A $3 surcharge tacked onto every purchase of the Clipper card starting next month will make it more expensive to cheat the regional transit-payment system.
As part of a convenience feature for users, the Clipper card can “go negative” — meaning a passenger can exit a station without having paid the full cost of the trip. This was done under the assumption that users would refill the balance the next time they took a public-transit trip.
Many passengers have taken advantage of the loophole. Last month, 10,370 trips ended with a negative balance that wasn’t repaid, said John Goodwin, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the regional body in charge of the Clipper system.
Since Clipper cards are free, passengers can add a nominal fare to their balance and make lengthy trips. For example, a BART passenger could add $1.75 to the card at the San Francisco International Airport station and exit at Pittsburg-Bay Point legally, leaving a negative balance of $9.30 for the $11.05 trip.
With an average negative trip costing $2.50, the MTC’s Clipper account lost $25,925 in July. Goodwin said the account varies greatly from day to day, but with more than 1.7 million Clipper card users, the negative balance incidents make up a small portion of total revenue.
Still, to help dissuade the practice, a $3 surcharge will be added to each purchase of an adult Clipper card starting Sept. 1.
That fee will be waived if the user enrolls in the auto-reload feature, which automatically puts money back on the card if there is a low or negative balance. The fee will not apply to temporary Clipper cards.
While the fee won’t completely halt the negative balance problem, it should help abate the issue, Goodwin said. It also should persuade more people to enroll in auto-reload, which will help reduce negative balance incidents, Goodwin said.
“There are over 600,000 daily trips right now on the Clipper card, which accounts for about half of all transit trips in the region,” Goodwin said. “So we’ve been successful in getting the card in people’s hands. Now the goal is to get people to reuse the cards more frequently.”
A major step in preventing negative balance incidents will come in about six months when all of BART’s add-fare machines become equipped to handle Clipper cards. When that happens, no one will be able to exit a BART station without paying their full fare, Goodwin said.
More than 60 percent of the negative balance trips occur on BART. Others happen on transit systems with zoned fare rates, such as Golden Gate Transit and Caltrain.