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New tools to claw fines from transit fare cheats

B.C. Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom.  - File
B.C. Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom.
— image credit: File

TransLink will get new powers to collect unpaid fare evasion fines stretching back up to 10 years from transit cheaters who almost never pay when they are caught and ticketed.

Legislation introduced Monday by the province will require ICBC to refuse driver's licence and vehicle registration renewals – something that wasn't being done previously.

Since only an estimated 30 per cent of the transit cheaters who don't pay their $173 fines have cars or driver's licences, that will only go so far.

For the rest, TransLink will now be authorized to deny transit service, dispatch bill collectors, launch court claims and – if necessary – even ask the province to withhold payments such as income tax refunds.

"The free rides are over," Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom said, adding the changes will be retroactive. "We can reach back on debts owed and we plan to do that."

Unpaid fare evasion fines averaged $4 million a year over the past 10 years, Lekstrom said, but predicted it would be impossible to collect anywhere near the $40 million outstanding.

TransLink will now get the money and use it to defray enforcement costs. In the past any fines paid went to the province.

While the costs of pursuing cheats may eat up the bulk of money recovered, TransLink expects a net gain and that it will also receive more in fares as cheating diminishes.

"We're not going to spend $10 to get $2 back," Lekstrom said. "If we have $180 outstanding and it costs more than $180 to collect it I would suggest you're not going to collect that."

The current toothless enforcement system had persisted for years despite repeated TransLink requests for change. Lekstrom promised action this spring after renewed public criticism, saying he was unaware of the problem.

But it's unclear exactly how the new arsenal of changes will work, particularly a claim TransLink can ban scofflaws from the system or refuse to sell monthly passes to those with unpaid fines.

"We have to take the time to digest how this will work," TransLink Chief Operating Officer Doug Kelsey said, adding rules and bylaws have to be developed.

He said TransLink will collect tickets from now on, while the province may be responsible for pursuing the historic backlog as TransLink doesn't have those records.

It's expected to be harder to cheat the system once fare gates are installed at SkyTrain stations and the new Compass smart card payment system is introduced next year.

Transit Police will then shift more of their focus to the bus system, where Kelsey also indicated drivers may be expected to take a greater role in asking for payment.

TransLink will also designate security guards, SkyTrain attendants and Coast Mountain Bus security staff as "fare officers" to check fare and issue tickets, in addition to Transit Police.

Kelsey said TransLink will offer reduced fines for fare evaders who pay early, while interest will be added to the bill for those who pay late.

Transit Police last year issued 57,000 fare evasion tickets or nearly $10 million worth – more than in most previous years.

In past years, about 85 per cent of the fines were never paid.

TransLink estimates four to six per cent of transit riders don't pay their fares, resulting in a loss of $18 million compared to total fare revenue of $412 million.

NDP transportation critic Harry Bains called the new collection tools a good step but said it was long overdue.

"The two previous ministers failed to act when they knew there was a problem and they failed to pass that information to the current minister," he said.

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