Is Los Angeles' fledgling subway system about to go the way of hard-nosed New York?
In an effort to reduce the number of fare evaders, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is exploring the possibility of installing turnstiles at all Red Line entrances to make sure every rider pays.
Unlike New York City's subways and other heavy rail systems -- which usually have revolving gates, turnstiles or other barrier devices -- laid-back Los Angeles is on an honor system. Roving transit police officers and civilian fare inspectors conduct periodic checks. Signs warn that violators face fines of up to $250.
But an estimated 5% of all MTA riders -- or more than 6,000 a day on the Red Line alone -- still cheat. And with the MTA facing an operating deficit of $125 million next year, all of those free rides are making some transit officials chafe.
"We spend a lot of money on inspectors checking on who is a scofflaw," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, a director on the MTA board who asked agency staff to study the costs and benefits of installing a barrier ticketing system for the Red Line. The transit agency spent $19 million on policing and security for the subway last year, she said, "and most of that is to ask people if they paid."
Experts say it's too early to tell whether it would be a good plan. But transit advocates already are expressing outrage.
"It's a draconian idea that people need to be treated like animals, going through barrier gates," said Bart Reed, executive director of the Transit Coalition, an advocacy group based in Sylmar. "People in wheelchairs can get stranded. It's anti-consumer and can drive ridership down."
Last year, transit police and civilian fare inspectors cited about 51,900 riders systemwide for offenses such as fare-dodging and eating, smoking, spitting or skateboarding inside a bus or train, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which provides security and patrol services for the MTA. The vast majority of the citations were issued to people without a valid ticket.
But experts predict that even if all of those spacious Red Line entrances are gated, enterprising riders will still figure out ways to beat the system. Riders have been known to use counterfeit tickets, lie about their age to obtain a student or senior pass, or simply hop over turnstiles.
Across the nation, about 20 rail lines -- the vast majority of them light rail -- do not have barrier systems stopping each rider to verify payment before boarding, according to the American Public Transportation Assn.
Cities that rely on an honor system include San Jose, Sacramento, Houston, Dallas, St. Louis and Trenton, N.J. An additional 25 to 30 bus agencies also use fare inspectors to keep riders honest.
"Generally, people find it to work pretty well," said Fran Hooper, director of member services for the transit trade group. "We don't see people converting to put in turnstiles."
But among transit agencies using an honor system, the MTA seems to have some of the most pervasive cheating.
A 2000 survey of transit agencies that don't use turnstiles showed a fare-evasion rate ranging from less than 1% to 6%, or an average of 2.4%, said Daniel Fleishman, a transportation consultant who co-wrote a 2002 report on "barrier-free fare collection" for the Transportation Research Board and has done work for the MTA. The MTA at the time, along with the San Diego trolley system, reported a 6% rate.
Metrolink, which runs commuter trains in six counties in the region, has a fare-evasion rate of about 1.1%.
"Putting in barriers will reduce the rate of fare evasion," Fleishman said. "The question is whether it'll offset the cost of putting in a system."
In the MTA's case, staffers in 2003 estimated that it would cost $30 million to install fare barriers at all Red Line stations. That price does not include maintenance and additional personnel to staff the stations.
Most agencies that rely on an honor system do so because turnstiles are too difficult to install. Many light rail stations, for example, are so small that ticket vending machines are right on the station platform, leaving little room for much else.
The Red Line is a standout for being a subway without a barrier device -- but it was built to accommodate them. Each station is wired for turnstile installation, said Rick Jager, an MTA spokesman.
But in the 1980s, when the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission was building the Blue Line, officials decided on a barrier-free system, which was the industry standard for light rail. The commission insisted on doing the same thing for the Red Line, which it was funding but was being built by Southern California Rapid Transit District, recalled Tom Rubin, who has worked for both agencies.
"The two agencies hated each other and were always arguing about everything," Rubin said. "It was a dispute between the two agencies doing the two different lines, and it was settled by the one who had the money ... resolved by fiat rather than a technical analysis of what is better."
The two agencies eventually merged and became the MTA.
Rubin believes having turnstiles could be useful for the Red Line -- and not only for fare collection. "You have far better information on who's riding from where to where.... You can plan your service."