Authorities have a message for passengers on the Hiawatha light-rail line: There are no free rides.
Metro Transit police officers are stepping up efforts to find those riders who don't purchase tickets for the light-rail, which relies partly on the honor system to collect fares.
In the first six months of the light-rail service, Metro Transit issued 596 citations for fare evasion and 1,194 warnings to passengers without tickets. The line has lost an estimated $6,200 on fare evaders, the Star Tribune reported in its Tuesday editions.
Officials estimate that 99.7 percent of the 2.8 million people who rode last year purchased their tickets, and said that's a sign that overall, riders are complying with the self-service, barrier-free fare system.
"We are pleased with the early results," said Bob Gibbons, director of customer services.
Light-rail stations have no entry turnstiles and the trains have no fare boxes. Riders should have a transit pass, a transfer or a ticket when they board the train, and transit police make random checks.
Passengers willingly held out tickets as Metro Transit police officer Ken Vande Steeg checked the line late last week.
"I really think that most people just get on and pay," said Paul Comstock of Stillwater, who works at Fort Snelling. He bought a ticket to ride the train to the Mall of America.
Jeremy Tri, of Faribault, who rode from the 28th Avenue park-and-ride lot in Bloomington to his downtown Minneapolis job, said an officer asks to see his ticket about a third of the time.
The fine for fare evasion is $140, plus about $40 in court costs.
Metro Transit's rider compliance is comparable with compliance in two other cities with barrier-free fare rail systems.
Denver and Salt Lake City, whose systems carry about twice as many riders as the Hiawatha line, estimate that less than 2 percent of riders don't pay.
In Denver, the fine rises with each offense from $33 to $66 to $132. Salt Lake City's fine is $90 -- twice the cost of a $45 monthly pass. It offers passengers an appeal process to contest a citation, and violators can attend a few hours of transit school to pay a reduced fine.
In Minnesota, total penalties paid by light-rail fare evaders -- an estimated $107,000 based on citations issued so far -- are 17 times greater than the estimated losses in ticket revenues.
And overall, the honor system could be cheaper. Even with the expense of paying officers to check fares, rail systems have found the approach is cheaper than building enclosed entrances with turnstiles, according to a 2002 report by the Transportation Research Board.
The barrier-free approach speeds up boarding, helping to keep trains on time, the research board said.
Nathan Swanson, a teacher from Philadelphia, rode the Hiawatha line last week on a visit to the Twin Cities. He noticed a big difference from the turnstile entrances in his home city.
"In Philly there are all these bars with wiring almost like you are going into a prison," he said. "This seems more pleasant."
In other light-rail news, Metro Transit officials hope to order three new rail cars this month. The Metropolitan Council Transportation Committee voted Monday to buy one rail car with $3.15 million remaining in the project's budget. The two other cars would be purchased with $6.3 million from Hennepin County.
Part of the financing is tied to the proposed Northstar commuter line, which has yet to be approved by the Legislature.
The transportation committee isn't waiting for legislative approval, though, because the company that makes the rail cars will shut down production if more are not ordered this month by Jan. 23.
The rail car purchases still need federal approval.
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)