Metro bus drivers registered 5,483,300 passengers who didn’t pay or didn’t pay full fare between 2005 and 2008, according to records from the King County Department of Transportation. It’s impossible gauge exactly how much money the bus service gave away in free rides—as some payments could be made partially—but the amount is likely millions of dollars.
The figures come from a records request filed by a citizen who forwarded the data to the Stranger (and confirmed by Metro). He is appalled that the county may have lost more than $10 million over four years and suggests that Metro should eliminate the ride-free zone downtown, arguing that most riders who board in the zone don’t pay when they get off—even in areas where payment is required.
According to Metro’s most recent analysis, the department will run a $168 million deficit over the next two years, says Metro deputy general manger Jim Jacobson.
But Jacobson says it’s doing all it can to collect fares. Over 400 million riders have taken the bus in the four-year span, and the lack of fares are within reason, he says. “I don’t know how many retail stores operate without people shoplifting one percent out the door.” The department's primary concern is the safety of the bus driver. He says, “The operators are trained to ask for the fare from each passenger, and if the passenger refuse to pay, they are also trained to manage the situation in a way that won't put themselves in danger." Drivers can call in officers for a rider who repeatedly refuses to pay. He also notes that some of the incidents—measured by the number of times a driver presses a “no fare/partial fare” button—can include times a rider simply has an outdated bus pass. “They turn around and buy a pass the next day and you haven’t lost any money really,” he says. Jacobson also sees hope in the ORCA Card (which stands for One Regional Card for All and works in nearby transit systems), which allows riders to add money in bulk so they don’t miss payment for lack of correct change.
While our data-requesting reader seems to be well intentioned in sleuthing for government waste, this doesn’t seem so bad. Metro drivers shouldn’t get shot over a buck-seventy-five. And Metro should be focusing primarily on getting more riders onboard, and drivers should be hitting the accelerator instead of spending commutes haggling over change.