In his report to authority board members at their afternoon meeting, Executive Director Stanley Strelish addressed the question that has been dogging the authority for nearly a year: Were bus drivers logging senior citizen “ghost riders” to inflate ridership and up state funding?
“What we had seen … is a problem that was probably not only with one, but with quite a few drivers … not knowing exactly the proper way to count passengers, especially senior citizen passengers,” Strelish said. “We had visual inspections done and there were drivers that were counting passengers that were boarding the bus and then (counting the same passengers again) when they were alighting (getting off) the bus.”
Luzerne County Councilman Edward Brominski and authority board member Patrick Conway last July publicly alleged that some bus drivers and former board members told them Strelish ordered padding senior numbers to increase state funding, an allegation Strelish has consistently denied.
All riders except senior citizens either feed cash into the fare box or present a pass or transfer ticket; those methods are electronically recorded. But drivers must press a button to record when a senior citizen boards a bus.
The information supposedly came to light because drivers allegedly stopped marking nonexistent riders when they became disgruntled about the authority’s installation of cameras in their buses, which they viewed as invasive.
Senior citizen ridership numbers nosedived by about 50 percent soon after the allegations were made. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and state Office of Inspector General launched investigations after the allegations and ridership numbers made the newspapers.
On Tuesday, Strelish said he and other administrators met with some veteran drivers and newer drivers on April 5 to discuss ridership counts. He read to the board a letter presented then to all authority staff that noted the “dramatic decline” in senior ridership and the importance of accurate counts for scheduling.
“It is of utmost importance that drivers count all passengers correctly,” the letter states. “The LCTA’s management will monitor closely the amount of senior citizen riders (over 65 that ride for free).”
It went on to say that automated passenger counters would be installed in all buses by the end of April and will support the procedure of authenticating ridership numbers. “Your cooperation with this matter is expected,” the letter states.
The letter closes by informing staff that training sessions on the accurate counting of passengers will be conducted by LCTA’s road supervisor, Lee Horton, in the near future.
Strelish said he is still waiting on a report from PennDOT on the outcome of its investigation. “PennDOT … wants us to address the problem and this would be … one of the ways to address the issue, ” he said. “They’re going to come up with some more ideas and new ideas, and I’m assuming they’re probably going to come up with a universal swipe card for senior passengers. Hopefully, they will.”