Some Maryland Transit Administration bus operators may be taking their fare boxes out of operation and failing to collect fares in a bid to maintain their on-time performance, a high-ranking MTA official says.
According to Michael S. Davis, the deputy administrator for operations, the drivers are covering working fare boxes — a move that speeds passenger boarding but denies the MTA needed revenue.
The problem came to light in an e-mail exchange between Davis and an MTA customer, which was obtained by The Baltimore Sun. In one message, Davis outlined the issue: "Most of the fare boxes are operational, but we are having trouble with operators putting the orange covers or paper over them so they don't have to collect fares. Some operators see this as a way to speed up and maintain OTP [on-time performance].
"We take a hard stand on this. There is a procedure all operators must follow before taking an inoperable fare box out of service."
In an interview, Davis said some drivers have been disciplined for violating collection procedures. In two cases, the MTA started a process that can lead to termination, he said.
Edward Cohen, past president of the Transit Riders Action Council and a regular MTA rider, said he has seen relief drivers board buses and immediately cover fare boxes that had been working.
But David McClure, president of the union that represents MTA operators, said he had heard nothing about such a problem until a reporter called.
"Basically, they have not made us aware of any kind of problem or given me any evidence my operators have been doing that," said McClure, president and business agent for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300. "I don't know why Mr. Davis would make that type of statement in reference to the operator doing that."
In an interview after the e-mail exchange, Davis played down the seriousness of the problem.
"We don't have anything to suggest it's a large percentage," he said. "I probably wrote more than I should."
Davis said he had no conclusive evidence that fare boxes had been disabled for the purpose of improving on-time performance, calling it "probably a theory I have."
He added, "It's hard for me to understand why they would do that. They still get paid for the service they provide."
McClure said he saw no reason that a driver would fail to collect fares. "That doesn't make sense. That is what they're there for," he said, adding that drivers are not penalized when they can't keep up with the printed schedule.
Cohen said the problem is worsened by schedules that "aren't always realistic because of a shortage of buses" and other issues that create a strain on the drivers. "Rather than never having a bathroom break, they'll do this," he said.
Davis denied that operators were under undue pressure to keep on schedule. But he noted that buses can be delayed when a large number of passengers line up to pay fares at a stop. The bus cannot be driven until riders have moved past a yellow line at the front of the bus, he said.
Malfunctioning fare boxes have long been a problem for the MTA because the mechanisms take a beating from the constant rumbling of buses along bumpy city streets. Generally, when a fare box malfunctions, the operator continues on the route without collecting cash fares.
Davis said part of the procedure for taking a fare box out of service is for the operator to call the control center and get permission to put an orange bag over the machine.
In his e-mail exchange, Davis asked for information about bus numbers and other details if the customer saw fare boxes out of service.
"We'll get supervisors on it to monitor the service. Also we'll get covert monitors riding the line," Davis told the customer. He said the MTA would use its automatic vehicle locator technology to check the on-time performance of the lines in question.
"The administrator is committed to improve service, and we will do what it takes to achieve that goal," Davis wrote.
Davis confirmed that the agency would use "mystery riders" to detect violations. "We have a company that does it, plus we do it internally," he said in an interview. In cases where there is an unexplained loss of revenue on a certain line, Davis said, MTA officials would review video from the buses to see whether there is a problem.
As far as he knows, Davis said, the agency has not discussed the matter with the operators union, or sent a bulletin to employees. But he said a bulletin could go out soon.
MTA passenger Jonathan Howard of Baltimore said it was wrong to blame bus operators rather than the conditions that might have motivated them to skip fare collections.
"If there's a jam at the fare box, the operators who are concerned about staying on schedule (there are a few of them, not many) will wave the passengers with passes along and count them manually while the cash customer is feeding the box," Howard wrote. "Most operators don't seem to be in any rush though, so if they have to wait awhile for folks to get on, no problem for them."
The MTA's performance in collecting fares is a frequent subject of concern in Annapolis, because agency expenses that are not covered by revenues are made up in the form of subsidies — a condition shared by nearly every transit agency in the country.
By statute, the MTA is required to cover 35 percent of its costs from revenues — the bulk of which come from fares. But the agency, which has a $617 million budget in the current fiscal year, typically struggles to meet that goal, bringing protests from rural legislators whose constituents typically do not use transit services.
MTA spokesman Terry Owens said the fare box recovery figure for Baltimore's bus system is about 31 percent. The agency has no estimate of what might be lost in the form of uncollected fares, he said.
Cohen said the MTA administration faces a problem in dealing with the issue publicly. "If you do your job right, warts show up and then the enemies of funding want to get you."
The transit advocate said the losses would not be great because cash fares make up a small percentage of MTA revenue.
"It's not a huge amount of money," he said, "but it is a drip, a persistent drip."