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MTA fare system runs into roadblocks

Amid delays and rising costs, streamlined pass program lacks oversight and a clear deadline, audit finds.

September 24, 2009|Dan Weikel

For years, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has wanted a seamless fare system that would allow transit riders to use the same pass to board buses and trains from different lines across Los Angeles County. But a decade after the MTA began its effort to replace paper tickets with smart cards, the project has almost doubled in price and is still not finished.

A new audit done for the agency by KPMG reveals that the cost of the Transit Access Pass program has risen from $78.5 million to $154 million since 1998 and that the deadline for completing the system has been extended from an initial estimate of three years to more than 10.

The KPMG report, released late last week, also concluded that the project lacks oversight, is understaffed by the MTA and has no plan detailing when the project will be finished or how much it will cost.

Art Leahy, who replaced Roger Snoble in April as the MTA's chief executive, said that he is concerned about the findings and that the program is not fully in place after a decade of work. He noted that additions to the project, such as fare gates at stations, have inflated its budget.

"I'm not saying the costs aren't justified," Leahy said. "But we can't afford to give TAP or any other project or program carte blanche when it comes to funding."

The program relies on smart cards with embedded computer chips. When boarding a bus, train or subway, a passenger swipes the card over a sensor that verifies the pass and deducts the prepaid fare. The system's bank automatically distributes the revenue to the transit agencies used by the rider.

If successful, the universal fare system would allow passengers to use the same prepaid passes for transportation agencies across the county, eliminating the need for transfers or the purchase of new tickets each time a different transit system is boarded.

The system, similar to those used in Chicago, the Bay Area and Washington, D.C., is designed to help reduce fare evasion, streamline the administration of fares and track ridership trends. The data can be studied to determine where to improve transit service.

So far, the MTA has equipped 2,500 buses with TAP sensors and installed ticket vending machines that can accommodate the cards at all its subway and light-rail stations. The devices advise riders to "Tap here."

But the MTA program has enrolled only six of 16 other transit agencies in the county, leaving gaps in the system envisioned by planners. The participants are the Santa Clarita, Culver City, Norwalk, Foothill, Gardena and Montebello systems.

Riders have also complained about inaccurate TAP cards that contain the wrong names, expiration dates, balances or type of pass. And civil rights advocates say that some people with disabilities might have difficulty swiping the TAP cards over sensors.

"I am concerned when I hear from people on the street who say the TAP system doesn't quite work," said Rita Robinson, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation and head of the MTA's operations committee, which discussed the audit last week. "It seems like the finish line is getting farther and farther away from us."

Leahy is scheduled to report to the MTA board in six weeks with recommendations to address the findings of the audit, which was requested earlier this year by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Leahy said he wants to increase efforts to recruit the rest of the county's transit agencies into the program, including Long Beach, Santa Monica and Torrance. At the MTA, he said, he would consider management changes, a task force of executives to oversee the program, a cap on expenses and setting a firm completion date.

"We need to wrap it up," Leahy said.

KPMG auditors blamed part of the delay on the slow development of an automated system to collect fares and distribute the revenue to transit agencies in the program. Until the system is proved, other agencies are unlikely to join the program, according to the report.

Assuming the other transit agencies eventually participate, more time will be necessary to install new fare boxes and ticket vending machines that are compatible with the TAP system. The audit notes that further delay will result if the MTA proceeds with a $46-million project to install 387 turnstiles in its subway and light-rail stations. About 40 gates are being tested and evaluated.

The audit, however, dispelled some concerns that a broader implementation of the TAP program in 2009 contributed to a loss of fare revenue for the MTA compared to 2008. KMPG concluded that there could be other likely causes, including fare evasion and a drop in ridership caused by the economic recession and a reduction in gasoline prices, which encouraged more people to drive.

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dan.weikel@latimes.com

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