A Luzerne County Transportation Authority bus driver reported 537 senior citizen passengers boarded on July 17, 2012.
The recording from the video camera on this driver’s bus shows a far lower elderly rider count during the shift: 18.
It’s one of many examples of “ghost riders” highlighted in a report commissioned by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation recently forwarded to authority board members and administrative staff.
The state is withholding $3.16 million in funding to the authority, which provides public bus and van service, due to years of inflated senior citizen ridership counts.
The report largely fixated on July 2012 because records revealed a “striking drop-off” in senior riders that month.
Drivers logged 71,782 senior riders in June, 55,556 in July and 36,280 in August.
Zeroing in on the July numbers, analysts noticed an unusual ridership drop on most routes from July 17 to July 18. Specifically, the number of reported senior riders went from 3,421 on July 17 to 1,942 the next day.
Drivers manually press a button on a keypad to record senior passengers, who get free rides.
Though it’s not in the report, county Councilman Edward Brominski went public during a July 17 evening council meeting about concerns authority drivers were logging nonexistent “ghost riders” to boost government funding based on ridership.
The state’s consulting analysts suspected “something happened” in the two-day period but kept an open mind, examining June and August 2012 records looking for a similar “extreme” mid-month drop. They found none.
They also noticed 25 percent of the senior passengers reported between January and June 2012 were logged by three bus drivers.
Analysts reviewed on-board video recordings for certain drivers identified by number instead of name in the report.
Driver No. 746 stuck out because a bar graph revealed a steady number of seniors reported through July 18 and only a few the rest of that month.
To gain more perspective, they compared the senior riders reported by this driver to those of two other drivers on the same route to the Wyoming Valley Mall on July 17.
No. 746 reported 475 senior riders on the mall route that day, compared to 54 and 75 from the other drivers.
On the same day of the week, a week later, No. 746 reported only 23 senior riders, compared to 34 logged by each of the other two drivers. These two drivers were the same ones tracked with No. 746 a week earlier.
The report included an hourly breakdown of the 475 senior riders reported by No. 746 on the mall route July 17, including one hour where 111 seniors were logged.
The video record showed one senior during this hour — not 111. The number also raises a flag because each bus holds around 40 passengers.
Analysts found senior rider discrepancies on buses driven by other drivers when they checked the video record for July 17:
• Driver No. 729 — 19 seniors reported, 10 on video
• Driver No. 320 — 256 reported, 33 on video
• Driver No. 865 — 105 reported, 33 on video
• Driver No. 744 — 53 reported, one on video
Several authority bus drivers and employees have reportedly testified before a grand jury about the passenger number padding.
Authority Executive Director Stanley Strelish has vehemently and repeatedly denied instructing drivers to falsify ridership numbers.
After conducting an internal investigation, he has said some drivers were apparently under the impression they should hit the counter button each time a senior boarded and exited a bus, but they have since been re-trained in proper recording procedures.
Strelish also has noted he came up with the idea to install cameras in buses. The cameras were installed in 2010.
The state report, which was obtained from a source, also included an Oct. 14, 2009, memo to employees from Strelish stressing the importance of accurate passenger counts and logging of vehicle usage.
“The accuracy of these factors is essential to the correct distribution of operating assistance funds to the Luzerne County Transportation Authority,” Strelish wrote.
He reissued the memo in June 2012, and the report includes initials from drivers verifying they received it and will keep accurate information.
Inflation of senior riders was possible because the elderly present cards that don’t have to be swiped by drivers. Other riders feed money into a box or present bus passes purchased in advance.
State officials said $3.16 million in funding will be withheld because the authority received more than it should have over six years due to senior ridership misreporting.
The authority is challenging the state’s decision, and authority board members voted this week to hire a consultant to conduct an independent review of the state’s data.