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MTA and its beleaguered Transit Access Pass system

Someday Los Angeles may have an efficient electronic pass system for bus and train travel. But for now, the switch is proving to be a poorly planned, confusing mess.

August 27, 2010

"Smart. Simple. Secure." That's the slogan the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has adopted for its new Transit Access Pass system, but at this stage of its development, a more apt description would be "Dumb. Complicated. Insecure."

In defense of the MTA, the county agency is trying to do things that its transit system — particularly its rail network — wasn't designed for. Its aim is to unify and modernize fare collection for the MTA, the 16 municipal bus operators in Los Angeles County and the Metrolink train service, all of which operate as fiefdoms. It's also seeking to do what every other big city in North America already does: use turnstile gates at rail stations.

Eventually, when the painful transition is over, Los Angeles might have an efficient electronic pass system in which the same card can get passengers quickly and easily onto any bus or train in the county, no matter which agency operates it, without having to worry about coming up with correct change or getting a transfer slip. Meanwhile, though, the switch is proving to be a poorly planned, confusing mess, with parts of the system rushed into place before the rest was ready. It's unclear how long it will take to work the bugs out, and some of the proposed "fixes" coming from MTA headquarters don't seem like much of an improvement.

Here's how the Transit Access Pass system works (or doesn't): Bus and train riders can buy plastic TAP cards online or at assorted stores and other locations around L.A. County. That makes sense for computer-savvy riders who can access the online map showing where the cards are available, but it's not so useful for low-income riders, many of them immigrants or elderly people, who make up the majority of MTA passengers. Heightening the inconvenience, you can't buy the cards at subway or light-rail stations, though MTA officials promise that someday that will be an option.

The cards contain a chip; tap the card against a reader on a bus or a rail turnstile and it registers that you're a paid passenger. Passengers can renew the cards at rail stations, online, at the store where they bought them or over the phone. Smart, simple and secure? Not so much.

For one thing, riders can buy only weekly or monthly access on TAP cards, except on buses. MTA buses used to sell paper day passes, but now they do it electronically; if you have a TAP card, the bus driver can add a day pass onto it. If you don't, you have to pay $1.50 in cash for a single trip, so if you're only using the system for a day and you have to make a lot of transfers, you're out of luck. The TAP cards also lack a "cash purse" capacity, meaning you can't just put money on them and have the cost of a trip automatically deducted when you ride. Transit planners say they hope to fix these problems by the end of the year.

The rail system has even bigger headaches. This month, the MTA finished installing turnstile gates at all of L.A.'s subway stations and half of its light-rail stations; the other half are designed in such a way that gates will never be practical. The gates are supposed to be locked — you tap your TAP card on the reader and it's supposed to let you through. But the gates, which cost $46 million to install, aren't locked, and won't be in the foreseeable future. That's because they can't read the paper tickets for one-way trips or day passes sold at the stations, or the transfer slips issued by Metrolink and the muni buses, or the paper monthly EZ Pass. Eventually, machines at the stations will sell paper tickets that contain smart chips like the ones in TAP cards, Metrolink and the munis will sign on to the TAP system, and the EZ Pass will be converted to TAP, so the gates will finally be locked. But nobody knows how long that will take.

Six of the 16 muni bus operators have so far failed to adopt TAP, and two — in Long Beach and Torrance — have decided not to participate. Metrolink, too, is not yet on board. The operators are worried about the cost of conversion, and some fret that the system won't fairly distribute fare revenues. Why the MTA installed the gates or proceeded with the TAP system before securing agreements with the individual transit operators is a mystery, but we think we know the answer: bad planning and even worse communication among the MTA's staff, its governing board and the agencies it's seeking to partner with on TAP.

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