Some Nassau County bus passengers and advocates say fare boxes are increasingly corrupting MTA MetroCards and wiping out their cash value, costing them money and rides.
Nassau Inter County Express riders have been getting "read errors" when dipping their MetroCards into NICE Bus fare boxes, according to the Long Island Bus Riders Union. The cards, used by two-thirds of NICE's 100,000 daily customers, are then made useless. Cash balances on the cards can only be recovered through an MTA refund process that can take six weeks or longer.
NICE chief executive Michael Setzer said although he has seen no evidence indicating a growing problem with MetroCard errors, the company will assign six electronic technicians to check the fare boxes for problems, provide drivers with special devices to regularly clean the card readers and develop a payment app for smartphones.
Card error, out of luck
Anthony Dixon, 25, said he has lost several MetroCards in recent months to read errors, including one with a balance of $50. Without a way to pay his fare, drivers wouldn't let him on the bus, he said at the Mineola bus center. Generally, if a driver determines a MetroCard is malfunctioning, the passenger can still board the bus.
"I don't know what is the problem. The card is like brand new," said Dixon, a janitor, who added he recently had to walk from Mineola to his home in Roosevelt because his MetroCard malfunctioned and he didn't have cash to pay the $2.25 fare.
"I definitely think that the problem has gotten worse. We've seen that just from talking to riders," said Long Island Bus Riders Union founder Charlene Obernauer, who brought the problem to NICE's attention in February. Riders have also complained to NICE about the issue at public meetings as recently as last month.
"There would be a huge uproar if this was happening on the Long Island Rail Road, and it would be fixed pretty quickly," Obernauer said.
Setzer said there has not been an increase in the number of customer complaints about the issue over the last year, nor has NICE seen any drop in fare revenue, which would be the case if scores of regular customers were not paying for their rides.
"Not that we're keeping data on it, but nobody has noticed a higher incidence of read errors, so I think it may be more just greater awareness, because people are talking about it," he said. "But we're starting to pay attention because fare box is $45 million a year. It's 40 percent of our total revenue picture. So even if it's a small amount, we want to be sure it's covered."
Bus drivers are not given special instructions on how to address MetroCard errors other than to "handle it the best way possible," Setzer said.
"They have to make a judgment on whether this is a malfunctioning card and allow the passenger to ride or whether this is an attempt to evade a fare," he said.
Origin of errors unknown
NICE officials said they don't know whether the errors are originating in the fare boxes or the MetroCards, but noted that the fact that other riders are able to use their MetroCards after one has a reader error would suggest a problem with a card.
MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz cited several kinds of possible reader errors, ranging from a damaged card to a dirty card reader. Ortiz added that the MTA, which issues MetroCards, provided NICE officials, at their request, with an explanation of the various reader error codes.
Ortiz added that while reader errors happen from time to time on MTA buses, "it's not really a prevailing problem on this end."
Setzer said maintenance of the boxes has remained steady since NICE's operator, Veolia Transportation, took over the Nassau system from the MTA in January 2012, and that most of the MTA's mechanics were kept on their jobs.
As a remedy for some riders, NICE is developing a mobile application that will allow fares to be paid using a smartphone instead of a MetroCard. The app would let users pre-load their accounts with money and pay by displaying their phones as they board.
Passengers would show a flashing phone screen to a bus operator to indicate they had paid their fare. Setzer said the app should be rolled out some time in 2014.
But Setzer acknowledged the app wouldn't be much of an option for about 15 percent of NICE's riders who count on the MetroCard's free transfers to and from MTA buses and subways.
"For those people for whom it works, it's a nice alternative to having to carry a bunch of change or relying on the MetroCard," Setzer said.