The schoolchildren who dart in the back door, the burly guy who stares down the driver, the teen-ager who slips his pass to the buddy behind--Brenda Pittman has seen it all.
And the longtime bus rider is not pleased with the scofflaws who snatch free rides on the county's vast bus network.
"Why do we have to pay when others walk on the bus and don't pay? I'll go to the mayor and tell him I've seen this with my own eyes," an outraged Pittman declared. "I'd be willing to swear on a pack of Bibles."
A day after an internal audit was publicized, revealing potentially millions of dollars in losses from fare jumpers and dishonest transit employees, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's 1,700 buses went about their business Thursday--but with a number of indignant passengers like Pittman in tow.
Although the audit criticized poor management and financial controls within the transit agency, it also cited consumer fraud for loss of revenue--possibly as much as $2.2 million a year--from counterfeit passes, deliberately jammed fare boxes and uncooperative riders.
"Every day, about 15 to 20 of my passengers don't pay their fares," said Denise Roberts, who drives the Line 40 bus from Union Station to the Galleria at South Bay on weekdays. "There are some who never pay. They just walk on and say they don't have the money, and there's nothing I can do."
Observers point out that the money lost is only a tiny fraction of the $190 million the MTA collects annually in bus fares. One activist suggested that if poor residents can avoid coughing up $1.35 per trip, then more power to them.
"If bus drivers aren't making them pay, that's wonderful. It's minuscule compared to the cost overruns that have gone on in the rail system," said Martin Hernandez of the Labor/Community Strategy Center, an organization that advocates low-cost public transit.
"Those bigwigs at the MTA riding around in their Mercedeses don't know what it's like to have to ride a bus," added Michael Brown, riding Line 204 near Downtown. "People are always going to find a way to get around paying the full fare when they know they can't afford it."
Brown has been there himself. When times were tougher, he said, he managed some artful fare-dodging by doctoring the expired transfer slips he found earlier in the day.
With a judicious rip of the slip and a sincere look on his face, Brown could convince suspicious bus drivers that he had fallen asleep on another bus and awakened on the wrong side of town.
What about getting caught?
"People who are going through hard times aren't going to care if the bus driver threatens to call the police," Brown said. "They're frustrated."
In fact, whether the threat is real or empty is open to question. In an era where bus drivers must worry about their immediate physical safety before summoning authorities, few scofflaw citations, which carry $250 fines, are actually issued.
Since Jan. 1, said MTA Police Capt. Dennis Conte, transit police have written up 500 citations on the agency's sprawling bus system, which transports 1.1 million people daily.
By contrast, 6,500 tickets were issued on the MTA's 75,000-passenger rail network--13 times the number of tickets for a system that serves 7% the number of patrons.
Officials acknowledge the wide disparity, but argue that policing rail lines, which have fixed stops and enclosed stations where officers can be posted, is easier.
But bus drivers, who form the first line of defense against consumer fraud, and even other passengers are still left in the lurch when recalcitrant riders try to beat the system, often with surly behavior and abusive speech.
"I can see maybe an old person might be short a nickel or something--big deal, let them on," said Pittman, a nurse who takes the bus from the mid-Wilshire district to her job in Hawthorne. "But these young people who should have a job get on the bus and torture and humiliate these bus drivers and the passengers on the bus."
The audit specifically mentioned students as offenders who jam fare boxes to allow groups of youths to board without paying. Bus riders also tell tales of students climbing in through windows, illegally sharing their passes or slinking in the back door.
On Thursday, one young man in a rugby shirt and creased blue jeans boarded Denise Roberts' Line 40 bus, flashed his pass and quickly walked to the back of the bus.
"Where'd you get that pass from?" Roberts called out. "That doesn't look right to me. It has too many colors on it."
"That's typical," said Ruth Parker, a photography student at Los Angeles Trade Tech College, who rides the bus every day to school. "The ones who cheat don't really, really look like they need it to me."