No fare: More people are cheating the light rail's ticket honor system

The percentage of fare evaders has nearly doubled in two years.
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More people are riding the light rail without paying.

Fare evasion has nearly doubled across both of the Twin Cities' light rail lines in the past two years, a new audit on the Metro Transit's light rail found.

They estimate anywhere from 8.3 to 10.4 percent of riders over that time did not pay to get on. That's compared to an estimate from 2014 that put the rate of fare evaders between 3.4 and 4.7 percent.

Blue Line vs Green Line

The Blue Line, which runs from downtown Minneapolis to the airport and Mall of America, saw a "statistically significant" increase in the percent of passengers who are dodging the fare.

It's rate is between 7.6 and 11.8 percent, up from the 2.6 to 3.6 percent estimated in 2014.

As for the Green Line, which connects downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul, the percent of fare evaders rose from between 4.6 to 9 percent in 2014, up to between 8.4 and 10.8 percent in 2016.

But even though the figures are a little different, they're not far enough apart to assume the actual number of fare evaders has changed.

When people aren't paying

The audit also looks at when people are skipping out on paying their fare, and where.

For the Blue Line, fare evasion is more common on the weekend and during the middle of the day. Passengers are more likely to skip out on paying if they got on the train in downtown Minneapolis, or in Bloomington near the Mall of America.

The Green Line did see a "statistically significant increase" when it comes to when people weren't paying – the most common time for people to skip out on buying a ticket was during the afternoon peak. And most fare evasions happened between the Western and Snelling stations.

This audit didn't calculate how much revenue Metro Transit loses out on when passengers don't pay their fare, but an April 2015 fare compliance report found it loses out on between $15,849 and $28,343 every week for fare evasions on both lines.

How do we compare?

Fare evasion is expected for transit systems that use a "proof-of-payment" system – meaning people's fares aren't checked when they are getting on the train, but instead after they board (which is what Metro Transit Police officers do on the light rail).

This method is a lot less expensive than having turnstiles or other gate technology, and the audit says gates don't prevent fare evaders any better because people can just hop over them.

The fare evasion rate for cities with turnstiles is about 5-15 percent, which is pretty comparable to the 8.3 and 10.4 percent the audit found for the Twin Cities.

What's being done about it?

The reason for why more people aren't paying isn't clear – the audit didn't dig into that, but says it could be a combination of more relaxed penalties for first-time offenders, and/or increased patrols during the opening of the Green Line that impacted people deciding whether it was worth the risk to not pay.

But the audit has a few recommendations to enforce and fare evasions, including keeping track of how often people don't pay, and changing fare enforcement strategy when it makes sense.

Metro Transit Police said they'd appreciate help creating a program to better monitor how many passengers don't buy a ticket. The agency also said it continues to consider increasing the number of officers on trains and at stations, which has been shown to reduce the number of people who don't buy a ticket.

The audit will be presented to the Metropolitan Council's Audit Committee on Wednesday.

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