Bus riders who don’t pay cost the system, taxpayers more than $1 million last year

EVERETT — Nick Ludington knows the dance. He sees it often.

It’s a simple two-step.

The bus doors open. A prospective rider places one foot inside, leans forward, looks around, spots Ludington and steps back onto the curb.

Sometimes, he’ll see people who were sprinting to the bus freeze in their tracks when they see he’s on board.

It’s not that the clean-cut Everett native isn’t a friendly fellow. It’s just he has a job to do, and that’s making sure people pay their fares.

A whole lot of riders don’t. Roughly one in 10 Community Transit riders try to slip past by paying a partial fare or none at all.

The financial hit comes in thousands of seemingly inconsequential dribs and drabs — a dollar here, $2.25 there.

Add it all up and the Snohomish County-based transit agency was out an estimated $1.2 million in 2014.

In Seattle, a 2010 study of Metro buses estimated fare evasion at 4.8 percent of boardings.

It’s not that the Pacific Northwest is unique. It seems people cheat everywhere. Fare evasion costs taxpayer-subsidized public transportation agencies around the world hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

“Paying fares is very important,” said Virginia Miller, a spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association. “From the perspective of a national average, fares pay for about one-third of operating expenses.”

Ducking the tab happens on buses, trains and trolleys, in cities and suburbia, from Seattle to Stockholm.

“From the day that somebody decided you should collect a fare for a bus, someone else was trying to figure out how to ride for free,” said Tom Hingson, Everett Transit’s director.

A five-day check earlier this month found roughly 2.5 percent of Everett Transit riders dodging fares. That’s about $40,000 a year on the Everett bus system, where the 25 cent to $1 fares are among the lowest in the region. Fares cover about 10 percent of the operating budget, much less than most other public transit agencies.

Hingson has seen his share of creative evaders over the years as a former Metro and Community Transit bus driver and now as Everett Transit’s director.

As a bus driver in the 1980s, he found what seemed to be a black market network of people using expired transfers. They’d hold onto them for weeks until the color and letter on another transfer would match. He’d also see counterfeit passes and find metal slugs in the fare box.

“I think there are some people who enjoy the challenge,” Hingson said.

Every scam was countered, only to produce a different way to circumvent the system.

And then there’s the old rolled-up dollar trick. That’s when a rider cuts a dollar in two, curls half into what looks like a full dollar and stuffs it into the box while keeping the other half for use another day. Two rides for the price of one and the transit agency is out both fares.

At Everett Transit headquarters, there’s a world map. An employee marks each country whenever another useless coin lands in the fare box. In the last five years, coins from 43 countries — Austria and Australia to Sierra Leone and Zambia — have been plunked into the box. Every continent except Antarctica, which has no currency, is represented.

“It’s people putting in whatever they have in their pockets and calling it a fare,” Hingson said.

Ludington is what’s known as a Community Transit ambassador. CT had 8.7 million passenger boardings last year and an 8 percent jump in riders. It plans to ask voters in November to approve a 0.3 cent sales tax increase to help fund expanded services.

Ludington works on Swift buses, the agency’s highest-volume route up and down Highway 99. Last year, Swift had more than 1.5 million boardings. During that time, Ludington and two colleagues made 145,688 fare checks and found 15,310 Swift riders who had not paid full fare.

Between the ambassadors and Snohomish County sheriff’s office deputies assigned to the transit beat, roughly 5,700 warnings were handed out and 458 citations for fare evasion were issued in 2014 on CT buses.

The deputies, both in uniform and undercover, ride all routes across the county at one time or another.

Ludington’s beat on Swift is mainly a 17-mile stretch from Everett across the King County line. The buses run every 12 minutes from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays with less frequent stops after hours and weekends.

Swift riders pay their fares at each station beforehand by scanning their electronic ORCA cards or by feeding cash into a machine that rolls out a ticket. On other routes, people can swipe their ORCA cards or pay with cash when they pass by the driver.

Paying ahead speeds up the boarding time on Swift routes, which stop at each station for about 10 seconds.

With no fare box on the bus and three doors to enter, there’s an honor code to boarding that is often broken.

Hang out with Ludington for even a few minutes. It doesn’t take long to see people willing to roll the dice on their fares.

Leaving the Everett Station a couple of minutes into his shift the other day, Ludington approached a rider wearing a Seahawks jersey and his baseball cap backwards. He was sitting next to his girlfriend.

The rider with a healthy beard handed Ludington a youth ticket. The cheaper ticket saved him 75 cents.

