Metro estimates millions of rail riders each month...

 Paid entries    Payment status unknown    Total est. boardings

Notes: Paid entries and payment status unknown may not match ridership due to rounding. Metro estimates ridership in a six-month rolling average. Paid entries are estimated for the Blue, Expo, Red/Purple and Green lines due to shared platforms.
Souce: L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority

By Laura J. Nelson and Jon Schleuss
contact the reporters

| Los Angeles

Los Angeles transit officials proudly point to growing ridership on the county’s light-rail and subway system, which last year saw a 5% increase in the number of passengers getting on trains.

But figuring out how many of those 115 million riders paid their fares and rode the trains legally has become a vexing question with important consequences.

A Times analysis of agency data collected at rail stations found the Metropolitan Transportation Authority documented only 70 million legal rides last year. How much of that difference may be the result of fare evasion — or other factors — is difficult to gauge.

Reducing fare jumping as much as possible has become increasingly important to Metro, which is under pressure to boost ticket revenue as its rail network rapidly expands. Income from fares covers just 26% of Metro’s bus and rail system operating expenses, one of the lowest rates of any major world city. That ratio must increase in the next few years or the agency risks losing crucial federal funding needed to continue building and operating the train network.

Metro has responded by raising fares, starting in September, with more hikes proposed for coming years.

A child, bottom left, ducks underneath the turnstyles at the Hollywood/Highland Metro rail Red Line station in February. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

In addition to fare hikes, some elected officials are asking the agency to examine other ways to bring in more revenue. And they are taking note of the disparities between Metro’s ridership estimates and the numbers of tickets being counted at rail stations.

“They owe it to you and to anybody else who’s interested to explain the difference,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a Metro board member, who says it’s still too easy to get on trains without paying.

Metro officials acknowledge they don’t know how many rail passengers are failing to pay or how much money the agency may be losing. But they stress that comparing ridership estimates to ticket counts doesn’t provide answers.

The gap between the figures is probably a combination of factors. Some passengers buy multi-day passes and forget to scan them, or don’t realize they need to. Equipment can malfunction. Ridership estimates may be too rosy. And, as some studies have suggested, fare evasion may be higher than Metro has indicated.

Undercover sheriff’s deputies working on the Blue Line found that more than one in four passengers at the 103rd Street/Watts station had no valid ticket — four times Metro’s systemwide rail fare evasion estimate of 5% to 6%. An additional 3% of riders on the heavily used line, which links Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles, were not scanning their tickets.

For some passengers, it’s a simple risk assessment.

“At this point, I’m saving money,” said Michael, 24 of Los Angeles, a Blue Line rider who asked that his last name not be used because he wasn’t paying. In the five years he’s taken the train, he said he’s only purchased a ticket when uniformed officers were present. He said he’s never received a citation. A fare evasion ticket, he pointed out, costs the same as a monthly pass: $75.

Metro has been gradually weaning itself from a decades-long experiment with an honor system on its trains. For years, stations had no fare gates, and tickets were randomly checked by agents or sheriff’s deputies.

Passengers wait for an eastbound train at the 7th Street Metro Center subway station. Reducing fare jumping is becoming increasingly important to the agency. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Six years ago, Metro began a shift from paper tickets to digital fare cards and installed ticket-reading equipment at stations. For the first time, riders were expected to scan their passes before boarding trains. Turnstiles were placed at subway and some light-rail stations, but passengers could still walk through without tickets. To further encourage people to buy and scan tickets, transit officials began locking the turnstiles last summer. However, half of the system’s 80 stations remain ungated. Many cannot accommodate barriers that would prevent free entry.

Those “mistakes of the past” continue to confuse riders, Yaroslavsky said, and make it more difficult for Metro to calculate revenue being lost to fare evasion. “We don’t even know how much money we’re leaving on the table,” he said.

Overall, The Times found official ridership estimates for 2013 exceeded the number of tickets scanned by nearly 40%. After turnstiles were locked, beginning last summer, the number of ticket holders being recorded increased on all six of Metro’s rail lines, records show. By April, the most recent monthly data available, ticket counts were up from early last year, although still 25% lower than Metro’s ridership figures.

In the past year, Metro has boosted its education efforts. A public-service announcement reminds passengers that scanning tickets is the law. And riders now encounter clusters of ticket-scanning machines near entrances and stairwells in some stations.

Metro spokesman Paul Gonzales said monthly ridership figures produced by the agency were based on average counts of passengers over the preceding six months. He said electronic tallies of scanned tickets generate raw data that measures only customers who’ve properly validated their tickets. He added that conclusions should not be drawn from data recorded before all gates were locked.

Metro officials say they’re confident about their ridership estimates, and they note their calculation method has been approved by the federal government. The agency’s estimate that 5% to 6% of rail passengers don’t pay is based on a 7-year-old audit. At that rate, Metro would be losing about $5 million annually, based on the current average ticket price.

Complicating calculations of fare evasion, about 73% of Metro riders use prepaid passes, which offer an unlimited number of rides for a day, a week or a month. Payment is collected when the pass is purchased, so Metro doesn’t lose a fare if a rider forgets to scan before boarding or transferring. But those passengers are still breaking the law and can receive a fare-evasion citation.

Ticket scans by station

Show stations with locked turnstiles
Source: Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Metro board members are considering installing more turnstiles on light-rail lines. A recent analysis estimated the cost of adding the barriers to the Westside Expo Line and the Eastside and Pasadena Gold Line could exceed $500,000 per station.

“At that point, you have to ask yourself whether you’re getting back more money than you’re spending,” said Jim Moore II, a USC engineering professor. But, he added, turnstiles do work — both at decreasing fare evasion and making passengers feel safer.

Despite the challenges of gauging fare evasion, Brian Taylor, the director of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies, said comparing ridership and ticket-count data can be useful — and in Metro’s case, may point to a problem. “Either [ticketed passengers] have been undercounted, or the ridership forecasts have been over-counted,” he said. “I see no other way around it.”

Data analyzed by The Times shows that in January 2013, Metro’s ridership figure was about 59% higher than ticket scans along the Blue Line, where less than a third of 22 stations have fare gates. The gap had decreased to about 37% by April of this year.

The most dramatic change occurred along the subway, where all stations now have turnstiles that lock between passengers. In January 2013, Metro’s ridership estimate was about 46% higher than ticket scans. That gap had closed to 13% by April of this year.

Tressa Fields of Baldwin Hills, waiting recently for a train at downtown’s Pico station, has been a regular rail rider and observer of how the system works. The platform, which serves the Blue and Expo lines, has no turnstiles, but it does have 11 chrome pedestals where passengers are supposed to scan their transit access passes, or TAP cards.

Fields said she’s always careful to scan her pass because her niece received a pricey citation a few years ago. But not everyone appears as diligent, she said. At rush hour, when passengers flood onto the trains, she suspects only about half are scanning tickets.

“This isn’t Chicago or New York, where you can’t get through unless you pay,” Fields said.
Twitter: @laura_nelson
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