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Escalating fines unveiled to fight transit cheats

Transit fare evaders will face higher fines down the road if they refuse to pay their tickets for being caught without proof of payment in a fare-paid zone.

TransLink on Friday unveiled escalating fines that start at the same initial level of $173 but will now climb to $213 after six months and $273 if they're unpaid after a year.

The province this year gave TransLink authority to collect fare evasion fines after Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom vowed to fix a long-running enforcement gap that let scofflaws ignore their fines.

Now TransLink will have the power to send unpaid fines to a collection agency and ICBC will refuse to issue or renew a driver's licence or vehicle insurance to customers who owe unpaid fines.

"It allows us to enforce fares a lot more stringently," TransLink Chief Operating Officer Doug Kelsey said. "The people who pay should not be subsidizing the small group who don't pay."

Previously, fare evasion fine collection was the province's responsibility, but the tickets were going into a black hole, with ICBC, for example, not doing anything to spur payment.

As a result, most people who were handed tickets never paid them and about $4 million in unpaid fines stacked up each year.

Transit Police last year issued 57,000 fare evasion tickets or nearly $10 million worth – more than in most previous years – and the force has continued to step up fare enforcement this year.

Until now Transit Police were the only officers who could issue fare evasion tickets, but under the new rules Coast Mountain Bus Co. transit security officers will also have that power, extending more fare enforcement to buses.

TransLink will also keep all money from fine revenue – previously it went to Victoria.

TransLink is also opening a new website at www.translink.ca/fareinfraction for riders to pay fines, dispute tickets or appeal decisions.

Fare gates are also being installed that will next year bar entry to the open SkyTrain stations without proper payment.

Past audits have estimated 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.

Kelsey estimated the fine collection system cost TransLink $1 million to set up and will take $500,000 to $750,000 a year to run.

He expects the revenue from paid fines will more than offset the expenses, giving TransLink a net increase.

But he said it's possible more people will end up paying to ride and that fewer fines will be issued.

"Some of it may just disappear into people paying their fares," Kelsey said. "So we won't know. If it drops significantly that's actually a good sign because it turns into fare revenue instead of ticketing."

Since an estimated 30 per cent of fare evaders don't have driver's licences, Kelsey said bill collectors should help and the province has indicated it could withhold certain government benefits in extreme cases.

TransLink might also seek to ban known offenders from the transit system, he said, although he said it's too early to tell how that would work or if it would be pursued.

"None of these is a silver bullet," Kelsey said. "But it absolutely helps strengthen us and give us tools we didn't have before."

The changes take effect Sept. 4.

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