Fare and Foul

The next time you pay a bus fare, you'd better count your change.

Last month, the Longmont Police Department arrested three employees of First Transit Inc., the company that earlier this year began running two-thirds of the Regional Transportation District's privatized routes, for stealing thousands of dollars in bus fare. One First Transit employee has been charged with felony theft for stealing between $25,000 and $30,000, and the other two were arrested on misdemeanor theft charges for pilfering about $300 each.

The Longmont police are fairly tight-lipped regarding further details, since the investigation is ongoing. "There were certain fare boxes that were broken into, but there were also additional ways that they were getting the money," says Detective Scott Holmes, who made the arrests. Authorities were first alerted to the missing cash when several First Transit employees attempted to deposit large amounts of coins at a bank in Cheyenne -- coins still in moneybags marked with the First Transit logo.

While the names of the sticky-fingered employees have not been released, all of them work out of a First Transit branch office located at 811 South Sherman Street in Longmont.

Police in Adams County are also looking into the company's employees.

"We don't want to release too much information just yet," says Holmes, "but arrests will be made in Adams County related to the arrests we made up here. Three more First Transit employees will probably be arrested in the next few weeks."

Asked for a comment, Cincinnati-based First Transit released this statement: "First Transit is working in complete cooperation with the Denver Regional Transit District [sic], and we are pushing for full prosecution for all those involved in this matter."

RTD isn't taking the loss of its loose change lightly, either. "First Transit is contractually obligated to reimburse RTD for any losses, and we intend to pursue that contractual obligation," says Scott Reed, RTD's chief public-affairs officer.

The road to bus-route privatization started back in 1989, when the Colorado Legislature passed a law requiring RTD to hand over 20 percent of its routes to private companies. Two years ago, lawmakers upped that figure to 35 percent -- despite the fact that the road's been pretty bumpy so far. In January, Illinois-based ATC/Vancom begged out of a five-year, $80.1 million deal that called for ATC to run two-thirds of RTD's privatized routes, and RTD had to go looking for a third private contractor in as many years ("Bus Stopped," January 31). First Transit, which already had some of RTD's business, wound up taking over the rest of ATC's routes.

"We basically pay First Transit to provide transportation services," explains Reed. "Then they deduct their fare-box revenues from the monthly invoice that they send to us. This money was stolen directly from the riders."

Riders who might have been better off on truly public transportation, according to some RTD drivers. "We're obviously not big fans of the privatization laws, since there is virtually no oversight by RTD," says Bill Jones, a spokesman for the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 1001, which represents bus drivers employed directly by RTD. "We would prefer that all of the private buses were painted fluorescent orange, so that our riders could tell at a glance that they were different."

As for First Transit, Jones says, "They're living large." And off of small change, too.

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