The financially ailing MTA’s estimate that it loses more than a quarter of a billion dollars annually to fare evasion may be way off the mark, according to a new report.
The report being released Thursday by the Office of the MTA Inspector General and obtained by THE CITY, contends the transit agency’s past practices for tracking how many subway and bus riders skipped paying were unreliable and plagued by sampling shortcomings.
“The rates could have been on target or they could have been wrong,” said Elizabeth Keating, executive deputy inspector general. “There was just no way for us to know.”
The audit came after MTA board member Larry Schwartz last year questioned the validity of fare-evasion estimates that said more than a quarter of all bus riders between April and June 2019 skipped out on the $2.75 dip of the MetroCard.
“We can’t afford to get it wrong,” Schwartz said at the time.
Kitty Kay Chan, a data analytics professor at Columbia University, found that the MTA may have been getting it wrong for a decade. Chan was brought in to guide a review by the inspector general’s office and New York City Transit of the statistical methodologies that shaped the agency’s systemwide fare-beating estimates.
Ridership Way Down
A 2019 review by MTA Inspector General Carolyn Pokorny found that “illegal gate entries” were likely being undercounted because staffers could not keep track of multiple turnstiles, gates and doors at the same time.
“New York City Transit had planned to implement its new fare evasion estimating methodologies in the second quarter of 2020, but had to postpone the plan due to the COVID crisis,” said Patrick Warren, the MTA’s chief safety officer and acting chief operating officer.
Instead, Warren said, the new process will be rolled out once ridership stabilizes.
The latest MTA daily ridership figures show that, on Monday, there were nearly 1.6 million trips in the subway — a nearly 71% decrease from one year earlier. On the buses, there were more than 1 million riders Monday, a 52% dropoff from 2019.
The first set of results from the new method will be available about six months after it’s implemented, the inspector general’s report says.
On buses, the report notes, New York City Transit is exploring how new technologies such as cameras and the new OMNY payment system can, over the next few years, help the agency with its fare-evasion surveys. The MTA has also real-time automated passenger counters on 40% of its bus fleet.
“These new methodologies will produce more robust estimates of fare evasion that are less susceptible to the variability of simple random sampling,” the report says.
‘Can’t Afford the Train’
The MTA’s alleged $300 million hit from fare evasion was among several reasons cited by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year when he pushed the transit agency last year to announce plans to hire 500 new MTA police officers.
So far, 168 police officers have been hired, MTA Chairman Patrick Foye has said, while the other positions will not be filled until the end of the agency’s hiring freeze.
Riders said they are skeptical that the MTA will be able to get a firm read on how many people slip onto trains or buses without paying the fare.
“I see fare evasion a lot, more than back in the day when they would crack down on it,” said Prince Wright, 39, of Brooklyn, who was catching a No. 1 train on the Upper West Side. “Right now, with what’s going on with this pandemic, there are a lot of people who just can’t afford to get on the train.”
The losses from fare evasion have put another dent in the financial forecast of the MTA, which estimates that it is hemorrhaging more than $200 million each week from the coronavirus-driven collapse in revenue from fares, tolls and dedicated taxes.
The MTA did not collect fares on buses from mid-March until the end of August, when riders were unable to board buses from the front. The agency is seeking $12 billion in emergency federal aid.
“It’s tough that the MTA is losing so much money,” said Aristeo Garcia Hernandez, 44, of Staten Island, who was at the 96th Street stop on the 1/2/3 lines. “But it’s also tough that so many people are out of work and can’t afford to pay the fare.”