The warning signs are up; some of the new electronic fare gates are in place, and the word is out. When it comes to fare evaders, TransLink means business.
Transit police covering Metro Vancouver's mass-transit system began a crackdown on fare evaders Tuesday as it finally received legal authority to collect the tough new fines introduced earlier this year.
TransLink spokesman Drew Snider told the Vancouver Province that provincial legislation passed last spring allows transit police not only to issue tickets but now actually collect the fines, which fare evaders previously ignored.
TransLink estimates about four per cent of transit users ride for free.
Someone caught trying to ride without a ticket faces a $173 fine, which now jumps to $273 if not paid within a year.
Under the new law, those who ignore the fines might not be able to renew driver's licences or get car insurance. TransLink now also has the power to use collection agencies to get the money.
[ Related: TransLink fare evaders to face harsher penalties ]
The stakes are high for cash-strapped TransLink, Snider told the Province.
"We estimate fare evasion at $18 million a year," he said. "That could buy a lot of buses and improve services."
The first SkyTrain line opened in 1985 in seemingly more innocent times. There were no turnstiles. Free-riders could stroll right past the automated ticket machines up onto the platforms with little risk of getting caught.
TransLink officials began random fare checks a few years ago but finally settled on retrofitting SkyTrain and newer Canada Line stations with electronic fare gates.
Electronic turnstiles have been installed at the most troublesome stations and the whole program should be completed by next summer, Snider said.
Even though they're not operational yet, the new fare gates have already been vandalized, the Province reported Tuesday.
A transit staffer discovered six gates at a Canada Line station covered with "blue, cartoon-like faces." Transit police were able to identify the vandal, a man who appeared to be in his mid-20s, after reviewing video surveillance footage but no one's been arrested.
Meanwhile, as students streamed back to school and university Tuesday, TransLink began random fare checks at fare-evasion hot spots, SkyTrain and Canada Line stations, as well as some bus stops along routes using articulated buses whose rear doors are sometimes used by fare evaders.
"Transit Security will be watching those doors,"said Snider.
Fare cheaters are a problem with any big transit system.
A report done for the Toronto Transit Commission last year said the TTC lost $22 million, or about two per cent of total revenue, in 2010, according to the Toronto Star.
The loss percentage doubled from previous years but late in 2010 transit enforcement officers began a crackdown on common forms of cheating.
Transit officials in Alberta's two major cities have also tried to target fare evasion on their light-rail and bus systems, Metro Calgary reported earlier this month.
Despite fare-evasion fines being bumped more than $100, to $250, Edmonton found up to four per cent of transit users were still not paying to ride. Calgary Transit estimates its fare-evasion problem at 4.5 per cent, Metro reported.
Back in Vancouver, how to deal with fare evaders has been the subject of continuing debate.
A few years ago, Metro Vancouver's transit cops were criticized for using a Taser on a fare cheater who tried to elude them.
Officials defended the policy of using the stun guns on "non-compliant" passengers as a life-saver. Vancouver transit police carry pistols, the only armed transit cops in Canada.