TAP is being fixed, but the turnstile debacle will not go away

Screen_shot_2010_09_01_at_10.13.35_PM.pngUnion Station. Photo: Jim91773/Flickr

You might have noticed there has recently been much media attention centered on the problems of Metro’s TAP system and the gating of some of the Metro Rail stations. It all started when reporter Troy Anderson at the Daily News stumbled across this long festering situation that has been the object of much righteous criticism among activists and on the blogsphere. Anderson’s classic reporter instincts realized this was a hot story worth pursuing. You have to say the headline “MTA’s $46M system of locking turnstiles sits unused, waiting for fare cards to be adopted” is eye-catching and even accurate!

As Steve Hymon noted on The Source, Anderson’s expose caught the attention of several local television stations who picked up on it for news briefs.

Matt Raymond, Metro’s Chief Communications Officer, engaged in a telling bit of mis-direction in his response to the Daily News piece ”Chucking Metro’s TAP smart card fare program as some critics suggest is like throwing the baby out with the bath water”. No one has suggested getting rid of TAP only that it is a fiasco built on massive mis-management and incompetence. But the gates are a different matter, as I discuss below.

Belatedly the Times’ Editorial Board jumped on the bandwagon with a fairly good summary of the problems surrounding TAP.

This time Metro CEO Art Leahy made the response, stating the smart card problems “can and will be cleared soon.”

Strangely Hymon alone (and even then only off-handily) mentioned the main near-term solution to many of TAP’s problems that is being readied: paper TAP cards with chips that can have value loaded on the bus fareboxes or rail station ticket machines. Bus operators will be issued these paper cards which will end the disgraceful flaw of the initial design of TAP expecting passengers to board already possessing a plastic TAP card if they want to purchase a day pass on the bus.

The paper TAP will be good for up to 30 days. All paper passes will transition to these paper TAP cards. Additionally Metro staff intend to overcome problems with having a EZ pass on TAP by using these paper cards with a EZ Pass sticker showing the month of purchase. These will be used as a flash pass on systems that accept EZ pass but do not have fareboxes for TAP.

This falls short of TAP being the regionally integrated fare system originally promised, but that goal was probably overly ambitious. Plus it is obvious the TAPucrats designed TAP for the needs of Metro with inter-agency integration mostly paid empty lip service. Given that several major agencies like Santa Monica and Long Beach have or are in the midst of pursuing their own smart cards that are not TAP compatible this compromise measure to preserve EZ-Pass may be the best solution possible to achieve the regional goals of TAP for the foreseeable future. Though one big question mark is what to do for Metrolink and its horde of riders who use Metro services to complete their trips. At the moment they do this by flashing their tickets and passes that are also EZ passes to fare inspectors and bus operators. The last solution I heard broached was for Metrolink to sell to its patrons a discounted TAP card they can use to access the Metro system.

And even with the paper TAP card in place Metro still couldn’t close the gates until it dealt with the 1/3 of its riders who are Seniors that still use the old monthly stamps and have not yet applied for a TAP card. Most K-12 students also don’t yet have TAP cards. When Metro undertakes a campaign to convert the remaining Seniors and K-12 students to TAP then maybe we can feel the possible locking of the rail station gates is finally at hand.

But I doubt it will ever happen. I think there is only a 50% chance of the gates being locked. Many of the assumptions about fare evasion and costs of the gates have proven faulty. Metro has even hedged about whether it may need station agents due to shortcomings of the gates. That would blast a giant hole straight through the financial assumptions to justify the gates. I understand Board members have started hedging their support of the gates as the truth is becoming apparent. Further the chief proponent
of the gates Yvonne Brathwaite-Burke left the Metro Board 18 months ago and one wonders if when push comes to shove whether ongoing revelations about the true cost of the gates will compel the Board to cut their loses. Which could be done easily since Metro never purchased the gates, only leases them from vendor Cubic and can at its convenience terminate the agreement and have the gates pulled out.

To me the recent low point of the TAP/gating debate is Steve Hymon in the above mentioned piece on The Source opining “I’m not a fan of the current “proof of payment” system or, as it’s often called, the honor system. I don’t think it’s fair to paying customers — even if fare evasion is estimated to be low — and I certainly don’t think it makes sense going forward as the Metro Rail system expands and stations are inundated with many more passengers. Most other large cities had long had gates or turnstiles and were able to convert them to smart cards; Metro is doing it from the ground up.”

With all due respect Mr. Hymon, your stance makes no sense. The cost benefit of gating is so laughable that justifying it on the dubious basis of fairness should rightly boomerang back on you. Is it fair that millions were spent by a clueless Metro Board of Directors that ignored signs from the get-go that the gating was a bad idea driven by dubious motives and a greedy vendor? The problem isn’t converting to smart cards (which is mostly a problem of competence) but the attempt to tie it to installing gates at the rail stations. Also, when you talk of other cities you glide over the fact those systems were designed to facilitate gating. No one has ever before tried to retrofit gating a urban rail system and in fact Metro’s effort will not be comprehensive as a number of light rail stations will not have gates as their designs make adding them physically impossible. How come that isn’t a gaping hole in the concept?

Proof of payment has become the industry practice in all new systems during the past 20 years because it makes sense. What’s fair to paying customers is the agency do what is right, not having a Board of Directors act out a bizarre psychodrama straight out of the theater of the absurd wasting millions in a wrongheaded quest. And where is the accountability? The travails of TAP are treated like a perpetrator less crime. Action to kill the gating should have happened at least a year ago. We have had enough playtime–are there no adults to finally step forward and end this farce? The mounting evidence the gating is a fisaco can no longer be ignored by illogical defenses and squint-worthy assertions.

Kymberleigh Richards in the original Daily News piece summed up the essence of the problem of the gates ”We are never going to get ($154 million) in lost fares out of this. At $1.50 a ride, how many fare evaders do you have to catch to make back ($154 million)?” I agree with her and thus foresee Metro stumblingly will eventually have a workable if less than optimal TAP but that the gates may well end up being pulled out. Probably the best outcome for a debacle of massive proportions.