LA TRANSPO - I grew up in the Bay Area, where the BART train's fare gates open and shut like chomping teeth. Later I went to school in New York City, where you'd bang into the locked turnstile bar if you didn't swipe your MetroCard just right.
So it was a pleasant surprise to discover Los Angeles' turnstile-free subway, where I could take my ticket or monthly pass straight to the platform -- no waiting in line for the gate, no hustling through the turnstile.
But last year, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority finished installing turnstile fare gates at Red Line stations -- the first step toward ending the honor-based system that's been in place since the first stretch of subway opened in 1993.
The turnstiles are still in the experimental phase.
The gates are currently unlocked because they can't accommodate the paper tickets used by Metrolink riders, transit transfers and those sold at station machines. The turnstiles can only be locked once all passengers have switched to electronic Transit Access Passes or TAP cards.
But Metro doesn't know how many people still have paper passes. To find out, the agency is locking turnstiles at select stations Wednesday afternoons through Oct. 19.
Last week was the first experiment with gates locked at the Wilshire/Normandie station. About 60 percent of riders during that three-hour period used TAP cards. The rest still had paper passes.
The agency also noticed that ticket sales doubled during that three-hour experiment compared to the same period a week before. That suggests there's a lot more free riders than the official 5 percent fare evasion rate.
The turnstiles are expected to be locked within a year, assuming Metro can work out the last kinks in the system.
That it took nearly 20 years to get turnstiles is surprising -- pretty much every major subway in the country uses fare gates. But L.A.'s subway turnstiles continue to be controversial.
Critics question whether the $46 million investment in turnstiles will catch enough fare evaders to justify the cost.
"It's never going to pencil out," said Metro board member Richard Katz, who figured doubling fare collections won't even cover the cost of turnstile maintenance.
Metro officials have argued turnstiles make economic sense in the long-term and are part of a larger shift to electronic passes and seamless customer movement between buses, light rail and subways. Plus, with the subway system now so large, it makes sense to crack down on fare evaders.
"Revenue recovery in our current economic crisis should be a concern to all transit operators," said Deputy Executive Officer Jane Matsumodo.
The Metro board will likely revisit the turnstile debate again in the coming months.
Stay tuned for "As the turnstile turns."
(Kerry Cavanaugh is a columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News where this article was first posted.) -cw
Tags: Bay area, BART, Los Angeles, turnstile-free subway, MTA, Red Line
Vol 9 Issue 80
Pub: Oct 7, 2011