Editorial: Shouldn’t Metro know how many people are riding for free?
How many people are riding L.A.'s subways and trains without paying? How much money does the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority lose each year to fare evasion? Nobody really knows, and that’s a problem, particularly as Metro hikes its fares in September and makes the case for future fare increases and, potentially, for a sales tax increase in 2016 to help expand the region’s rail system.
A Times analysis found a large gap between Metro’s estimated rail ridership (115 million last year) and the number of fares counted (about 70 million). In other words, as many as 40% of estimated riders in 2013 didn’t enter the system legally, either because they did not pay their fare or because they simply forgot to “tap” a prepaid Metro pass. The number of recorded taps has increased across the system since Metro locked the turnstiles at Red and Purple line stations last summer, yet counts are still substantially below ridership figures.
What’s going on with Metro riders? Is the system rife with scofflaws who willfully evade the fare? If so, Metro is potentially losing tens of millions of dollars in revenue that could help close a growing operating deficit. Or are riders unaware they need to “tap” their monthly or weekly pass at ungated stations, in which case Metro has already collected the fares but just hasn’t recorded their trips? The first is an enforcement issue. The second is a rider education issue. How can Metro respond appropriately if it doesn’t know the nature of the problem?
Part of the challenge is that L.A.'s rail lines were built on the honor system — there were no gates, and sheriff’s deputies checked tickets every now and then. Now Metro is transitioning to a gated system. About half the stations have turnstiles, and the Metro board of directors is considering installing gates at all stations that can accommodate them, which could cost as much as $500,000 per stop. Gates are probably a good idea — the agency’s one-year experience suggests that turnstiles cut down on fare evasion and make passengers feel safer. (That’s not just a perception; public transit in L.A. is actually quite safe.) But, again, how can Metro’s leadership make an informed decision about the costs and benefits of adding gates or even adding inspectors?
The amount of money Metro loses to fare evasion is most likely small compared with its operating budget — fares cover only about 26% of the cost of the rides. Officials want to raise ticket prices in the coming years to bring that number up to about 33% of the cost. But the widespread perception of fare evasion undermines public confidence in the agency and makes it harder for Metro to convince riders and taxpayers that it needs more money.
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