- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 30, 2005

D.C. auditors yesterday sharply criticized the District’s multimillion-dollar public transportation program for city school students, calling its management “inadequate and inefficient.”

D.C. Auditor Deborah K. Nichols said her office uncovered an arrangement in which students could obtain up to three discounted Metrobus and Metrorail fare cards during a single school year, keep one and give away the extras.

“Ineligible persons could then travel at reduced fares on the Metrobus and Metrorail systems,” Mrs. Nichols’ report states. “Because no controls were built into student travel cards … the transfer of these items could occur without detection.”

Mrs. Nichols discussed the findings yesterday at a hearing before the council’s Committee on Public Works and the Environment.

D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican and chairman of the committee, said the subsidy program has had few protections against abuse.

“I could have a card and pass one to a couple of friends of mine who aren’t students,” said Mrs. Schwartz, who requested the audit last year.

The subsidy program, which offers discounted Metro cards to city school students, has seen its spending rise sharply in recent years. In 2001, the District spent $2.9 million on the program, compared with $4.1 million last year.

However, D.C. Department of Transportation Director Dan Tangherlini said the spending pressures likely coincide with increasing numbers of students choosing charter schools.

“Students are more likely to use the system,” Mr. Tangherlini said. “Students are becoming more mobile … and the system is becoming easier to access.”

The program has grown from about 4,200 riders in 2000 to about 7,400 in 2005, officials said.

Mr. Tangherlini said transportation officials have enacted a series of reforms that address many concerns outlined in the audit report, including plans to audit city schools where fare money is collected from student riders.

Mrs. Nichols called the reforms “very encouraging.”

Rosemary Covington, mass transit administrator for the city, said transportation officials have “established fairly tight procedures” in recent months.

For example, Miss Covington said the program is moving away from paper-based fare cards and toward a digital system with picture identification, making it easier for Metro station workers and police officers to spot fraud.

Mrs. Nichols also said auditors discovered that years’ worth of documents related to program expenses were missing when her office sought to review the papers, a violation of the District’s public records retention laws.

She said the problem in tracking down records, in part, has prompted her office to plan to conduct a citywide review of D.C. agencies’ compliance with public records laws.

“We’ve heard stories about records … that nobody can seem to locate,” she said.

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