Your tax dollars built the Santa Clara County Valley Transportation Authority’s light rail system. But the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit’s hidden cameras expose a culture where many riders game the system and avoid paying to ride. Our investigation found that by all indications, VTA has ignored a system failure and has chosen not to fix a problem that’s costing the transit agency more than a million dollars each year.
The 42 mile light rail system was paid for with state and federal grants, and local tax dollars. One penny out of every dollar spent in Santa Clara county adds up to $172 million for the light rail each year. The money is used to significantly lower the cost of tickets for more than 10 million riders each year.
“We are a heavily subsidized operation,” VTA General Manager Michael Burns told NBC Bay Area Chief Investigator Tony Kovaleski.
“Are you confident you are managing those tax dollars the way most taxpayers would want?” Kovaleski asked Burns.
“Yes,” Burns responded.
Burns added that VTA’s light rail, which requires riders to prove that they have paid their fare, is based on a premise that people are honest.
But our cameras found many VTA passengers honestly admitting that they bypass the ticket machine, and board the train without paying for their rides.
During the past two months, a half dozen NBC Bay Area staff members spent 100 hours riding the light rail. Our investigation covered more than 1,200 miles of track, from Santa Teresa to Alum Rock and downtown Mountain View to Winchester. We rode on 22 different days, every day of the week, and tested in the early morning, during midday and late at night. Rider after rider told our hidden cameras that they just don’t buy tickets.
“I usually ride without one,” one man told our hidden cameras.
Our producer asked him if he’d ever gotten caught.
“Nope,” he said.
“Did you ride without paying?” Kovaleski asked another rider.
“Yeah,” the man responded. “Of course.”
One regular passenger even advised Kovaleski not to buy a ticket.
“They don’t usually check at night so I don’t think you should get one,” he said.
Another frequent rider told our hidden cameras on that day he had taken the light rail for three hours between the Santa Teresa station and downtown San Jose.
“But they never check after Diridon to this way,” he said. “They never check it and I have been sitting next to a security guard.”
The man went to on say, “I’ve taken it like ten years and gotten checked like three or four times.”
“Really?” Kovaleski asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “So I don’t even buy them anymore.”
Our hidden cameras quickly found “experts”—regular riders experienced in gaming VTA’s light rail system.
“What’s good is the Clipper card,” one woman said. “I put $20 on it just to keep it, but I don’t always click it.”
By not scanning her Clipper card when inspectors don’t check it, she rides for free.
“All you have to do is show them your Clipper card and say, ‘I use the Clipper card,’” she said.
Burns said fare inspectors do have the ability to electronically check whether riders have clicked their Clipper cards.
Many light rail riders even coached us on how to avoid the fare inspectors and get away without paying for their trips.
One man said, “If you stop at a stop and they get on and you see them, you just get off.”
Another rider told us what she does when fare inspectors come around and she doesn’t have a ticket.
“You see the fare inspectors get on,” she said, “stand in the rear of the door next to the nearest exit and get out.”
“Just get out?” an NBC producer asked her.
“That’s what I did,” she said.
A group of girls told our cameras that it’s easy to dodge the fare inspectors.
“If you see them and you walk off, they don’t check it,” one girl said.
Her friend gave another piece of advice: “They try to get your ticket, just run. Just run. That’s it.”
Our review of VTA’s fare inspection records raises questions about the impact of its fare inspectors. We analyzed the number of citations 11 fare inspectors wrote to fare evaders in 2011, and found that on average they are each checking only 24 tickets per hour and writing just four citations on average in an eight-hour shift.
Many riders told us that they rarely see fare inspectors on the light rail.
“Barely like once or twice a month,” one rider said.
Another passenger told our hidden cameras, “I never see them over here going toward Mountain View. I just don’t see them.”
Riders frequently compared the fare inspectors on VTA’s trains to those who work on Caltrain, which is also a proof-of-payment based rail system.
“Caltrain you buy a ticket, similar thing,” one man said. “You pay, you buy a ticket before you get on.”
He told our hidden cameras that on Caltrain he would always see fare inspectors walking through the train to check tickets.
“But here I’ve never seen it,” he said, referring to the VTA light rail.
Over the course of our investigation we ran into a fare inspector who told us how many citations she wrote on that day.
“How many hours have you worked today?” Kovaleski asked the fare inspector.
“Eight hours,” she said.
