Transit Briefs: VIA Rail, SMART, Austin’s Project Connect, NYMTAWritten by Carolina Worrell, Senior Editor
VIA Rail Canada (VIA Rail) provides yearly progress update on sustainability plan. Also, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District (SMART) offers free public transit for K-12 youth; Austin Transit Partnership (ATP) recommends two Austin Light Rail options to transit leaders; and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) Blue-Ribbon Panel unveils multi-layered plan with cutting-edge technology to reduce fare and toll evasion.
VIA Rail on May 17 published its sustainability plan’s yearly progress update (donwload below) showing “steadfast advance” on its sustainability journey.
VIA Rail, which unveiled its five-year sustainability plan in April 2022, says the plan, which is based on social, environmental and governance pillars, “will allow the Corporation to reduce its environmental footprint, enhance its role as a responsible transportation provider and create lasting value for present and future generations.”
According to VIA Rail, the agency undertook several actions contributing to its 2025 objectives, which include the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the creation of a zero-waste experience on its new Corridor fleet and the mobilization of its employees.
Amongst the actions undertaken over the past year, VIA Rail:
- Initiated the development of its decarbonization plan.
- Extended an AI pilot project, aimed at reducing fuel consumption.
- Made changes in packaging and products in view of our zero-waste objective.
- Supported more than 450 non-profit organizations and charities across Canada and reached 40% alignment with sustainability strategy compared to its 80% objective.
- Published and integrated its Policy on Supplier Conduct and Responsible Sourcing in new contracts, reaching 15% integration of the policy by suppliers.
“Sustainability is a cornerstone of our mandate, values, and commitment to deliver a more modern and responsible transportation network,” said VIA Rail Chief Communications and Marketing Officer Brigitte Dagnault. “Our plan reinforces the key role sustainability plays in our decision-making process, leading us to make meaningful changes across the organization. We are on our way to meeting our 2025 sustainability objectives.”
Additionally, VIA Rail announced last year that it chose the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), one of the most recognized sustainability reporting standards, as its core framework. The second edition of VIA Rail’s GRI Index is available here.
SMART announced May 16 that, along with Sonoma County Transit, Santa Rosa CityBus and Petaluma Transit, it will be offering free rides for K-12 youth throughout the summer season with the Summer Youth Ride Free Program.
“This summer’s Youth Ride Free Program will introduce more youth and families to the benefits of public transit—and they’ll find it’s an easy, fun, and eco-friendly way to get around,” said Eric Lucan, Chair of the SMART Board of Directors.
According to SMART, no passes are necessary to ride, youth must simply show a valid K-12 school or government-issued ID to the train conductor or bus operator when boarding. Youth grades 9-12 may use a school ID from the Spring 2023 semester. Youth grades 8 and under, if asked, may present a school ID, or tell the conductor their grade and which school they attend. Younger children, under age 5, also ride for free but must be accompanied by an adult.
Austin’s Project Connect
Following the release of five options for Austin’s Project Connect, which received community feedback, ATP is recommending the City, Travis County and CapMetro move forward with two of the proposals, according to a Fox 7 report.
According to the report, the first option would connect 38th Street in Central Austin to Oltorf and S. Congress, and east to Yellow Jacket; the second would connect the N. Lamar transit center to Pleasant Valley Road in Southeast Austin.
The advisory committee, Fox 7 reports, said each recommendation, which were chosen because they are “the longest with the highest expected number of rides” will “provide critical routes for future expansion” with both including an on-street light rail.
According to the report, community feedback showed a “strong preference” for reaching the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, which neither of the options provided initially, but both could “eventually be expanded.”
“ATP worked diligently to operate in full transparency as we sought community feedback during this vital process,” said ATP Executive Director Greg Canally, according to the Fox 7 report. “We know how crucial it is to have this feedback from people all over our city with different levels of current transportation access, and we believe we were able to reach those who need this system the most. We continue to see support and excitement for light rail and feedback on the options focused on reaching key destinations and serving the most people. It is clear that the people of Austin want this project to move forward, and for us to continue surging ahead with a plan to make our city a much more mobile and accessible place. Our team will carefully consider the key themes among the feedback we received to ensure that our staff recommendation is an option that reflects the community it will serve.”
