the reason for some riders pay up, others who do are happy to see something being done to make free loaders pay their fair share.

"I'm glad they're patrolling. Because I too believe people too should be paying what their required to pay," said retiree Annis Cox.

Since so little money is raised from fares, METRO critic bill king suggest METRO eliminate should allow everyone to ride for free to increase ridership.

But the Transit Authority says it won't do that.

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