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Did Subway Cheaters Put Egg On L.A.'s Face? 

MTA is dismantling the honor system, jacking up construction costs and lying about why

Wednesday, Mar 12 2008
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TWO WEEKS AGO, ROGER SNOBLE, CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Los Angeles, repeated a falsehood that typifies the confused move by powerful transit leaders to slap 379 restrictive gates onto the region’s honor-system subway.

 

(Click to enlarge)

click to enlarge In blaming L.A. residents, the MTA board has instituted the most punitive, expensive and - dubious of three plans.
  • In blaming L.A. residents, the MTA board has instituted the most punitive, expensive and dubious of three plans.

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In blaming L.A. residents, the MTA board has instituted the most punitive, expensive and dubious of three plans.

Spinning the massive $60 million gating project as the fault of Los Angeles residents, he strongly implied that the MTA has no choice.

“We have the only open subway system in the world,” Snoble said, referring to the fact that there are no turnstiles. On the region’s subway and light-rail system, riders themselves decide whether or not to buy a ticket, with fare officials conducting only intermittent ticket checks along the lines.

An MTA spokesman notes that, at the same meeting, Snoble corrected his inaccuracy. Los Angeles is one among many, many honor-based subways in the world. Subways in Australia, Austria and Germany have used the honor system for decades. Snoble, the spokesman says, “meant to say nation.” In the U.S., about 20 above-ground light-rail systems — in places including Salt Lake City, Portland, San Diego and San Jose — follow the honor system.

Despite his error, repeated as fact by the Los Angeles Daily News, Snoble’s message was clear: The Los Angeles approach stands alone, and, naturally, it isn’t working out.

What followed was the 10-1 vote two weeks ago by the MTA’s politician-controlled board to dramatically refit some of the most architecturally beautiful subway entrances in the world with turnstiles.

Now, the really unique thing about Los Angeles is that its honor system is going to be dismantled — the blame to be placed on Angelenos themselves.

For years, the MTA, operating from its gleaming downtown skyscraper, considered L.A.’s 5 percent evasion rate — costing about $5.5 million each year — an acceptable loss. Ticket revenue, after all, amounts to only $341 million of the transit bureaucracy’s massive $3.13 billion budget — the other roughly 90 percent of which comes from local, state and federal handouts.

But now the MTA has officially declared the cost of bearing Angelenos’ honor far too burdensome. Yet in trying to blame Los Angeles residents, the powerful board has now swung the pendulum far in the opposite direction, instituting the most punitive, expensive and dubious remedy of the three choices it considered.

The big winner is defense contractor Cubic Corporation, which lobbies large cities to erect costly ticketing gates that are installed and operated — for a very steep price — by one of its subsidiaries. In Los Angeles, MTA’s estimated price tag for gating its system has soared in four months from $31 million to $46 million — the price of the fat contract won last month by Cubic’s subsidiary. Ten million dollars is earmarked for the modification of dozens of subway and rail stations whose beautiful, open-air designs will be difficult to adapt to turnstiles.

The contract award encompasses 379 turnstiles, potentially covering almost every rail station in the city, and includes $12 million to pay for a decade of maintenance.

Yet Cubic’s lobbying doesn’t pay off in every city it targets. When it recently applied pressure to transit officials in Vancouver, B.C., insisting they needed gates on their honor-system light rail — which operates both below and above ground and has a 5 percent ticket-evasion rate, just like L.A.’s — the Greater Vancouver Transit Agency didn’t buy into it like MTA board members did. Vancouver transit officials were politically pressured by British Columbia’s transportation minister to go with gates, but its local transit agency in 2005 conducted a study of 14 rail systems globally, and found that the numbers didn’t add up.

“We realized we’d be spending $20 million to recover $4 million annually in maintenance and operations,” says Drew Snider of the South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority. “We decided it was more economical to have [inspectors] checking tickets and doing law enforcement.”

