Cheaters, pony up; LA subway's honor system ending

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By ANDREW DALTON, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Locking gates are coming to Los Angeles subway stations, forcing riders who have long cheated on fares to start paying or get a lot more creative.

Since the first few miles of track opened in 1990, the system has used what amounted to an honor system for tickets.

Now, the light-rail system that includes the subway lines has 85 miles of track and 170,000 daily riders, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board wants it to work like many other cities that use locking gates to limit access to paying customers only.

Riders have always been required to have a ticket and faced a $250 fine if caught during random on-board checks by authorities. Soon they'll need a special card to open gates that lead to station platforms.

"The honor system hasn't worked," said county supervisor and MTA board member Zev Yaroslavsky.

The MTA estimates it has lost $4 million annually in potential fare revenue on the Red and Purple subway lines, and another $7 million throughout the light-rail system.

Judging from recent test runs, 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 current base fare for a one-way ride is $1.50. A one-day pass runs $5, a seven-day pass is $20 and a 30-day pass costs $75. Under the new system, riders also must pay a one-time fee of $1 to get a card to load with fare credit and scan at the gates. Long-term pass holders already have the cards.

The switch to locking gates will begin in late June along the Red Line subway from downtown to Hollywood and the Purple Line subway from downtown to Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue.

Above-ground light rail stations will eventually follow, though many don't lend themselves to locked gates as currently designed.

One of the bigger challenges will be syncing the trains with the 17 other transit systems the lines link with, particularly the Metrolink regional commuter rail network.

Metrolink has agreed to put Metro's transponders in its tickets to smooth and simplify the gating process.

Officials said a series of tests conducted at 10 subway stations late last year produced evidence that fare-hopping was fairly widespread.

Ticket sales skyrocketed at stations where gates were used temporarily, strongly suggesting many passengers hadn't been paying before they were forced to pony up.

Riders have cited all sorts of reasons for going ticketless. The most common was time: It's just too tough to wait to buy a ticket when a train is coming and there's somewhere to be.

Some claim there were problems with ticket machines and they gave up. Others said they didn't have proper change or a working credit card, while some just forget.

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

Metro officials expect the gates to bring improved security and filter out many people who cause problems on trains.

The system also will provide more accurate figures on when and how many people ride the rails.

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

It was not clear whether the locking gates will require more staffing to deal with issues such as stranded or stuck passengers, especially disabled riders, who are the biggest concern in implementing the system.

Stations are monitored via video and have intercom access to Metro staff members, which could offset the need for more employees.

The changeover will begin at the Purple Line's Normandie Station. Officials estimate the process will take about seven months.

"''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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