Metro Rail riders losing benefit of the doubt

Fare cheaters among the reasons NFTA is overhauling its fare collection system; expert says the $22M plan is a "waste"

Come next summer, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority plans to abandon its honor system to ride Metro Rail. Instead, it will require riders on the underground portion of the transit line to pay and pass through a turnstile to board a train.

The change is intended, in part, to discourage riders from boarding without paying a fare at Metro Rail’s eight underground stations.

“It’ll make it a little easier on the officers because it’ll be a very clear barrier that people will know, without a doubt, that if you go through this turnstile, you need a ticket,” said George Gast, NFTA’s police chief.

The NFTA has issued about 6,000 tickets this year for riding without a required fare ticket. It estimates about 1 percent of passengers fail to pay, compared with a national average of 5 percent. The NFTA estimates fare evaders cost the authority $200,000 a year in lost revenues.

The solution will not come cheap — $22 million to make upgrades that go well beyond the turnstiles. The NFTA is footing most of the bill, with the state chipping in $541,000.

“Fare evasion is part of it, but really we’re upgrading the entire system,” said Helen Tederous, public affairs director of the NFTA.

One national transit expert questioned the authority’s decision to put the new system in place.

“It’s a waste of money. I suspect that it’s spending more money to solve the problem than the problem costs.” said Chistof Spieler, a senior lecturer at Rice University and director of planning at Huitt-Zollars, an engineering, architecture and construction management firm.

The NFTA’s bus and rail ridership has dropped 15 percent in the past four years and Spieler said the authority would be better off spending money on improving rider convenience and quality of service.

Planned improvements

The $22 million will be spent retrofitting underground stations with turnstiles and payment stations and on a sophisticated data collection and analysis system.

Stations will be equipped with five faregates — three at a standard width and two which are compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Riders will continue to use the above-ground portion of the system free of charge, but will need to purchase a ticket if they’ll continue to travel underground.

Riders presently use cash to purchase tickets; under the new system they can pay with an app or plastic card, much like a gift card or New York City’s payment system.

“We’re in a time of society where people don’t carry cash. We want to give alternatives to people who don’t have it,” said Tederous, the NFTA spokesperson.

According to a 2016 report, 21 percent of bus and rail riders paid with cash, which will still be accepted in some circumstances, like for single-ride passes. But cash will not be an option for day passes bought onboard buses. The same survey found 85 percent of bus riders with daily passes — a quarter of all bus riders — purchased them with cash onboard.

The information in the report was collected through an NFTA survey. The new system, with its smart cards and mobile app, will allow the authority to gather better data about users and frequented routes.

Project has been delayed

The NFTA has been promising changes to the fare system since 2014, when it announced an $18 million upgrade.

Why the delay?

“This project is very complex and we want to do it right,” Tederous said. “We are talking about security issues, so we knew it was going to take a while and we anticipated there would be bugs.”

Systems like the one the NFTA is installing have been hacked on occasion. London’s transit system was breached in August, and 1,200 users had their accounts frozen.

Tederous, the NFTA spokesperson, said the authority is aware of that situation and reiterated the need to ensure that doesn’t happen here.

“You’re talking about a system that has some vulnerable riders and we want to make sure things are right and people’s security isn’t an issue.”

Rail ridership declining

“The agency has much bigger problems than fare evasion,” said Spieler, author “Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit.”

“If you’re losing ridership, that’s a sign there is something wrong.”

Rail and bus ridership in Buffalo is down some 4 million passengers since 2016, according to the NFTA’s annual report — from 28 million to 24 million. Bus ridership dropped about 15 percent, while light rail ridership declined about 14 percent.

That’s a trend that’s playing out across the country, according to Spieler.

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Some cities have rebounded by investing in making their public transportation more reliable, faster, and generally improving customer service, Spieler said. He suggested the NFTA install more bus shelters and benches to solve that issue, rather than investing in a new fare collection and data system.

Spieler is nevertheless a fan of Buffalo’s transit system, suggesting other cities mimic its connectivity features.

In his book, Spieler ranks Buffalo among the top light-rail systems in the nation, saying the city scored well in the ridership-per-mile ratio. He also notes the bus system is well connected to the Metro Rail and the free-fare zone paired with the honor system is the most economical from a taxpayer standpoint.

Unique features

Buffalo’s unique setup makes the 6.4-mile light-rail system stand out. This is the only city in the nation where the downtown portion of the line runs aboveground and the balance of the line is underground, Spieler said.

Fare-free zones are also rare, but becoming more popular. Kansas City recently eliminated fares for its entire line. Spieler applauds the NFTA for maintaining that feature, believing it is an asset to the city as it encourages people to use public transportation and frequent establishments that are too far to walk to.

Adding faregates to Metro Rail will be another attribute that sets the system apart, he said. Most light-rail transit lines do not have faregates in place, both around the country and the world.

Spieler said turnstiles are expensive to install and maintain and they can slow up boarding times, causing passenger frustration, further eroding ridership.

“All of those involve very real costs, and the amount of fare that you lose as a result of fare evasions is generally much less than it would cost to collect those fares,” he said.