SCRANTON -- The County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) has been ordered to pay the state nearly $6 million. It's the latest in a ghost rider scandal that first surfaced in Luzerne County.
Officials with COLTS say they have known for quite a while that they would face a penalty for what they're calling a "sin of the past," inflating the number of senior citizens who ride their buses.
That penalty will mean a big financial hit for COLTS, but officials say it will not affect a multi-million dollar project to move the city bus hub from Wyoming Avenue over to Lackawanna Avenue.
COLTS executive director Bob Fiume says that back in 2007 the state started giving COLTS a fixed amount of money based on the number of senior riders in previous years.
But PennDOT says COLTS inflated that number.
So now PennDOT says COLTS must pay back nearly $6 million. COLTS will also get less state money going forward.
"This repayment is based on numbers provided to PennDOT in 2005 and 2006. So, it's a sin of the past that we're going to have to fix now," Fiume said.
When the Luzerne County Transportation Authority was recently accused by PennDOT of over reporting its senior ridership numbers, two higher ups at LCTA were charged with fraud.
But, that doesn't seem to be happening in the COLTS case. The solicitor for COLTS tells us no employees at COLTS were contacted about a criminal investigation or asked to testify in front of a grand jury.
Fiume says that COLTS started improving its senior ridership reporting in 2008, and because the numbers went down, the penalty from PennDOT will only be financial.
"We're going to have to tighten the belts obviously. We were looking at making some adjustments to routes or eliminations of some routes prior to this," Fiume said.
"Ouch, if they cut one of mine, like the Carbondale bus or the Green Ridge bus, I'll be stranded without a car. And there's a lot of people who take the bus," said Linda Titus of Scranton.
COLTS riders were disappointed to hear that state funding intended to put more money into public transportation may end up hurting the riders the most in the end.
"It's going to affect me a lot. I don't have transportation at this time. So, the bus really helps us a lot, it's not going to be too easy for us," said Courtny Roberts of Scranton.
COLTS officials plan to ask PennDOT for an extension on paying back that $6 million. If they don't get it, they may have to consider layoffs as well as cutting back routes. But the executive director says it won't halt plans for a new intermodal transportation center COLTS broke ground on just last week.