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Why adding more fare enforcement won’t do much to increase Metro Transit’s revenue

Courtesy of Metro Transit/Eric Wheeler

David Montgomery with the Pioneer Press has an article about a recent audit of fare skipping by light rail riders:

A recent audit conducted by the Met Council found around 3 percent of Blue Line riders and between 4.6 and 9 percent of Green Line riders were evading their fares. That adds up to between $800,000 and $1.5 million per year in lost money.

This created some outrage from a MN GOP rep:

Rep. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin, said during a Monday transportation bill discussion in a House committee meeting. “We have $1.5 million in taxpayers’ money that we’re being cheated out of.”

Let’s go with the absolute high end figure Rep. Uglem latched onto. I’m 100% confident that no level of fare enforcement or implementation of more rigid boarding systems would bring in anywhere near that kind of money.

The fallacy in his statement is assuming that every fare not collected actually would still exist under more rigid boarding/enforcement scenarios. It’s the same mistake the MPAA makes when they claim that every illegally downloaded movie should be treated as a lost DVD sale.

In the reality based community, it might be worth considering whether those fare skippers would have still taken the LRT if they had to pay the fare. I’m willing to bet that a significant portion of them would not, because they likely have little to no money. But, they still need to get to work, visit their family, or get to the grocery store.

So, we could dump a whole bunch of money into attempting to increase revenue generated from the LRT’s poorest riders.

In the end, Rep. Uglem could proudly state that he helped kick poor people off the trains. But, there’s little chance that he’d see the uptick of $1.5 million in annual revenue he claims can be recovered. A good example of why can be found in the same article:

The fare-dodging audit said that all mass transit systems, even those with turnstiles, saw at least 2 percent to 3 percent of riders avoid paying their fares.

If we take the average of the Blue and Green line fare skippers (6.8%), and put that up against the reality that people will skip fares even if expensive turnstiles are installed, it becomes pretty clear that the potential savings — even before reality checking that many people would simply stop riding — could be more like $235k–$440k/year.

The article also mentions:

Once installed, turnstiles would cost about $1.3 million per year to operate, he said.

Even ignoring the huge costs of retrofitting LRT stops to make life harder for poor people and less convenient for all transit riders, this seems like a colossal waste of money.

If the goal was to invest taxpayer money into increasing the amount of money generated by light rail trains, there are probably much better options such as increasing frequency. This would likely increase ridership among those who can and do pay.

Or — I know this is going to sound crazy, but we already do it for airline travelers — how about making the LRT free? We could save a ton of money on turnstiles and enforcement.

This post was written by Ed Kohler and originally published on The Deets. Follow Ed on Twitter: @edkohler.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/15/2015 - 07:04 pm.

    The geniuses who designed this boondoggle

    were told up front that if they wanted to build this thing to be a real, you know, transit system, and not an amusement park ride where kids get to ride for free, then they needed to be serious about how fares would be sold and collected. Those of us who have lived in places that have subways and such advised them to build a system that sold tokens that would be inserted into a slot that then released a floor-to-ceiling turnstile. Oh no, we were told, that won’t be necessary. This is Minnesota. We play by the rules here.

    Even if it cost $3 million a year to build and operate them, I’d do it anyway. Just on principle. If we’ve apparently already accepted that the taxpayers are going to lose money on this, then let’s at least lose money in a way that doesn’t make the taxpayers look like fools. Again.

    • Submitted by Ed Kohler on 04/16/2015 - 07:25 am.

      Achieving less with more.

      @Dennis, I suppose intentionally achieving less with more would be a good way to prove that government is wasteful.

  2. Submitted by Mary Gustafson on 04/16/2015 - 12:45 pm.

    Thank you

    for the logical and dispassionate response to all of the panicked, apocalyptic rhetoric about the “lost” (not) revenue.

    I think we should concentrate on the fact that 95% of the people riding the LRT lines are paying.

    But again, the idea that this is lost revenue is the same as believing that the $30 million that goes out the door from shoplifting would be recovered as revenue to stores if the stores could just prevent it.

    I appreciate you pointing this out.

  3. Submitted by Bill Mantis on 04/21/2015 - 11:11 am.

    A regular rider

    I take the light rail regularly and pay the fare willingly—almost enthusiastically—because I want the service to continue. If the poor/elderly want to sneak aboard without paying and risk apprehension, I will not judge them harshly. I think enforcement should be set at a cost-benefit level that prevents the light rail facility from becoming a free, heated/air-conditioned playground or homeless shelter, and no higher.

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