The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

You get a free ride when the Metrobus farebox breaks. But how often does it happen?

At least 34 passengers got a free ride on this No. 37 bus. (Luz Lazo/The Washington Post)

On a recent morning commute, the driver of a No. 37 bus in upper Northwest laid her fluorescent green vest on top of the farebox. I boarded the empty bus on the route’s second stop, welcomed by a buzzing noise coming from the covered machine, and a smiling driver waving at me past.

“It doesn’t work,” she told me.

Farebox malfunctions like this one are relatively common in the region’s largest bus system and when they occur it generally means riders get a free lift.  And in addition to the revenue losses for Metrobus, a recent federal review of the transit system cited another bad outcome from faulty fareboxes — disputes with passengers over fares leading to assaults on bus drivers.

As of Monday, 142 farebox malfunctions had been reported to Metro’s bus operations control center, the transit agency said. Last month, there were 192. That means, on average at least six malfunctions are reported daily in the system.

Metro says that number is considered low for a regional bus system that carries about 465,000 daily passengers, has a fleet of 1,500 buses and more than 328 routes, and is the nation’s sixth largest bus network.

[FTA issues 13 corrective actions for Metrobus]

Metro says it tries to fix farebox problems when the buses are off-line. But when problems are reported while they are in service, Metro coordinates a change-off with another bus. To minimize inconvenience to passengers, the bus with the faulty box is allowed to continue to the end of its trip before being replaced by a different bus, Metro spokeswoman Morgan Dye said.

On the No. 37 from Friendship Heights to Archives last week, the bus ran the entire southbound route with the broken farebox. A woman and a boy carrying groceries came aboard at the third stop. A dozen passengers got on at the next stop. Then 10 more at the fifth stop, eight at the sixth.

All of them had their SmarTrip cards on hand as they boarded, looked at the covered farebox and waited for the driver to give them the “come on in” sign before taking a seat. One woman tried the credit card reader (part of a new pilot program), but that didn’t work either.

Between the 34 passengers aboard the limited-stop bus, Metro lost $59.50 in fare revenue.

That might not sound like much in a bus system that collects about $164 million in fares annually. But you wonder how much all the broken fareboxes taken together are costing the cash-strapped system each year.

Metro says it has no means to track the revenue losses from farebox failures.

“The amount is believed to be small given the relatively low number of malfunctions,” Dye said in an e-mail.

And problems with the payment system can create issues beyond lost revenue. A Federal Transit Administration report released last week identified farebox malfunctions as a contributing factor to the rising number of assaults on bus operators.  Some drivers told the FTA that broken fareboxes are so routine that some passengers become accustomed to riding for free. The riders then get angry — and sometimes violent — when the fareboxes are operational and they are asked to pay.

The FTA ordered Metro to expedite a strategy to address the contributing elements to bus driver assaults, including “resolving fare box performance and reliability issues.”

It is unclear, based on the FTA report, what percentage of assaults are the indirect consequence of a farebox failure. And as the agency notes, the farebox problems are considered only a contributing element. What we know for sure is that at the farebox, where it clearly says “Police Enforced: Fares must be paid prior to riding” some passengers become enraged over being asked to pay. About 65 percent of the assaults on drivers are the result of fare disputes or verbal altercations, according to Metro Transit Police. And the majority of the assaults occur in eastern D.C.

Farebox failures range from bill or coin jams to programming problems that cause the machines to be unable to read SmarTrip cards. In some cases when the problem involves coin or bill handlers, the farebox can still process SmarTrip payments, now the choice of payment for 9 out of 10 passengers.