BART Wages a Pricey War on Fare Dodgers

Will $200 million in new infrastructure stop people from using the system for free?

Fare evasion is something that everyone who takes BART regularly witnesses. Whether it’s sneaking out through the alarm-free emergency gate, hopping over turnstiles, or squeezing together for a for a two-for-one price, there are innumerable ways to game the payment system, if only you’re brave and athletic enough to do so.

Riders have skipped tickets for as long as BART has been around, but earlier this year, the transportation agency decided enough was enough. “Fare cheats, beware!” stated a blog post on BART’s site in January, announcing that fare inspectors were being hired to check for valid tickets.

“The Board has determined that the adoption of this ordinance is necessary to maintain the financial stability of the district,” a BART ordinance said, disclosing that an estimated $25 million per year is lost in potential revenue each year.

But at a cost of $740,000 per year — in salaries for fare-inspection officers and their equipment — the plan to reduce fare evasions isn’t cheap, and it could get more expensive. BART launched a new proposal this month to replace 600 fare gates systemwide with a more secure option, which would cost $200 million.

The new fare gates are part of a larger plan that BART General Manager Grace Crunican put together to increase safety and riders’ faith in the system.  Public trust has been dealt a hefty blow by a handful of highly profiled homicides on the platform earlier this summer, culminating in the fatal stabbing of Nia Wilson in July.

“BART has always been focused on public safety but it’s clear that we must do even more,” Crunican said in a statement. “The tragic murder of Nia Wilson has deeply saddened everyone at BART as well as the communities we serve. Our riders are demanding that we do more to maintain public safety.”

Fare evasion may seem like an odd area to dedicate hundreds of millions of dollars to in the name of safety, and it is. Although John Cowell, the key suspect in Wilson’s death, was alleged to ride the train regularly for free, there aren’t any studies that link skipping payment to an increase in crime on the platform. But what is evident is the positive effects an additional $25 million could have on the system, if used appropriately.

“Losing $25 million a year seriously hampers the system, which hurts our region’s transit-dependent population the most,” Janice Li, a candidate for the District 8 BART Board seat, tells SF Weekly. “It’s the BART passengers that lose out the most when revenues are lost. I’m in support of replacing fare gates and would push to make sure that accessibility is significantly improved for people with disabilities and people taking their bike on BART.”

Thus far, BART’s fare evasion program officers haven’t netted a whole bunch of money for the system. In the first two months, 1,300 citations were written, at $75 a pop (or $55 if you’re a minor). According to data pulled by the Chronicle in June, only around 100 people actually paid up.

This alone hints that perhaps the reason people sidestep BART’s tickets is not out of a lack of respect for the law, but because the tickets are too expensive.

“We need to push BART to expand its low-income fare program,” Li says. “Transportation is the second largest household expense, and if people are evading fares because they can’t afford to get to work, to childcare, to school and beyond, BART needs to step up and do more for its riders.”

But even if the BART Board does approve the $200 million and construction on new fare gates moves forward, we can bet that fare evaders are going to find new ways to access the system. It may take a little extra creativity, but no transit system in the world is completely inaccessible for those who want (or need) to it ride for free.

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