A BART fare inspector checks a passenger's ticket during a media show-and-tell at the Powell Street Station. (Dan Brekke/KQED)
It might be a little hard to believe, but it could be we're near the beginning of the end of the Virtually Unchecked Fare Evasion Era at BART.
After a hiccup or two involving new electronic fare readers, a small squad of BART fare inspectors will be roving the system and, starting Friday, issuing citations to those who can't show they've paid their fares.
BART invited the media to the Powell Street Station in downtown San Francisco to see how the new fare enforcement system is supposed to work.
The inspectors, with reporters carrying cameras, mobile phones and microphones to record the proceedings, gathered at the foot of one of the escalators leading down to the station platform.
Amid sparse late-morning ridership, passengers descended one or two at a time, encountering the blue-uniformed inspectors waiting below.
"I need to see a ticket or Clipper card, please, sir," inspector Carlos Escobar told one passenger. The patron complied and Escobar's Clipper card reader emitted a cheerful chime, indicating the passenger was all paid up.
Justin Groom, 22, of Hercules, was one of the first to undergo proof-of-payment scrutiny in full view of the media contingent.
"It's a little bit excessive," he said. "I feel like there are probably other ways we could do it better. ... Maybe just have people stationed here all the time whose job it is to wait outside and catch people."
Groom, who says he's been riding the system for three years, says he sees people entering and leaving stations without paying "every day -- constantly. It's really, really easy for them to do it, too, so they get away with it."
The inspection system on display at Powell Street Thursday is the result of a fare evasion ordinance that BART's board of directors approved last fall in an attempt to recoup some of the cash the agency misses out on every year because of fare cheaters.
How much revenue is lost? BART's ballpark estimate is $15 million to $25 million a year, the equivalent of 15,000 to 20,000 people pushing into stations without paying every weekday.
The enforcement effort relies on the six new fare inspectors, who are tasked with checking patrons' Clipper cards or paper tickets. The inspectors, community service officers hired by the BART Police Department, carry hand-held fare readers that can tell whether tickets are valid.
Their marching orders are to proceed from passenger to passenger throughout a car or on station platforms -- a measure to avoid targeting people based on their appearance -- and they wear body cameras to record their interactions with customers.
There was one glitch in the launch. Although the proof-of-payment ordinance took effect Jan. 1 and BART said inspectors would issue warnings for the first month of the new regime before issuing citations, the fare-reading devices didn't always work as expected.
So the inspectors were limited to issuing warnings. BART Police Deputy Chief Lance Haight said the inspection team handed out 1,300 courtesy notices or formal warnings in January and February.
BART's regular sworn officers also enforce the new proof-of- payment ordinance -- as well as the existing state law governing fare evasion. The agency says BART police issued 3,634 fare evasion citations in 2017, more than doubling the number handed out the previous year.
How effective will a single team of fare inspectors be on a system that spans 110 miles with something like 420,000 people going in and out of its 46 stations every day?
Haight said the team is designed for deterrence.
"The intent is that people, knowing that at any point along their ride they could be stopped and asked to show their ticket, this should be a discouragement for those who might otherwise fare evade," he said.
What will happen if you can’t prove you’ve paid to get on a train?
The first two offenses in any 12-month period will result in a non-criminal citation and fine of $75 for adults and $55 for minors. Adults who rack up a third offense in that 12-month period will face a possible criminal citation and a fine of as much as $250. Minors, who under state law may not be given a criminal citation for fare evasion, would face continued lower-level fines.
The district’s fare-evasion ordinance also allows all minors and low-income adults to perform community service in lieu of paying the fines.
BART's also trying other measures, like raising barriers around the paid areas of stations and improving video monitoring of fare gates. The agency says it hopes that by spending about $1.8 million on such measures it can recover $8 million to $11 million in fare revenue.