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Cheaters, pony up; Los Angeles subway’s honor system ending

Updated: May 25, 2012 9:26AM



LOS ANGELES — Nobody pays in LA. Or so say some scofflaws on the city’s fast-growing subway system. But soon they’ll be digging for their dollar-fifty like everyone else.

Since its first stretch of track opened in 1990, the Los Angeles County light rail system used what amounted to an honor system for its tickets.

Now, with 85 miles of track and 170,000 riders, the board of the county’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has voted to make the system work like it does in every other big city by approving locking gates.

Riders have previously been expected to have a ticket, and faced a $250 fine if caught without one. Tickets will now have transponders and riders will scan them to open gates.

“The honor system hasn’t worked,” said Los Angeles County supervisor and MTA board member Zev Yaroslavsky. “I don’t know of any major metropolitan transit agency in the world that does this.”

Judging from recent experiments, a lot of former free riders will become paying customers and the agency is expecting a bump in revenue as it installs the new system.

“We’ve jumped a few evolutionary steps,” said Metro’s Chief Communications Officer Matt Raymond.

The process will begin this summer on the system’s two subway segments, the Red Line running from downtown to Hollywood and the Purple Line from downtown west along Wilshire. The above-ground light rail stations will eventually follow, though many don’t lend themselves to locked gates as currently designed.

MTA estimates that it has lost $4 million annually on the two lines, and $7 million throughout the light rail system.

One of the bigger challenges has been syncing the trains with the 17 other transit systems it interacts with, particularly the Metrolink regional rail network.

Metrolink has agreed to put Metro’s transponders in its tickets, smoothing and simplifying the gating process.

The end of the honor system also means the phasing out of a huge, if unintended, social experiment on honesty.

Most riders have monthly passes or transfers that let them ride legally. Most of the rest pony up for tickets, either out of conscience or fear of the $250 fine.

But officials say a series of tests Metro conducted at 10 subway stations late last year produced evidence that fare-hopping was fairly widespread.

Ticket sales skyrocketed at the gated stations, strongly suggesting many passengers hadn’t been buying them before they were forced to.

Riders have cited all sorts of reasons for going ticketless, the most common among them lateness — it’s just too tough to wait and buy a ticket when a train is coming and there’s somewhere to be.

Some have ticket machine problems and give up, some don’t have proper change or a working credit card, others just plain forget.

“Some people were doing it maliciously, some people just thoughtlessly,” Yaroslavsky said.

Metro officials cited other perks to a new system. They say it could provide a filter for those who cause problems on trains and bring improved security.

It will also allow far more accurate figures on how many ride the trains, and when.

“Definitely, in the future it will help us plan our system,” Raymond said.

It was not clear whether the locking gates would require more long-term staffing to deal with issues like stranded passengers, especially the disabled, who are the biggest concern in implementing the system.

Stations are monitored via video and supplied with intercoms connecting them to Metro staff, which could offset the need for more employees, but it was too early to tell.

The process will begin with the Red Line’s Normandie Station.

“”We’re going to try to perfect it on the first station,” Raymond said, “then once we get it down to move on to more.”



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