“Oh, you’ve already worked eight?” Kovaleski asked. “So you’re done. How many tickets?”
“Two,” the fare inspector said.
“Two tickets?” Kovaleski asked.
“Two too many,” the fare inspector replied.
And our analysis of VTA’s fare inspection records found that when inspectors identify a fare evader, 70 percent of the time they do not issue a citation. Instead, they opt for only a warning.
It is a culture that leaves VTA with the highest fare evasion rate in the region. San Francisco Muni's fare evasion rate is 2.8 percent. In San Diego, its 2.5 percent. In Sacramento, it’s 1.7 percent. And on Caltrain the fare evasion rate is a tenth of a percent.
The fare evasion rate on VTA’s light rail system is 7.2 percent. We averaged the fare evasion rate each month for the most recent twelve months provided to us by the transit agency. In June 2011, the fare evasion rate was as high as 10.6 percent. Our analysis shows that at VTA’s current rate of fare evasion, the agency allows more than one million dollars in free rides each year.
We took the results of our hidden camera investigation to two Bay Area transit watchdog groups and asked them to comment on what we found.
“Should taxpayers be outraged by what we saw?” Kovaleski asked TransForm South Bay transit advocate Chris Lepe.
“I would be concerned,” Lepe said. “They should be concerned.”
“By all indications, VTA’s management has ignored this problem for a long time,” Kovaleski said. “You are a watchdog group. What are you calling for?”
“I think it would be great if the agency actually did something about this situation,” Lepe said.
Andy Chow, president of the Bay Rail Alliance told us he believes that VTA’s high evasion rate has to do with a culture within the agency.
“I think they just think they are getting money from the sales taxes (like) they have all these years,” Chow said. “They think it’s not important and that they can let it slide.”
He continued, “VTA needs to get serious about checking fares. And I think it needs to be accountable to taxpayers that you don’t have a system that you don’t encourage fare evaders and that the system is safe and secure.”
“Who should take responsibility?” Kovaleski asked.
“I think the General Manager needs to be focusing on that issue,” Chow said.
When Kovaleski sat down with Burns he questioned him about the high rate of fare evasion on VTA’s light rail.
“You are running a system that has a fare evasion rate of 7.2 percent,” he said. “Is that acceptable?”
“It is not acceptable,” Burns said. “We are working to get that rate down.”
“It appears this fare evasion problem is not a priority here,” Kovaleski said.
“Well it is one of the priorities,” Burns responded. “It is a priority.”
“With all due respect,” Kovaleski said, “your numbers show it’s not a priority.”
“I disagree with you,” Burns said.
Kovaleski then said, “But your numbers show you are the worst in the region.”
“What does that mean?” Burns answered.
“It means you are not managing the tax dollars,” Kovaleski said.
“I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion,” Burns said.
Our investigation raises questions about priority, in part, because after a six NBC Bay Area staff members rode 100 hours, during 22 different days for more than 1,200 miles, VTA’s fare inspectors only asked us to prove we purchased tickets four times.
“What does that say about VTA and its fare inspector program?” Kovaleski asked Lepe.
“Well, one of several things,” Lepe said. “Either their fare inspectors aren’t doing a good enough job, or there aren’t enough inspectors out there checking transit riders.”
Kovaleski asked Burns if he thinks VTA should change its culture.
“I think riders should expect that they are going to be checked,” Burns said.
“That’s not a reality on VTA,” Kovaleski said.
“That’s what I would expect,” Burns said, “that riders think they are going to be checked and that they pay there fare."
“And you recognize your culture has not created that expectation,” Kovaleski said.
“I recognize that our fare evasion rate is higher than it should be,” Burns said. “Yes.”
“Taxpayers want to know if you are going to take this information and fix the problem?” Kovaleski asked. “Can you say that?”
Burns responded, “I can say absolutely that we will do everything we can to try and reduce fare evasion within the resources we have.”
In San Francisco, Muni also had a problem with fare evaders. Managers there didn’t hire any new fare inspectors, but the agency managed to significantly cut its light rail fare evasion rate since December just by changing the way it deployed fare inspectors.
If you are caught riding VTA’s light rail without a ticket, it’s an expensive lesson—more than $200. But as we learned, under the current culture, getting a citation is a long shot.
VTA disagrees with out lost revenue calculations, saying its figure is closer to $650 thousand dollars.
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