Light-Rail Freeloaders Go Unnoticed by Ticket Inspectors; Numbers Don't Compute

Chatting the other day with Hillary Foose, spokeswoman for Metro Light Rail, we ran into a dead end of confounding numbers. Goes something like this:

The light-rail system has two sets of measurements for freeloaders: The average number of people not properly ticketed, according to ticket inspectors, and the amount of fares that pass-card holders should have paid. A major disparity in those numbers suggests the ticket inspection program isn't up to snuff.

As a May 26 article by light-rail reporter Sean Holstege explains, thousands of Valley employees receive subsidized fares by using transit pass cards handed out at their workplaces. Riders are supposed to tap the cards at a kiosk to register their boarding, which tells the employer how much to pay Metro. But riders haven't been tapping the cards like they should, meaning they're getting free rides.

When we asked Foose for the number of freeloaders based on ticket inspections, we were astonished at how low it was supposed to be.

Foose tells us the "fare evasion" average for March was a tiny .19 percent. But even that is getting better -- April's fare evasion rate was just .13 percent.

Metro's goal is to keep fare evasion below 3 percent, and those numbers show the system stays far below that goal.

Just a sec, though. In March, the number of estimated boardings made by transit pass holders who didn't tap in for the ride -- thus depriving the system of a fare -- was about 146,000. Employers have done a better job at reminding their workers how to use the system correctly, so that number dropped down to 107,000 in April, Foose says.

March and April's estimated ridership was 973,000 and 1,044,000, respectively. That makes for a fare evasion rate of 15 and 10 percent. For those of you keeping score at home, you'll note that estimated no-tap freeloader numbers are close to 100 times higher than the freeloader numbers recorded by ticket inspectors. 

Foose could not explain the discrepancy, noting that ticket inspectors use handheld electronic devices that should tell them if a transit pass card holder has tapped in for a boarding. The inspectors check the tickets of tens of thousands of passengers, making their statistical sample large enough to produce accurate estimates.

There's probably a simple explanation for all of this. But no one knows what it is yet.