County exec suggests cameras to nab non-paying T riders
By Bill Vidonic
Published: Monday, June 11, 2012, 9:15 p.m.
Updated: Tuesday, June 12, 2012
The cash-hungry Port Authority could use cameras on T Line trains to identify and prosecute people skipping out on fares or to discipline drivers or supervisors who aren't collecting from riders, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said Monday.
The authority acknowledged that an unknown number of riders during the busy weekend Downtown likely didn't pay for their trips because collection booths were unstaffed or drivers were too busy to collect fares.
"We need to collect the money," said Fitzgerald, who has roundly criticized the authority's performance with the North Shore Connector in recent weeks. "It's being improved on. It's not perfect yet, but we're working on it," and the cameras could help.
The Port Authority said it can't afford to staff all of its fare-collection booths. But one critic said the agency should collect every nickel while it looks to slash service and plug a $64 million budget deficit.
"It doesn't make sense for an institution that's so hurting for money to be giving up a single fare," Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, said yesterday. Fares range from $2.25 to $4, but they're scheduled to rise by 25 cents to 50 cents on July 1.
Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said there's no evidence of widespread abuse of the system. He noted that light-rail ridership is up after the opening of the North Shore Connector.
"We've heard of situations like that happening," Ritchie said of the fare dodgers. "We're looking hard at ways to improve that. We want to collect fares, but from a rider convenience standpoint, if you're standing in line for an hour to pay a fare, no one is going to want to do that."
Since the North Shore Connector opened March 25, the authority has struggled with transporting large crowds in a timely way on the light-rail system. Because of major delays on the marathon weekend in May that triggered waves of complaints, Fitzgerald ordered the authority to make changes and threatened to clean house.
Ritchie said the authority didn't have rider numbers yesterday from the weekend, but added, "We're pretty sure it was one of the largest crowds we've moved on a non-weekday day." Events Saturday evening included the Three Rivers Arts Festival, a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game and a concert by rock artist Melissa Etheridge.
Fitzgerald said he was pleased with the authority's weekend performance and Ritchie said the agency didn't receive complaints of any major delays or problems.
Several organizations subsidize trips on the North Shore Connector, and rides are free Downtown from the North Side to the First Avenue Station. At Station Square heading toward the South Hills, riders have to pay.
But during peak hours or on busy weekends the number of riders makes it difficult to collect.
"Drivers should be making an attempt to collect fares even when it's busy," Ritchie said. He said Port Authority can't afford to staff all the collection booths in the system.
Ritchie said one of the solutions being considered is a "proof-of-payment system," in which a rider pays a fare off the vehicle and can be checked to ensure the fare is paid, or face a fine.
Haulk said it was a bad idea for the authority to offer free rides in the first place because it sends a bad message to other light rail riders.
"The Port Authority really needs to get its arms around this one and fast," Haulk, of the Castle Shannon-based policy group, said.
The authority is closing 13 light rail stops effective June 25. The authority will not close the Hampshire stop in Beechview after an appeal from local leaders who said the business community is served better by that stop. Instead, the Coast stop will close there.
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