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TRANSCRIPT: Co-Chairs of Blue-Ribbon Panel on Fare Evasion Appear on Inside City Hall

Updated May 25, 2023 8:15 p.m.

Blue-Ribbon Panel on Fare Evasion Co-Chairs Rose Pierre-Louis and Roger Maldonado appeared on NY1’s Inside City Hall with Errol Louis to discuss the panel’s final report findings, analysis, and recommended solutions. The Blue-Ribbon panel is comprised of education, social justice, and law enforcement experts, convened in May 2022 to better understand the causes of rising fare and toll evasion across the transit system and recommend actionable solutions. 

Rose Pierre-Louis is Executive Director at the NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research. Roger Maldonado is Partner at Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP and a former President of the New York City Bar Association.

A transcript of the interview appears below.

Errol Louis: Welcome back to Inside City Hall. An MTA panel released a report last week that revealed the system had lost an estimated $690 million from unpaid fares and tolls last year. The report makes it clear that allowing fare evasion to continue would lead to an erosion in mass transit. And the MTA is now exploring some solutions including a high-tech subway fare gate. Joining me now to talk about all of this are the co-chairs of the Blue-Ribbon panel which included social justice and law enforcement experts, Rose Pierre-Louis is the Executive Director of the NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research. Roger Maldonado is a partner of a litigation firm here in the city. Welcome to the program. Great to see you, and congratulations on getting this done. Everybody knows this is going on, but what made you decide to look at it in this particular way?

Co-Chair Roger Maldonado: Actually, we were instructed by the MTA to broaden our views. When I first was thinking about joining the panel, I thought about fare evasion as teenagers jumping turnstiles. And it was very clear to us from the outset just working with the MTA and other stakeholders that evasion is something that occurs across the board. Right now, buses have even higher percentages of evasion than subways. On subways, the major issue, it's not turnstile jumping, it's the emergency gates that are left open and people just go through even though they have been thinking about paying the fare. Of course, you do have those who have, who are more economically challenged, but you have evasion on Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road and at the bridges and tunnels also.

Louis: Yes, I want to get into all of those different aspects. I was really intrigued by the fact that even just with fare evasion, you sort of broke it down. People who go over the turnstile, people who go under the turnstile, people who push through behind somebody else, but the vast majority, as you mentioned, is just walking through an open gate.

Co-Chair Rose Pierre-Louis: Absolutely. It is. You see it everywhere and in every subway station across New York City, all five boroughs, no matter what the neighborhood is. And it's really rampant. And through the course of our work as a panel, we really studied this issue by going on site visits, meeting with members of the MTA Police and also going to the bridges and tunnels. I was at the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge and really learning about what was happening with our bridges and tolls. And so, it's a very serious problem.

Louis: Sticking with the subways for just a minute. Those of us who were around in the 1990’s remember that a lot of fare evasion really went down when they started arresting people for turnstile jumping. And it was tied into a much larger sort of question or strategy around crime prevention. But fare evasion was something that you should not or did not at that point expect to get away with. And then I guess a lot of the casual evaders, people who had the money but were just kind of, you know, because the opportunity was there walking through the gate, they stopped doing it because there might be a cop there. And it was more than just inconvenient. It was actually very embarrassing.

Co-Chair Pierre-Louis: Well, what we saw and talk about in the report, we identified different kinds of evaders. There is the evader that goes to the machine and for some reason someone has damaged the machine and, you know, by chance, you're going to have to, that person decides to go through the gate because that person who damaged the MetroCard machine is now the person at the emergency gate.

Louis: Taking an illegal toll, right.

Co-Chair Pierre-Louis: You have people that are waiting with their MetroCard in hands or if they have the OMNY system waiting to go through the turnstile, there's an issue because someone again, has damaged it and they go through the gate. Or they're rushing and they come down and again they go through the gate. And we also know that the high period where evasion happens is between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. So, one of the strategies that we've talked about is, for example, increasing the number of rides for student MetroCards from three to five and to make them 24 hours.