The man, somewhat sheepishly and not very convincingly, said he got confused.

“Next time,” Ludington told him and the man nodded.

Ludington says “Next time” a lot. That, and “You better get off at the next stop.”

Ludington uses diplomacy and has a memory bank for names and faces. He doesn’t give tickets, but he does take notes, issue warnings, confer with transit police and add names to a database that identifies fare evaders. So far this year, there are about 2,000 entries in the database he keeps with his colleagues. Many are repeat offenders. Those names can be called up on a Smartphone spreadsheet if needed.

Typically, Ludington will stay on for a few stops, hop off and catch the next Swift bus 12 minutes later.

During a typical 10-hour shift, he’ll board at least two dozen buses, although he’s ridden as many as 38 buses during a 12-hour shift. The frequent flying can make him seem ubiquitous to evaders.

He and his co-workers boarded 56,344 buses in four years, checking 643,415 fares. During that time, they found 54,295 people not paying their way.

Many riders strike up conversations with Ludington as he makes his rounds.

A man with a black eye, green Notre Dame football jersey and tan cut-off jeans that reached below his knee caps wondered if Ludington would like being armed with a handgun while on the bus. A political science major in college, Ludington smiled, offered some tactful conversation but steered clear of the Second Amendment.

One thing he’s learned after nearly four years on the beat is not to assume who’s angling for free rides.

“I can’t pick out the people who haven’t paid,” he said. “You would be surprised.”

There have been people in suits and ties who haven’t paid and panhandlers who have.

A couple months back, there was a man with a $100 bill in his wallet but no ticket. He told Ludington he didn’t want to get change. Ludington thought to himself that would be a wonderful problem to have before telling the rider he should get off at the next stop.

Vicki Martinson of Marysville is a regular on the Swift route, taking the bus to and from her job in Mountlake Terrace. Her company pays part of the cost of her bus pass.

She’s glad someone keeps tabs on riders.

“I pay,” she said. “Why should they get to ride for free?”

There were times when Maxwell Kinsley didn’t always pay his fare, which, he said, made him feel like “a low-life bum.”

The Everett man in his late 40s now can catch the bus for free these days. He said he qualified for a pass because he has been diagnosed with mental health issues, including bipolar and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The bus, he said, is an important part of his life, getting him out and away from feeling like a hermit.

Some people simply are willing to gamble getting on a bus and spending their money on something else, say malt liquor, he said.

“They’ll think, ‘I won’t pay $2.25 for a bus when I could get two Steel Reserves,’” he said.

Brandon Taggart of Woodinville works in Bellevue and takes the bus to Everett for other business.

He watches people from a middle seat.

Sometimes he’ll look out the window when the bus stops at a station and guess who will pay and who will not. He watches for stragglers in the shadows who make a beeline for the back of the bus.

“It happens a lot,” he said. “It’s like a game they play. I think a lot of people just feel like they can get away with it.”

Some people wonder why bus drivers don’t kick people off. The bottom line is they are told not to risk arguments with riders. Often, they are driving without a deputy or transit employee on board. They might point out to a rider that they didn’t pay or even hand them a card that tells them they are risking a $124 fine, but they’re told not to take it any further.

The safety of the driver and riders isn’t worth the risk, said Martin Munguia, a CT spokesman.

“You never know what a person might be capable of,” he said.

In Washington D.C., the Metro Area Transit Authority reported last year that 78 bus drivers were assaulted. The offenses included being spat on, struck, punched and stabbed. Fare disputes were the primary cause. The same agency did a survey that found 90 percent of its customers supported enforcing fare collection.

Fare evasion is only a part of the transit police unit’s duties, said sheriff’s Sgt. Don Hart, who heads up the division under a contract with Community Transit.

Last year, transit police made more than 600 arrests on warrants and crimes. The deputies investigated cases that included assaults, robberies and vehicle thefts. They’ve taken people to a mental health triage center and they patrol 34 park-and-ride lots. They’re a frequent presence on buses.

Along with the CT ambassadors, the transit police are a buffer that allows bus drivers to concentrate on the road.

And their mere presence can send a message.

“The fare-evasion part is a small part of what they do,” Munguia said. “But it’s very symbolic when you have someone in a uniform asking if you have paid your fare.”

Fare dodgers can face escalating penalties: Warnings, fines, getting banned from the bus and being jailed for trespassing.

Hart, a five-year veteran of the transit beat, just doesn’t think its worth the gamble.

“It’s more likely sooner than later that you will be caught,” he said.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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