"Chief Investigator Tony Kovaleski updates a hidden camera investigation exposing how tax dollars are slipping through the tracks on VTAs light rail system. This story aired on July 28, 2012 "
The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority has made major changes to its operations following a series of NBC Bay Area News investigations that found problems with the management of VTA’s light rail.
After a two-year delay, riders can now buy light rail tickets with a credit or debit card. In addition, VTA is now cracking down on people trying to game the system and ride the rail for free.
During a recent interview with NBC Bay Area Chief Investigator Tony Kovaleski, VTA General Manager Michael Burns said that he welcomed scrutiny of the transit system and admitted that the reports “did increase the focus” on problems with the credit card readers and fare evasion.
In May, the Investigative Unit uncovered a culture of acceptance at VTA that produced the highest fare evasion rate in the region—7.2 percent.(See archive article here)
In June 2011, the fare evasion rate was as high as 10 percent, according to VTA’s own data. A review of VTA’s 2011 fare inspection records showed that fare inspectors were writing just four citations on average in an eight-hour shift.
NBC Bay Area staff members rode the light rail for 100 hours and 1,200 miles over the course of a month, and fare inspectors asked them to prove that they had paid for their rides just four times. Hidden cameras found passengers readily admitting that they didn’t buy tickets. Some passengers even bragged about running off of the train without getting caught when fare inspectors drew near.
In a subsequent report, the Investigative Unit found that two years and $6 million after the transit authority purchased credit and debit card readers, riders still could not buy tickets using their debit or credit cards.
VTA management signed a contract in August 2009 that started the process of upgrading the ticket vending machines to accept debit and credit cards. In 2010, VTA’s marketing department paid for signs on every machine that promised the debit and credit card option would be “coming soon.” Two years after those signs were posted the credit and debit card readers were still not functional. Burns said problems with software and difficulties in meeting credit card security standards were partially to blame for the holdup.
Following the two NBC Bay Area investigations, Burns sent a series of internal emails to VTA employees, including one that reads in part: “Let’s not let the recent focus…go by without learning something from it.” Another one reads: “We need all hands on deck to meet or exceed the August date”—a deadline Burns set to fix the VTA’s problems with the credit card machine.
Since the NBC Bay Area investigation, VTA has instituted nearly a dozen policy and procedure changes, allowing VTA to better manage taxpayer dollars.
The transit authority has hired four new fare inspectors, added new signage on light rail platforms and recorded announcements reminding riders to buy tickets before they hop on the train. The transit authority reports that the most recent fare evasion analysis shows more people are now paying to ride the light rail.
In recent weeks VTA also removed the “coming soon” signs, and after two years filled with delays the ticket vending machines now let people pay for tickets with debit or credit cards.
Following the NBC Bay Area investigations, Santa Clara County Supervisor and VTA Board Chairman Ken Yeager said he asked VTA to do a better job managing tax dollars.
“I think there hadn’t been as much focus on it as there should have been,” Yeager told Kovaleski.
When asked if he thought the problems were going to get fixed Yeager responded, “I do. And can we argue that VTA should have been doing it all along? But it certainly has been raised by you and it got VTA to say, ‘how can we do better?’”
Below is the initial investigation that sparked the changes: