Thousands of Los Angeles bus riders are discovering where the buck stops at the RTD. It is at the fare box.
The transit system's new state-of-the-art electronic fare machines, which have separate slots for dollars and coins, are choking on the dollar bills so often that the district has indefinitely halted a $12.1-million program to install the units on all of its 2,250 buses.
The latest glitch in the Southern California Rapid Transit District's troubled fare box modernization project--now more than $2 million over the original cost and at least a year and half late--has left many drivers and passengers complaining about the resulting confusion and delayed runs.
The old collection system, designed for coins, could not handle the increasing volume of dollar bills that the district was handling as ridership grew and fares increased. Nor did the old mechanical boxes provide enough security against theft.
The new boxes are supposed to hold large quantities of bills and keep a computerized tab of all money deposited.
But, soon after installation began in November, RTD officials began experiencing problems. Many of the boxes became jammed and refused to take riders' bills. Drivers, instructed by the district not to interrupt a run for repairs, have no choice but to let the dollars pile up or to let riders on without paying.
Earl Clark, head of the bus drivers union, said one driver recently complained that on one run, loose dollar bills, which drivers refuse to handle out of fear that they will be accused of pilfering, were "blowing out the door" at every stop. District officials, while not confirming the incident, said it is true that the bills do pile up on problem runs.
The sleek, steel-and-plastic fare boxes, now on 1,700 buses, are jamming at a rate of nearly 250 times a day. That is about six times the rate allowed in the RTD's contract with the manufacturer, San Diego-based Cubic Western Data.
A Cubic executive said the firm is working on the problem and the correction should involve only minor alterations. But he said it is too early to predict how long the repairs might take.
"We're trying now not to make excuses," said Raymond L. de Kozan, chief executive officer of the firm. "If we have a problem, we'll fix it."
Michael Leahy, the RTD's assistant director of equipment maintenance, said if things do not improve soon, the district may have to take some action, possibly reinstalling the 20-year-old, manual coin boxes just removed from most buses.
Even with the jamming, the new boxes have managed to improve the district's fare collections, because of the anti-theft properties. The breakdowns, although annoying, have not seriously hampered the nation's biggest all-bus transit system in carrying 1.4 million riders a day.
Nonetheless, district officials are concerned. They say they are losing $5,000 a day in uncollected fares and have run up higher-than-expected costs for repairs. The district will seek recovery of its losses from Cubic, Leahy said.
On the buses, the new fare boxes are a hot topic. Some drivers and passengers complain that the fare boxes are slowing the whole system down--a complaint district officials say is not borne out by their operating statistics.
"I have at least one jam a day . . . about 40% of the time you can't clear it," said driver Bob Duron, who was working a run from downtown Los Angeles to Eagle Rock Wednesday morning. "If you get an old bill, it's a problem. The people get frustrated when they can't get it to go in. . . . At rush hour, you sometimes have 15 or 20 people waiting to get on."
Driver Andre Ruben Perez said, "It slows you down."
He said he has run from 10 to 45 minutes late because of the new machines.
"It's really a pain," said Mark Larios, a 19-year-old security guard who rides four buses a day to and from work and said he encounters some problem or delay with the machines almost daily.
Even those who do pay with coupons or monthly passes say they are caught up in the boarding and schedule delays.
"Sometimes it's very slow," said Faustino Sorianosos, a retiree who uses a monthly senior citizen pass.
Some cash-paying passengers are getting free trips. One patron, who asked not to be identified, said she had two free rides in recent weeks. Larios said the fare box problems have meant numerous free trips for him.
"That's great!" he said.
A spot check Wednesday morning of more than a dozen downtown bus lines with the new machines turned up a number of complaints, but all of the fare boxes were working.
In fact, some passengers and drivers praised the newfangled devices.
"I like them. They work," driver Bob Taylor said. "I'm a high-tech guy. . . . It's just a matter of taking the time to show (riders) how to use them."