The Austin Light Rail implementation plan (download below) will be presented to transit leaders on May 22.
The New York MTA on May 17 released the Final Report (download below) of the Blue-Ribbon Panel on Fare Evasion, which recommends a comprehensive plan to combat fare and toll evasion, including “modernizing subway fare gates, better supporting low-income transit riders, and instituting a generational refresh of enforcement that commits to precision policing and civil enforcement for most evaders.”
According to the report, the situation has reached “crisis levels,” with the MTA losing an estimated $690 million in unpaid fares and tolls in 2022, “threatening the economics of mass transit in the New York metropolitan area and tearing at the social fabric of the city and region.”
According to MTA, the Blue-Ribbon Panel, a group of education, social justice, and law enforcement experts that convened in May 2022, was given a mandate to investigate the root causes of fare and toll evasion and develop a comprehensive strategy to combat it. In developing the plan, members of the panel performed nine site visits of subway, bus, commuter rail, and bridge and tunnel facilities and held six panel-wide meetings to develop the final report.
To drive down evasion, the panel proposed a refreshed, 360-degree strategy, which, the agency says, “moves away from a sole focus on enforcement and, instead, responds to the root causes of fare and toll evasion through the four ‘E’s’ of Education, Equity, Environment and Enforcement.”
According to the agency, fare evasion in the subway system cost the MTA $285 million in lost revenues in 2022. Each day, approximately 400,000 riders enter the New York City subway without paying—roughly 10-15%. To combat this, the Blue-Ribbon Panel proposes replacing the existing token-era turnstiles with redesigned turnstiles, which are glass gates and more modern, increasing accessibility while allowing the MTA to remove the existing emergency gates, which, the agency says are “the largest single conduit of fare evasion in the entire system.” Currently, more than half of all subway fare evasion occurs through the existing emergency gates.
In the immediate term, solutions to make the existing turnstile and fare gate control system more evasion proof will be explored. According to an ABC 7 report, gate guards are already being deployed at 30 stations with the highest incidence of fare evasion.
The MTA is also coordinating with the NYPD on precision enforcement in the subway system. In the past year, the number of summonses has increased nearly 60%, but the MTA says there needs to be “more focus on how to select locations for deployment.” The panel calls for using new technology and data sources to pinpoint evasion hotspots, as well as a community-based approach to creating “zero evasion stations”—first, discouraging evasion by working through local organizations to promote fare payment, and following only then with targeted enforcement efforts.
Between the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) and Metro-North Railroad, the Blue-Ribbon Panel found that fares not collected or collected incorrectly cost the MTA an estimated $44 million in 2022. Roughly 6% of passengers between the two railroads are currently not paying at all.
The Blue-Ribbon Panel identified several drivers of fare evasion on the railroads, including persistent delayed activation of e-tickets, an ineffective invoicing system for those caught not paying, and passengers simply avoiding purchasing a ticket before their journey and gambling on the conductor not checking for payment. The panel acknowledged the complexity of fare enforcement on railroads potentially imperiling on-time performance.
Recommendations to curb nonpayment on commuter rail included strategies to encourage, or even mandate, pre-boarding activation of e-tickets, a reimagined penalty system for nonpayment to replace the current invoice where recidivist offenders pay more and exploring the feasibility of physical gating at appropriate stations.
“This report is the product of over a year of intensive work taking a fresh look at the issue of fare and toll evasion, its causes, and potential solutions,” said Rosemonde Pierre-Louis and Roger Maldonado, Blue-Ribbon Panel Co-Chairs. “Fare evasion is a crisis that threatens the future of the MTA, and to solve it the panel believes a rigorous, comprehensive approach to tackle root causes is needed. By bringing New Yorkers together and centering education, equity, and changes to the physical entry experience along with a reimagined enforcement strategy, we can alleviate evasion and turn the tide.”
“Fare and toll evasion isn’t just an economics problem: it tears at the social contract that supports mass transit in New York City. New Yorkers are sick of feeling like suckers seeing their neighbors beat the fare or cheat the toll while they pony up their fair share,” said MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber. “The report findings address this emerging crisis with a comprehensive plan across all MTA services, while also acknowledging that enforcement alone will not solve this problem. The MTA will look to implement some of the Panel’s key recommendations, and we thank them for their tremendous work.”