Cubic stands to make a fortune by pressuring big cities to gate their subways and light-rail lines. In Vancouver, the firm didn’t take “no” for an answer. It hired power broker Ken Dobell, a former deputy prime minister of British Columbia and former CEO of a Vancouver transit agency, to push for the turnstiles sought by Cubic. That effort failed — and this week Dobell took a huge dive, pleading guilty on March 11 to illegally using his influence to push companies who sought contracts from government agencies he once oversaw (Cubic was not named).


THE MTA DIDN’T STAND UP TO CUBIC like the transit agency in Vancouver did. The MTA board, made up of politicians like Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Burke and others, instead dramatically sweetened the pot and handed the deal to the huge contractor. Here’s how:

Last November, a $400,000 study conducted by the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton suggested three options to the MTA. The most modest option would have seen 157 gates erected, only on the Red and Purple subway lines, whose designs can more easily accommodate turnstiles than other lines. At a cost of $12 million, that option would have thwarted about half of the cheaters.

The middle option would have called for the erection of 275 gates along the Red and Purple lines and strategic locations along the Green, Blue and Gold lines for a cost of $31 million, requiring about 84 percent of rail users to pass through a gate.

Option 3 was a radical and expensive departure. It called for the gating of nearly every subway and light-rail station in L.A., regardless of how ill-suited some stations are, which would affect 98 percent of riders.

The MTA chose Version 2.89 — Option 3 minus 15 gates here and there. And ever since making that decision two weeks ago, the MTA has been straining to justify what it’s really up to.

In November, MTA executive Jane Matsumoto criticized Option 3. “This gating option would be the costliest alternative and not necessarily the most effective based on the TMD Evasion Study results,” she wrote, referring to the MTA’s own data on fare evasion. “It would mean considerably more equipment, even at stations and on lines that have low evasion rates, and may have nominal impact to fare recovery.”

Bizarrely, Matsumoto now tells the Weekly that the Booz Allen Hamilton study is no longer applicable, just four months later, noting that it didn’t include 35 gates set to be installed on the Gold Line. “You can’t hold a feasibility study to the same level [of detail] as a contract order,” she says.

She insists the gating project — scheduled to be completed by Cubic within 24 months — will “pay for itself within the fourth year of operation.” Most of the savings, if they do materialize, will not be from halting scofflaws. They will come from firing 90 roving fare inspectors who check for passenger tickets intermittently.

As the Weekly reported last year, the reason Los Angeles is losing its honor-system subway while other cities tout theirs is so that the MTA can make transit riders use ID cards that act like credit cards. The MTA has poured $80 million into a “Total Access Pass” system, in which it hopes to utilize “smart cards” that can follow the movement of riders in the system. For that, MTA must have gates.

Inadvertently shedding light on all this, an aide to MTA board member Yvonne Burke, Mike Bohlke, says, “You have a lot of credit companies interested in our riders, a lot of people who are transit-dependent, don’t have credit cards. ... There are a whole array of dividends we can achieve,” if riders are induced to use credit cards.

Matsumoto gives conflicting reasons: Metro wants to control “uncontrolled chaos” — her words. Metro wants to keep the homeless out. Metro wants to protect us from terrorism.

Yet the homeless are not a major problem on the rail lines. And the pricey new gating system doesn’t include “terror-fighting” tools like explosive-materials scanners — or finance the steep cost of training and employing workers to use these new technologies.

“I think the security argument is the way you get money these days,” says Richard Katz, the MTA board’s lone vote against the contract.


KATZ IS EITHER A STUBBORN FOOL or the smartest guy in the room. He believes the agency’s long history of bad assumptions is repeating itself. He’s unconvinced that the tiny percentage of riders who don’t pay fares ever will. They could merely disappear.

“I can count the number of times on one hand that MTA has been right about construction costs, operating costs — that doesn’t even include technological costs,” he says. “Any more money spent should go to Sheriff’s [deputies] — more eyes and ears on the platforms.”

Katz might be alone on the MTA board, but he has company in many big cities around the world, where open rail systems — like L.A.’s — are popular and the low percentage of scofflaws are considered a small price to pay.

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