Port Authority of Allegheny County nixes cashless fare system for light rail
Port Authority of Allegheny County is nixing a plan to make its light-rail system “cashless,” and with it, a controversial plan to use officers for fare enforcement.
Only about 2 to 3 percent of T riders are not paying to ride the T, Port Authority staff found during the last few months, Port Authority CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman said.
“This tells us that our current, accepted method of payment is working and we all know the expression ‘if it’s not broke don’t fix it,’” Kelleman said.
The authority previously announced the system would go cashless starting in July, but it has been repeatedly delayed as the authority waits for a contractor to deliver ConnectCard machines.
A cashless system would be problematic for riders who don’t have a bank account and for light-rail stations where there is no room to install a ConnectCard machine, Kelleman said.
“So what do we do if we know we have a station where we can’t solve the cash issue? And I think we default on the side of taking care of our patrons,” Kelleman said.
Nixing the idea also keeps the authority’s 47 police officers available to respond to other issues, Kelleman said.
The authority will keep its 18 off-board fare officers stationed at the system’s busiest T stations, Kelleman said.
At unstaffed stations, riders tap their cards or pay with cash on the train behind the operator.
“It’s the same thing we do with our 720 buses around the system, so we know it’s something folks are comfortable with,” Kelleman said.
To prepare for the switch to cashless, the authority has purchased and installed “validator” machines in several Downtown stations, said Adam Brandolph, Port Authority spokesman.
The machines, which allow riders to tap before getting on or after getting on the train, have not been activated, Brandolph said.
The machines might be used, even if the T is not cashless, to allow riders to board faster without a line forming on the train while riders wait to tap their cards, Brandolph said.
The effort to find out how many riders were paying began on Kelleman’s first day in January, she said.
“When I came on board, our board was very focused on the idea of how many folks are paying their fare or not and what’s the best way to make sure we have our hands around them,” Kelleman said.
Although it took time, the board is responsive, Port Authority Board Chairman Jeff Letwin said Friday.
Advocacy groups have been raising concerns for nearly a year that using officers for fare enforcement could result in racial profiling, excessive fines, jail time, and even deportation.
“We are glad they aren’t implementing a policy that would penalize and be overly punitive for riders with consequences as severe as jail time and deportation,” said Laura Wiens, director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit, which led the effort.
Under the policy proposed in April, first-time violators would have received a warning. On their second offense, they could have been charged with theft of services. Offenders caught three or more times could have been charged with trespassing and access device fraud.
The theft of services charge could carry a fine of up to $300 and 90 days in jail, as determined by a judge.
Staff will continue to monitor fare evasion to make sure the number of riders not paying does not increase, Kelleman said.
“Our big concern is making sure we are fair and equitable for everyone riding,” Kelleman said.