Commentary on Metro Plan to Lock Subway Gates This Year

Photo by ttp://www.flickr.com/photos/46555935@N06SKD's LA Street Scenes via LAist

(Dana Gabbard is a Board Member of the Southern California Transit Advocates and an occasional contributor to Streetsblog.  When he opines, he does so on behalf of himself as a long-standing transit watcher.  Gabbard has written about the fare gate issue several times since Metro first proposed putting up gates in 2008 after years of being one of the larger “honor system” rail systems in the world.  Advocates howled that the gates are a waste of time and money, but Metro sticks to its guns.  After several field tests, the agency is now moving to finally lock the gates.  Many, including Gabbard, are still skeptical.)

In February the Metro Board passed a motion (see item #26) made by County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky:

… that staff return in March with a plan that would implement gate locking within 5-6 month, phased in on an aggressive schedule. Work to resolve fare media issues with Metrolink and the Municipal Operators and fare inspection issues with the Sheriffs Department.

Staff in March made a presentation at the Metro Board Executive Management Committee meeting on the steps necessary to implement gate locking.

Now Metro staff have prepared for this month’s Committee meeting a report on actions needed to lock the subway station gates by the end of this year.

One would first point out it is interesting that the original motion seems to contemplate going forward with the gating of the entire Metro rail system (to the extent that is feasible.) With nary a word of explanation staff have quietly downsized what is being attempted; locking the light rail stations has been set aside for now as Metro wrestles with the daunting task of just locking the Red and Purple Line stations.

Next, I find interesting the numerous mentions of Sheriff assistants as station agents, and that coverage may require nearly 60 more deputies than currently assigned to all the rail lines. This will not be cheap. In February 2011, Matt Raymond, the Metro executive in charge of both fare gate and TAP card implementation, estimated such agents would cost $20 million dollars a year. Despite the assertion by agency staff that the recent fare gate locking tests proved gate closing results in revenue generation, I have to question any claims the gating makes fiscal sense given the enormous cost for agents. Plus relying on the results of gate tests that were done in a very limited manner (and with a platoon of folks to oversee it) as being a realistic basis for going forward with the locking seems foolhardy.

There’s another onerous detail being overlooked.  Many Metro customers still don’t use TAP cards that will be required in a locked gate system.  TAP cards can be obtained at city offices and Metro Customer Centers and an extra ticket machine will be placed at the East Portal of Union Station. That is fine and well IF PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT IT. Buried in the report is the admission “nearly 40% of Red and Purple Line cash customers are not currently on TAP.” Also, such key constituencies as students, seniors and disabled will now need TAP cards to use the Subway.  Metro still has work to do reaching out to these groups. That seems to foretell that there will be confusion and difficulties when there is an “initial spike in demand for TAP cards.”

Metro is trying to evade responsibility for what could be any impending period of confusion and inconvenience by using innocuous sugar-coating phrases like “definite customer impacts” for  the result of requiring TAP cards at fare gates. Outreach from the beginning has been poorly handled and now it appears the solution to this failure is draconian measures forcing folks to get TAP cards by locking the gates. How customer friendly!

And incredible they are rushing forward despite still lacking a plan for dealing with Metrolink pass holders beyond vague talk of a “TAP alternative”. This is appalling!

At least the staff wisely dropped their hinted intention to deal with the problem of paper transfers issued by municipal carriers by no longer honoring them for accessing the rail system. Instead “Sheriff assistants (SAs) will monitor fare gates to ensure patrons with valid fare media may pass through gates”. What a high tech solution!

It is telling that their schedule of implementation puts the downtown gates last. I suspect they know issues relating to Metrolink and transfers will be most important for those venues and this will give them a chance to get the bugs out of the process of implementation by starting at the outer edge stations before undertaking the difficult task of dealing with 7th/Metro and Union Station.

And how about the new wrinkle that the gating may violate the California’s Transportation Development Act and therefore “additional legal clarification” is needed.  Sort of late in the process to stumble over this potential high hurdle, don’t you think?

From the start I have been convinced this was a bad idea. And the unfolding of the gating has only reinforced that perception. Yet doggedly the agency keeps pushing forward, seemingly unwilling to concede that it should admit gating just doesn’t pencil out and it is about time to tell Cubic to pull the damned turnstiles out of our rail stations and end this debacle. But I guess that is too much to hope for. S*I*G*H*