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Fare System Brings Fling With Subway to a Screeching Halt

For a transplanted New Yorker whose car had just been totaled, the opening of Metro Rail’s Red Line to Hollywood came at just the right time.

While I waited for my insurance payments, I could stroll to the newly opened subway stop near my Hollywood home and take the Red Line to my office in downtown Los Angeles. Within days I had rediscovered the joys of public transportation--reading the newspaper on the way to work, ambling into the office rather than fighting for a parking spot in the garage, and having the vague sense that my government was working for me.

The months passed by, the insurance checks arrived, yet I still did not buy a new car. Maybe I wouldn’t need one.

The honeymoon ended one Monday morning.

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I was running late for a meeting, was out of tokens and had never found the store in my area selling weekly and monthly transit passes. So I had to rely on cash to meet the $1.35 fare. I descended into the station, stood before the banks of vending machines that provide train tickets. I put a dollar bill in the first machine, only to have it spat back at me. The machine spat back a second bill, and a third. As the train pulled onto the tracks below, I ignored the other machines and looked around frantically for someone to accept my money.

There was no attendant from whom I could buy my ticket. The MTA’s subway stations are entirely automated and rely on the “honor system.” Riders must buy a ticket, then enter the train on their own. No turnstiles stand in their way. Los Angeles police officers occasionally patrol the trains to make sure everyone aboard has paid.

To make my meeting that day, or even to get to work at a decent hour, I figured I had to violate that honor system. I dashed aboard the train as its doors closed.

Naturally, this was the first ride in my three months on the Red Line that I saw Los Angeles police officers patrolling my train, looking for scofflaws. They found me.

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I explained my situation--I had tried to pay and was unable to, and had to get to work. “You can give me a ticket if you want,” I said, trying to stay polite but feeling my internal thermometer rise.

Although a fellow ticketless passenger angrily said he too had had no luck with the vending machine, the officers led us off the train and gave us both citations, telling us the machines weren’t registered as broken and that they were required to cite anyone without a ticket. (An LAPD spokesman later told me that officers can issue a warning rather than a citation.)

The officers were courteous as they sent me on my way. Now I was late to my meeting and facing a potential $250 fine. It wasn’t a good start to the week.

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Department 81 of the Los Angeles Municipal Court may be just across the street from the gleaming Red Line terminus at Union Station and the MTA’s $480-million headquarters, but it is clearly in another world of government.

To get there you park beneath the Men’s Central Jail and take a dingy elevator to the second floor. Then you sit on a hard wooden bench for hours, waiting for your case to be called. When I was there to contest my ticket weeks after it was issued, I went an hour before noticing the unidentifiable translucent fluid pooled in the corner of my bench. I had to wash off the gunk in the men’s room.

I had rehearsed my argument a dozen times to friends and colleagues--I would have paid, but they wouldn’t take my money!--but it turned out I didn’t have to make much of a case. After running through a bunch of misdemeanors and probation violation cases, Commissioner Kristi Lousteau started dealing with the MTA citations.

The first defendant said through a Spanish interpreter that she had simply been standing on the subway platform seeing a relative off when she was cited. The next said he had a valid weekly transit pass when he was cited but had forgotten to bring it with him--a popular excuse. The next clearly did not understand the procedures, because he brought his supposedly exculpatory evidence with him--a ticket he purchased after he had been cited.

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For these defendants and others, Lousteau levied a $25 suspended fine--meaning it did not have to be paid--in exchange for a guilty or no contest plea. By the time my name was called, Lousteau was visibly frustrated, probably eager to get back to real cases.

“Why can’t the MTA put those little boxes like they have for all of the other subways in this country so that you buy tokens and . . . go through the turnstile?” she asked. “What is this? I bet you’re from New York or from Chicago, where you put the token in and it lets you through. . . .”

The courtroom crowd guffawed. I told my story. The crowd cracked up. I pleaded no contest, received a suspended $25 fine and returned to my office, happily telling co-workers that sanity had prevailed.

But the courts have no records of whether other riders who were caught in my bind got off with only a few hours of missed work.

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The Red Line’s unorthodox fare system (shared by the Blue and Green lines) is the invention of the MTA’s predecessor, the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission. Though it is increasingly popular among other cities starting rail systems, the proposal was something of a novelty in 1986, when the commission voted to forgo turnstiles and rely upon the honor system on its rail lines. On the first leg of the subway alone, agency staff predicted, it would save $6 million in equipment costs.

Sounds good. The problem is that the MTA uses uniformed officers from the LAPD and county Sheriff’s Department to catch scofflaws on the back end. This is a task commonly performed by unarmed--and cheaper--personnel on other rail lines in the nation.

The MTA is only now looking at using the cheaper unarmed personnel. No one seems to know how much of their supposed savings have been eaten up by enforcement costs on the back end. The MTA said it had no estimates on how much ticket patrols may cost.

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The transit agency is also planning to replace its vending machines with newer models that it says will have an easier time accepting dollar bills in an array of conditions. But Rick Jager, an MTA spokesman, had a dim view of my complaints.

“This is a problem you have with any kind of machine,” Jager said. “That doesn’t mean if the soda machine doesn’t take your money, you break the window and take the can.”

The MTA has drawn a lot of criticism for not understanding the needs of those who use public transportation. A federal judge has found that the agency violated a consent decree it entered into to stem off a lawsuit alleging it favored pricey rail for suburbanites over buses for the inner-city poor.

Activists complain about the Blue Line, which runs at street level through some of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the nation and is responsible for a disproportionate number of pedestrian and motorist deaths. And let’s not forget the Green Line, which veers away from LAX at the last moment to deposit riders in El Segundo.

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To this list I add the honor system fare, which, coupled with the lack of any MTA staff to help you at the Red Line stations, leaves all the burdens on the rider.

For if you don’t have a weekly pass, have unsuccessfully tried to pay your fare and have no other way of getting to work--or getting home at night from the empty area around your downtown office--there is little choice but to hop on the subway and hope the LAPD isn’t patrolling.

No, there is at least one other choice, available to upper-middle-

class professionals like myself rather than the majority of the working poor who depend on the MTA.

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It’s a choice I made three weeks after getting my citation.

I bought a car.


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