Hidden Camera investigation: Half of fareboxes on Charlotte buses not working

WBTV Investigates: CATS missing millions in revenue as city leaders contemplate tax increase to fund transit
CATS buses are missing out on money, possibly millions of dollars, because of broken and malfunctioning fareboxes.
Updated: Aug. 1, 2022 at 6:00 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - CATS buses are missing out on money, possibly millions of dollars, because of broken and malfunctioning fareboxes. A WBTV hidden camera investigation found roughly half of the fareboxes used to punch tickets and collect money aren’t working properly.

The numbers are backed up by riders and drivers who have told WBTV the problem has existed for months without a fix.

Without working fareboxes on buses, the city cannot collect a fare from all passengers.

The problem comes as City of Charlotte leaders have been advocating for a one cent sales tax to fund a new mobility plan that would use billions of dollars for construction and improvements to buses, lightrail, roads and sidewalks.

Charlotte resident Paul Pacholski reached out to WBTV about the farebox issue after seeing another WBTV Investigation on the private contractor in charge of CATS bus operators, mechanics and the day-to-day.

Pacholski rides the #14 bus from The Arboretum into Uptown for work.

“The fareboxes are rarely working and the majority of time they don’t work,” Pacholski said.

Pacholski revealed his CATS Pass, provided to him by his employer tax-free, showing the last time he had a ride punched by a farebox was on June 15th. WBTV interviewed Pacholski on July 25th.

“I’ve been riding at least two, mostly three times a week since then,” Pacholaski said.

Over a couple of days, Investigative Reporter David Hodges hopped on various busses with a hidden camera.

Fare revenue from buses has dropped during the pandemic but even now, CATS is miles off its own projections. Records from a Metropolitan Transit Commission meeting show CATS predicted more than $12.5 million in bus fare revenues in FY22 but drastically slashed the optimistic forecast to $7.7 million by January.

To find out if those pessimistic revenue projections were due in-part to broken and malfunctioning fareboxes, WBTV went undercover with a hidden camera so as not to influence the results.

Over two days WBTV rode bus routes covering the county, including Matthews, Southpark, Beatties Ford Rd, Uptown, Plaza Midwood and more.

The results showed five out of ten buses had broken or malfunctioning fareboxes. Those findings are slightly better than estimates from Pacholski, other riders and drivers who guestimated 65 percent of fareboxes were not properly working.

The broken fareboxes often would not print a transfer ticket, meaning riders would have to double pay for their ride when switching buses. Instead of charging twice, operators tell WBTV they’re instructed to allow riders on for free.

WBTV used a 10 ride local CATS pass to pay for the bus rides and attempted to pay for every ride and not use any transfer tickets.

Many of the broken fareboxes are covered with tape or sheets of paper. But even fareboxes that were running, on occasion, wouldn’t log the ride or print a transfer ticket. Two of the fareboxes that WBTV paid on were slow to operate and required additional effort from the operators to charge and print transfer tickets.

WBTV interviewed CATS CEO John Lewis three days before the farebox bus tour and asked him about the malfunctioning fareboxes.

“Maintenance is an ongoing issue for us as in many industries. Supply chain is a challenge,” Lewis said.

Lewis told WBTV the regular shipment of parts to fix the fareboxes slowed down because of those supply chain issues. CATS said they would be able to provide the number of total broken fareboxes during the interview but has failed to do so for a week.

According to a city contract, maintenance and oversight of the fareboxes falls to the private contractor Transit Management of Charlotte and its parent company RATP Dev. A previous WBTV Investigation found that many city leaders were unaware the roles and responsibilities the private contractor had in operating CATS bus operations division. Now, Charlotte City Manager Marcus Jones has called for a review of CATS leadership and the contractor’s role.

Charlotte city council meeting records show council approved several actions to help with the fixing of fareboxes on August 9th, 2021. That included the purchase of farebox parts and the extension of a sole-source contract with company GFI Genfare for providing those parts.

The contract estimates expenses of $228,000 per year and sources at Transit Management of Charlotte tell WBTV that Genfare typically provides its own employees for the repair and replacement of those parts. It is unclear how much of the annual $228,000 remains.

Lewis said that regardless of the state of the fareboxes, the buses need to remain in service.

“That isn’t a reason to keep a bus from being on the street,” Lewis said.

Drivers have ways of keeping count of riders outside of the farebox system so one of the main impacts is on revenue. Lewis said that wasn’t an issue.

“We are fine from a fare box standpoint,” Lewis said. “We have received the federal revenue that will help us get through this period, both from a ridership standpoint and a supply chain standpoint, so revenue in that entry, is not a concern for us.”

But Lewis had a different tone in February of this year when he told WBTV CATS needed to find more revenue for Envision My Ride to prevent riders being stranded by buses that never showed up.

“How do we find additional revenue, dedicated revenue to create a transit system that meets the basic needs of our customers?” Lewis said in February.

City leaders have been advocating for a one cent sales tax that would generate billions of dollars for a new mobility and transit plan. Lewis has repeatedly stressed the importance of more revenue to pay for bus improvements to create more frequent service, more direct service and more crosstown and suburb connections.

The difference between bus farebox revenues and money from a sales tax is comparing millions to billions. But even critical aspects of Envision My Ride, like bus shelters, only cost $2.5 million over five years according to city records.

While some councilmembers have argued in the past for fare free transit, city leaders have claimed that transit fares, $18.3 million dollars in FY20 from all services, are an important part of the revenue stream.

WBTV could not find any data in the last year from CATS on its success in collecting fares, called “farebox recovery ration.”

Similarly, WBTV asked for an explanation on why the fareboxes weren’t working and any analysis completed on the amount of revenue lost from the broken fareboxes. CATS has not provided that information by publication of this article.

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