The Long Island Rail Road is losing about $20 million a year in unpaid fares, the agency said Monday.
The news came as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Finance Committee held a special meeting to discuss several topics, including the growing problem of fare evasion throughout its agencies.
Although most of the discussion focused on the MTA’s buses and subways, where fare-beaters cost the agency about $215 million annually, LIRR officials also addressed the impact of uncollected revenue on the railroad, which collects about $730 million in fares annually.
LIRR Chief Financial Officer Mark Young said the MTA regularly deploys undercover auditors who conduct “spot checks” of trains to determine how much fare revenue is being lost. In about 5 percent of such instances, the auditors' tickets are not collected, Young said.
The railroad extrapolates from the auditors' experience an overall estimate of lost fare revenue — accounting for the fact that some riders whose tickets are checked already have paid for a monthly or weekly ticket. “The estimate is roughly $20 million a year as potentially lost revenue,” Young said.
Young said the railroad typically addresses the issue by assigning extra fare collectors to trains known to be particularly crowded — where conductors can have difficulty checking every ticket.
"Where we have areas that we’ve identified as far as fare evasion issues, we do have additional conductors that we assign to those locations to try to collect those revenues,” LIRR president Phillip Eng said at the meeting.
On social media, several LIRR commuters said they were not surprised by the railroad's lost fare figures, which some attributed to conductors' inability to get through jam-packed train cars.
"Fares don't get collected [because] the trains are short and too packed for the crew to walk through the cars to check tickets," Michele Meyer wrote on Twitter. "It's their own fault. They make it sound like people are stealing rides, but the only time I ever see tickets not getting collected is when people are jammed in."
Anthony Simon, a former LIRR conductor and the general chairman of the conductors’ union, the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, pointed to a number of challenges faced by fare collectors, including the lack of sufficient crew members “to target an achievable amount of cars … rather than struggling to get through multiple cars in a short period of time,” lack of available police to address fare disputes on trains, and the rising use of electronic tickets, which can cause delays in collecting fares when riders who don’t have their phones ready to display their tickets.
“We need more presence and resources onboard and better communication to our riders of the need to adhere to all of our fare policies,” Simon said.
MTA board members requested the special finance meeting be held as the agency considers ways to reduce costs and increase revenue as it heads toward a projected $1 billion deficit by 2020. The funding shortfall would come despite the MTA’s latest proposed fare increase of 4 percent scheduled to start in March.
MTA officials at the meeting outlined several planned efficiencies to shrink the budget gap, including potential service cuts on buses and subways by 2020.
The LIRR, which earlier this year proposed its $132 million “LIRR Forward” initiative to reverse failing service, is not proposing reductions in service, but is looking to “do more with less,” according to budget documents.
The railroad’s belt-tightening includes a six-month hiring freeze, changes in inventory stocking and electrical power consumption, a reduction in staffing for special events, and scaling back on the installation of electronic “help points” at stations. The railroad also is pulling back somewhat on a plan to drastically increase car cleaning efforts, although Eng said customers will still notice an improvement in car cleanliness because of where and how personnel are deployed.
“What we did was look at how to initiate efficiencies in the railroad and not have any service cuts to our customers,” Eng said.
By the numbers
LIRR annual fare revenue: About $730 million
LIRR annual lost fare revenue: About $20 million
Percentage of time riders' tickets not checked: 5 percent