BART Weighs New Ordinance to Crack Down on Fare Cheaters

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Fare gates at BART's Embarcadero station.  (John Martinez Pavliga/Flickr)

It was that rarest of occurrences: a heart-warming BART moment.

Exiting just ahead of me at San Francisco's 16th/Mission station one day last week, a woman, probably in her 20s, approached an unlocked side gate on the station's concourse.

She glanced behind her and toward the agent's booth, 20 yards or so away, to see if anyone who would do anything was watching.

Then she pushed the gate open and left without paying her fare ... almost.

She hadn't noticed the two BART cops standing just outside the gate, attending to a man suffering some form of medical distress. One of the officers looked at the young woman and smiled broadly. She turned with a "can you believe this?" look and headed toward the exit gates to put her ticket through like the rest of us fare-paying losers.

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I couldn't help it. It was so pleasing, and so surprising, to see a fare cheater get caught -- even better than getting a seat at rush hour -- that I whooped and called out, "There you go!" Another passenger broke into raucous guffaws.

If you ride BART with any regularity, you know how unusual that scene is. BART police have publicized focused enforcement targeting fare evasion in the last couple of months -- including one involving Chief Carlos Rojas himself -- and by our count, have announced issuing about 175 citations and warnings to fare jumpers and gate swingers in just the last five weeks.

But the prodigious scale of fare evasion on BART appears to dwarf the enforcement effort.

Earlier this year, the agency estimated as many as 22,000 people a day may glide in and out of the system without paying fares. The cheaters cost the agency, which is struggling to balance its budget, as much as $25 million a year.

Now, the agency is spending $2.65 million in the current year on a series of pilot initiatives to stem the tide of fare cheating. At the downtown Berkeley station, for instance, 5-foot-high glass barriers now surround the entrance to new, Clipper-only fare gates. Similar hard-to-jump barriers are slated for other stations.

BART is also moving to restrict movement through "swing gates" adjacent to agents' booths throughout the system -- a popular access point for fare evaders. The agency is also working to make it harder for people to use station elevators to avoid payment, in some instances incorporating elevator access into the stations' paid areas.

At San Francisco's Embarcadero station, the system's busiest and the stop believed to have the highest incidence of fare evasion, BART is testing video software to try to get a handle on just how many people are using swing gates or jumping fare gates.

And at its meeting Thursday, the BART board of directors is scheduled to consider another step in cracking down on evaders: an ordinance that would help implement a "proof of payment" fare-checking system by imposing fines on those caught on trains or in paid areas of stations without valid fare cards.

The fines -- $120 for adults, $60 for juveniles -- would be administrative, not criminal. The new ordinance, to take effect Jan. 1, 2018, if approved, would be enforced by BART police and by a new six-person group of community service officers who would patrol trains and stations with new handheld fare-inspection devices.

BART's proposed protocol for fare inspections would direct officers to inspect everyone on a car or in a given station area, requiring them to "progress from one person to the next closest person, not skipping any persons in between."

To try to ensure that anti-fare-evasion measures are enforced in a non-biased manner -- in other words, that fare inspection don't focus on minority riders or those who appear to be homeless -- fare enforcement operations will be recorded on body cameras, according to the BART proposal, with random video pulled for review on a monthly basis.