'Ghost riders' draw scrutiny for transit systems

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Transit agencies across Pennsylvania are being scrutinized by the state over the subsidies they claim for transporting riders 65 and older, with at least four agencies being docked millions for inflating senior ridership numbers.

Criminal charges are pending against two high-ranking employees of the transit agency in Wilkes-Barre, and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has demanded it pay a $3.1 million refund after three-quarters of the senior riders it reported over a four-year span were deemed bogus. PennDOT is also getting back $5.7 million from the Scranton system, $264,000 from Mount Carmel and about $1 million from New Castle.

The state issued new guidelines last year to ensure accurate reporting of senior ridership numbers, undertaking a systematic review of how each of the state's 37 transit agencies collect, compile and verify the figures they submit for reimbursement. Failure to make certain the numbers are correct "may result in substantial financial penalties, including the refund of excess grant funds," PennDOT warned in December.

In the wake of the so-called "ghost rider" scandal in northeastern Pennsylvania and the drive to ensure accurate accounting going forward, many transit agencies are reporting sharply lower senior ridership numbers.

An Associated Press review of recent senior ridership figures from PennDOT found 10 other agencies in which the number of senior rides has decreased by at least 40 percent in the past five years. During that same period, the state's overall senior ridership inched down just slightly, from 35.2 million to 34.6 million. Ridership increased at 11 agencies, including the massive Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in Philadelphia and its suburbs, where it rose more than 5 percent in the past five years.

In Pennsylvania, the state says the value of each senior rider to the transit agencies varies from year to year, but one agency official said their senior subsidy works out to about $1.25 a person per ride. Money for the subsidies come from the Pennsylvania Lottery, which reports it provides more than $159 million annually to pay for free and reduced fares for seniors.

Officials at Pennsylvania transit agencies that have seen dramatic decreases in recent years attributed the changes to factors other than increased scrutiny, including changes in routes, seniors moving to more remote areas and older people relying more on cars.

At the Endless Mountains Transportation Authority in northeastern Pennsylvania, general manager Bill Nichols said much of its 44 percent drop occurred in one year, when it cut service because of funding.

Indiana County Transit Authority executive director John Kanyan blamed its 43 percent reduction in senior riders on trends in the college town's housing market that have pushed seniors out of its service area.

Town and County Transit official Patty Lynn Baker attributed the Kittanning-based agency's 56 percent fall off to the area's sluggish economy.

"Do you homework about Armstrong County," Baker said. "The last of the real employment left the area in the last four years."

Pennsylvania is not the only state where mass transit ridership figures have been fudged. State authorities in Iowa found a bus system's ridership had been inflated by more than 50 percent. A school district in Florida was fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for providing inaccurate numbers. And in New Jersey, officials at a bus company were charged with overbilling a county for senior riders.

PennDOT has been warning agencies about the criminal implications of submitting inaccurate or falsified data, and it plans to produce customized reports about the accuracy of each agency's numbers, including recommendations for procedural changes.

Seniors get free or reduced rides by showing certain ID when they are picked up. The drivers count them, usually by hitting a designated button on their fare box.

In northeastern Pennsylvania, Stanley Strelish and Robb Alan Henderson, the executive director and fixed-ride operations manager of the Luzerne County Transportation Authority, await trial on criminal charges for allegedly pushing drivers to inflate figures. Earlier this month, a district judge ruled there was enough evidence to send their cases to trial. Their lawyers have vigorously disputed the allegations.

According to a grand jury report, senior ridership numbers plummeted in all 20 of the Luzerne authority's routes immediately after newspaper accounts about ghost riders in mid-July 2012. They fell from 3,400 a day at the start of the month to about 1,200 a day at month's end.

"It is the belief/opinion of the grand jury that the steep decline in reported senior riders commencing on July 17, 2012, was the direct result of bus drivers stopping the practice of falsely recording senior riders due to the media reports," the grand jury report said.

PennDOT lowered Luzerne County's senior ridership numbers retroactively for 2008-2012 from 3.9 million to 970,000.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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