Opinion: Public transportation: The MTA’s gates of delirium
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When last we weighed in on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s poorly planned Transit Access Pass fare system, the $46-million gates the agency had installed at its subway and light-rail stations weren’t working as intended, the TAP cards themselves were hard to get and painfully nonutilitarian, and you couldn’t get a day pass on board buses.
I asked MTA chief Art Leahy about the system when he dropped by The Times’ office Wednesday, and it doesn’t look as if fixes are coming anytime soon.
For those who aren’t familiar with L.A.'s transit system, it differs from nearly every other big city in the world in that you don’t have to swipe a card to get through the gates -- they’re always open. So why bother having them? Originally, the idea was that people would get TAP cards, and the gates would only open when you held your card up to a reader. But coordinating that system with other regional transit networks, particularly the Metrolink trains, has proven impossible. And there are a host of other problems, such as coming up with paper single-trip passes that can be bought at stations and read at the gates. You can learn more about the mess by reading our August editorial. Back then, MTA officials insisted they’d have many of the bugs worked out by the end of the year.
It’s February, and the bugs remain. Moreover, it’s starting to look as though the gates may never be anything but an expensive albatross. Leahy says installing CCTV cameras at the gates and monitoring them with full-time attendants, as they do at most other big-city rail agencies with locking access gates, would be prohibitively expensive. He said there are no plans to lock the gates this year. Instead, a flashing light will go off when riders pass through a gate without tapping a TAP card, even if they’ve bought a paper day pass or they’re carrying a paper monthly pass, which the gate readers can’t read. The lights are supposed to signal security officers to check a rider’s ticket -- that is, on the rare occasions when there’s a ticket checker around. Mostly, the flashing lights will sow confusion.
There is one piece of good news. For those who don’t ride often enough to justify the expense of a monthly pass, the appeal of a TAP card is that it could serve as a ‘cash purse.’ That is, you should be able to buy one at rail stations and add cash value to it, with the gate readers deducting the cost of a ride when you swipe your card; that way you don’t have to carry the correct change every time you want to ride. Until now, you could only do this at a handful of far-flung locations, but the agency is starting to install machines with cash-purse capability at rail stations. I just charged mine up at Union Station, and I’m happy to say that the system works. I wish I could say the same about the other aspects of TAP, which should really stand for Thoroughly Awful Planning.
-- Dan Turner
*Photo: A commuter swipes a TAP card at a Union Station gate. Photo by Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times.