How many riders jump Metro’s turnstiles? Have L.A.’s poor been nudged into misdemeanor law-breaking, risking $75 fines, because of recently hiked fares? Metro believes that 8 percent of riders, or one in 12 people, evade fares. But that's if you believe a nearly decade-old study.
L.A. is a highly creative town. Some people do simply leap the gates. But other rogue riders glide through "TAP" validation points without a TAP (Transit Access Pass) card, or their card has been drained of its balance – an “abusive TAP” in Metrospeak. Some riders squeeze through turnstiles as a congealed uni-group, or slide through wheelchair gates behind disabled patrons. Some young people quietly pay for only a senior fare.
Metro says each ride brings in just 70 cents due to legal discounts for students, seniors and others. The true cost of fare evasion can't be known, Metro says, until all 80 light-rail and subway stations have been latched with single-entry turnstiles — at a cost of $1 million for each of 40 stations still lacking the gates. In weighing a system-wide latch-down, says Metro spokesman Paul Gonzales, the question is “how many millions must be spent to chase 70 cents?”
But chasing that 70 cents is underway in earnest, according to lopsided data released by Metro to L.A. Weekly under a Public Records Act request. In 2013, 89,535 citations were issued as L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies and Metro security forces got much more aggressive, papering wayward riders with 35.5 percent more citations than in 2012.
Transit rights activist Tekoah Flory claims Sheriff's deputies are far more aggressive in challenging poor, black and brown riders than white riders. Black male riders are six times more likely to be cited for fare evasion, she says. Her group's study of 136,000 citations issued to youth indicates 26 percent were black and some 30 percent Latino.
The Metro data released to the Weekly shows a huge concentration in citations among 19-to-29 year-olds, with $75 tickets issued three times more often to males than females. The most-fined riders are those unfortunates riding the Blue or Red line.
Metro’s studies of select light-rail stations where latching turnstiles were installed in recent years show that the number of people who pass through the locked stations fell, while revenues increased.
Then in July, a Los Angeles Times report revealed a very large gap between Metro's widely-touted ridership estimates and the number of tickets Metro is actually selling. The gap suggests not only fare evasion but possibly widespread accidental failure by riders to properly swipe their TAP card, perhaps some malfunctioning equipment — perhaps even some ridership estimate quirks.
But Metro is highly critical of the Times' eyebrow-raising article, saying the newspaper merely applied simple arithmetic to outdated passenger stats, and that Metro had warned the paper that the data was flawed and no longer in use.
The truth is, Metro is in the dark.
“We know it occurs, but we don’t have a good method for determining how widespread the problem is," says Gonzales of the fare-evasion crowd, “and it’s impossible to employ the number of personnel required to eliminate 100 percent of fare evasion.”
“Stations are not designed to keep people out,” says Gonzales, “they’re designed to get people through the system.”
Among other citation-issuing techniques, security personnel use smart phones to check a rider's TAP card for its payment history. Not enough cash on the card to have paid for the ride? A citation ensues.
According to activist Flory, kids who don't know their constitutional rights too easily give in to deputies’ cheerful requests for a pat-down. Yet a marker stuck in someone’s pants pocket may lead to vandalism accusations – and lighters or other objects may boost a $75 fine to $250, she says.
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Veterans, meanwhile, though entitled to disabled-rider fees, are sometimes ticketed for not carrying a Veterans Administration photo ID. But it can take the federal agency months to issue that ID.
Citations may be contested before a clerk at Metro Transit Court in the agency’s gleaming Gateway Plaza headquarters.
Fare jumpers who qualify can get their $75 ticket reduced to $60 by watching a video and passing a three-part test at Metro’s Traffic School.
It hardly seems worth the $15 rebate, but for many among the poor and working-class, that's a decent chunk of money.