Louis: That's not a bad idea. I mean, you know, my son or anybody else, if they go out to do something, they need more than just three swipes, it's not just about going to and from school. They might want to go do something else which we should encourage them to do, go to the library or something like that. Well, when it comes to the buses, this looks like something that spiked during the pandemic and has not really subsided since then. Is that a fair way to put it?

Co-Chair Maldonado: That is, but it's also true with the subways. For both of them, the spike occurred during the pandemic. With buses it was exacerbated by the fact that for a period of a few months in order to avoid contamination issues, the buses were free. And unfortunately, that sort of is now part of the public psyche that, if I was able to ride the bus free before, why shouldn't I be able to continue doing so? I was at the Staten Island Bus Terminal where I watched people walk by an Eagle, uniformed Eagle person right in front of the bus and then just keep walking straight through the fare gate without paying and then being surprised when they were asked to step off the bus because they had not paid. Which is why part of what has to happen is an educational campaign that is going to begin now across the board on buses, on subways, on public service announcements making clear that anyone who lives within the tri-state area and who uses any aspect of our transit system as almost everyone does has a civic duty to help support the MTA be able to maintain the system by paying their fares. Because the MTA is very dependent on the payment of fares. It's an enormous part of their budget. And if that goes away, there won't be the transit system that we all count on.

Louis: A long time ago when I was living with my parents up in New Rochelle, I used to commute on the Metro-North trains. I was startled to see in the report that there's fare evasion there. It's a whole different system there, right? Isn't there still somebody who kind of walks up and down the aisle and you know, takes your ticket. And if you don't have a ticket, back in my day, they would just put you off at the next stop. But I assume that there are different consequences now.

Co-Chair Pierre-Louis: A couple of things on that. I grew up riding the Long Island Rail Road. And at that time for me, you know, you have the paper tickets. But now with the advent of technology, you're able to have purchased an e-ticket on your phone. And some of the challenges that happen is as the conductor is going through to check the tickets, sometimes riders have not activated that e-ticket and they may say to them as they're coming through, can you come back around? And by the time they come back around that person or maybe, you know, they move around or do something so they don't get, don't have to make that payment.

Louis: Ok. And now when it comes to the tolls, the bridge tolls, I've had a whole podcast episode about this. People bending and defacing and covering up their plates. Is that mostly how the evasion happens?

Co-Chair Maldonado: Unfortunately, that's not the only way and perhaps not the primary way. There are a lot of well-known retail vendors over the internet who sell gadgets specifically designed to allow the, to make it impossible or difficult for the toll to be read by the license plate, including like the James Bond flipping the license plate.

Louis: Retract the plate while you're going through the toll.

Co-Chair Maldonado: And so one of the things that we have recommended and is going to happen is a crackdown against these retailers as to you have to stop selling these devices that are designed to break the law. And that's going to be enormously important, not just for the tolls and bridges, but once we start having congestion pricing kick in, it's going to be that same issue in Spades.

Louis: And I guess it's really got to be emphasized. This is a huge amount of money we're talking about. And so when people wonder why the subways are late or they're not as clean as you would like, or the system isn't working to everybody's satisfaction, it's because, you know, upwards of a half a billion, well over a half billion dollars a year is being drained out of the system.

Co-Chair Pierre-Louis: Absolutely. And that's why as Roger mentioned, the piece about education and making sure that people understand not only the importance of paying fares because of the service improvements, but also to ensure that we can have the kinds of resources in the subway. So, you may say I'd love to see certain improvements at my station. Well, by paying into the fares, is a great way for doing that.

Louis: Ok. That will be the last word for now. Everyone knows what's going on, but you've put some real science behind it. I hope we can get some changes real soon. Thanks so much for coming by tonight.

Co-Chair Pierre-Louis: Thank you.