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And that, more than the MTA board’s dubious official tale — cracking down on the tiny group of honor-system scofflaws — seems to be driving the push for turnstiles.
The idea for so-called Total Access Passes was cooked up by the board years ago, and the MTA has since spent $80 million on the project. But by the admission of MTA executive Jane Matsumoto, getting the passes to work is virtually impossible without a turnstile-and-barrier system.
Without turnstiles, “we are likely to throw $80 million away,” on the Total Access Pass boondoggle, says Mike Bohlke, assistant deputy to board member and Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke, who voted for the gates. Matsumoto adds, “Automated fare collection is the vision of our board.”
Bohlke insists that the end of the honor system and the installation of gates means “seamless travel” for Angelenos.
But as doubtful riders ask, What is more seamless than a system with no walls?
“What is so beautiful is that you can just get on and off — it’s almost like a dance,” Goldschmitt, the UCLA student commuter, says. She was so annoyed by the board’s embrace of turnstiles that she called the Weekly while traveling in Rio de Janeiro. “Adding turnstiles feels kind of ugly.”
What may be even more ugly is the board’s use of the war on terror to justify its move. “When one argument doesn’t fly, the board finds a popular way to phrase things for funding,” Katz says of his peers. “In this case, it’s ‘security.’ ”
MTA officials claim that the new payment-control gates are easily fitted with “ion scanners” to check passengers for trace amounts of explosives. According to MTA officials, once it requires riders to use debit cards doubling as ID cards, police will be able to track the movements of all riders.
So, instead of emphasizing an honor system that gives Los Angeles some civic pride, the system becomes a supposed tool against terrorists — and a way to watch everyone else as well.
The MTA’s board of directors came to this decision after paying $400,000 to a consultancy firm, Booz Allen Hamilton, to look into ways of justifying the turnstiles.
The report found that 5.5 percent of riders were scofflaws. Or put another way, 95 percent of Angelenos willingly buy their tickets — no surprise, right in line with what was predicted more than a decade ago and deemed acceptable.
After looking at the “cost-benefit” report from Booz Allen Hamilton, all board members except Katz voted for a “middle option” among three: $30 million or more in capital investment to build 275 turnstiles, plus $1 million in annual upkeep. There’ll be years of profit for Cubic, the gate system’s architect, which will be handed a lease to control the gates.
TODAY, 90 FARE INSPECTORS walk the 216 railcars, a train system that has grown since the Blue Line opened in 1990, now handling 83 million passenger boardings a year. The civilian fare inspectors, contracted through the L.A. Sheriff’s Department, each cost the MTA around $85,000 in salary and other benefits, according to MTA spokesman Rick Jager. The Booz Allen Hamilton report estimates that the inspectors cost $7.06 million annually.
Daniel Cowden, director of security for the MTA, says that out of 52,000 citations given by fare inspectors in 2005, $1 million was recouped from riders who were fined $250 for fare evasion — and thousands of tickets were issued for other reasons, like public drunkenness.
Even a critic who berates fare inspectors for failing to recoup more losses, and who lauds the upcoming turnstiles, was miffed to learn that most of the savings under the MTA’s turnstile plan will come from firing fare inspectors. “To replace that human-authority presence for turnstiles is a mistake,” blogger Stephen Friday says. “The MTA should bring in the new gating systems to supplement its current safety measures. After all, I think perceived safety is one of their biggest hurdles in luring new riders.”
But maybe the MTA is a bit sidetracked from its core mission. It is supposed to implement anticongestion policies and build transit systems. Instead the MTA, whose board’s first vice president is prodensity czar Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, has increasingly involved itself in big development projects that make it look more like a land developer than an anticongestion agency.
For example, the MTA plans to lease out 15.6 acres of land it owns in North Hollywood for the $1 billion, ultra-high-density NoHo Art Wave office, shopping and apartment development whose street traffic could end up dwarfing Hollywood & Highland’s infamous road congestion. Art Wave includes 6,000 parking spaces — more than the Westside Pavilion. Yet MTA officials, without irony, argue that the North Hollywood project will address rather than cause congestion — making the development a “transit” project.
In some ways, the MTA’s mission appears to have less and less to do with moving people around town: Its dream of issuing credit cards, tracking consumer movements, and leasing land for huge shopping centers feeds that image.
Not everyone is happy about the agency’s metastasizing mission, particularly its plan to use the new turnstile system to track law-abiding Angelenos. John Crossley, a former professor of religion at USC who mistrusts the “security argument” often used to clamp down on personal freedoms, says, “I think it’s bad. There shouldn’t be any type of system where we are tracked.”