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March 8, 2010

Why MetroLink Doesn’t Have Turnstiles (At Least Not Right Now)

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We hear a lot of questions at Metro about why we operate the why we do. One of the most persistent questions is:

Why don’t we use turnstiles at MetroLink stations?

The reason for the proof-of-payment system used on MetroLink is that the system would never have been built if it had been designed as a “barrier” system with turnstiles and station attendants as you see in New York and Boston.

The cost of such a turnstile system was far beyond the resources of the St. Louis region, which was financially unable to contribute money for the construction of the original line from 5th and Missouri in Illinois to North Hanley. The “local share” required to match federal construction funds was provided by the City of St. Louis trading the MacArthur Bridge to the Terminal Railway Association in exchange for the Eads Bridge and downtown tunnel, with the value of the trade calculated as the “local share.” Only after the first MetroLink line was built in 1993 did the region levy sales taxes for future construction.

The proof-of-payment system is the current industry standard. Some systems have applied it after determining that they would lose less money to fare evasion than it would cost to build and maintain a barrier (turnstile) collection system. Light-rail systems constructed in the past 20 years are all proof-of-payment systems like St. Louis. They include San Diego, Sacramento, San Jose, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix (under construction), Denver, Los Angeles. Most of the light-rail systems (not subway) in Europe are also proof of payment, as are some of the bus systems.

Nationally, the rate of fare evasion is 6 percent. According to audits of our system, MetroLink experiences a 4 percent fare evasion rate (MetroBus and Call‑A‑Ride require fare payment upon entry of the vehicle). While a system that allowed no fare evasion is ideal, building and maintaining an effective barrier system, like turnstiles, would be an incredible and prohibitive cost to the system. Los Angeles Metro (MTA) recently decided to test turnstiles on several of their light-rail stations, but only after they reached a critical mass of ridership and system coverage:

“Turnstiles have been discussed by our policy-makers for many years,” said Jane Matsumoto, a deputy executive officer at MTA who manages the TAP program. “In the past, we did not have the ridership or the coverage of service we do now. Proof of payment was much more manageable then.” – LA Times, Aug. 17, 2009

The Transport Politic has questioned the cost-return for investing in turnstiles. The author estimated that it would take 45 years for St. Louis to make up the cost to install and maintain turnstiles at MetroLink stations.

Does that mean that MetroLink will always use a proof-of-payment system? No. As Los Angeles Metro is discovering, when a system reaches a critical point of ridership and system coverage, the cost-benefit of a barrier system becomes much higher, and it becomes more profitable to invest in turnstiles. As Metro ridership and scope hopefully increase in the future, we will have to evaluate the next steps in fare collection and enforcement to accommodate the needs of the system.

6 thoughts on “Why MetroLink Doesn’t Have Turnstiles (At Least Not Right Now)”

  1. Allison says:

    This is a great post! Hopefully, this will help educate the public that 1) turnstiles aren’t the best option for all light-rail cities, and 2) the money to install turnstiles has to come from somewhere. Amazing what a little history and common sense can do. 🙂

  2. Ganesha says:

    Cool explanation! While digging out my ticket is a pain, I actually do appreciate the security that checks tickets. Not only are they checking our fare, they are a figure of authority to help keep us all safe.

  3. Daron says:

    I appreciate the freedom of the current system. I like just walking up to the platform.
    Security officers smiling at passengers and dealing with disturbances is pretty nice too.

    I’m a fan of smart cards, but I do not want to see turnstiles installed, ever.

    Turnstiles make it very hard for large people (not me) and people with bags (me) to get into the station. If a person plans to go to and from the airport by Metrolink with heavy bags, we owe it to them to not have to toss their bags over the turnstile. Flippers that pop our and slap the knees of people who haven’t paid are a much better solution. Those that do pay can glide through without having to touch anything.

    Good urban transit should be open. There’s nothing wrong with the current system. If we do shift though, I hope we do it smartly. Turnstiles (the kind that actually turn) are a 20th century technology we’re better off without.

  4. Jimmy Z says:

    One, I completely agree with the assumptions, the analysis and the conclusions. Two, unfortunately, for too many people, perception, however flawed, is reality. Much like how “buses are always naerly empty” out in the suburbs, it doesn’t take too many observed instances of fare evasion on Metrolink to convince the “uninformed” that half the world is scamming the system. Do I have an answer? No. These are the same people who will believe whatever they want to believe (as in “I seen it”.), especially when it comes to government and taxes.

  5. liz says:

    How do you measure fare evasion rates? Are those based on an average?

    Great post, also. 2 people asked me this question today, and I was able to be like, WELL, check out nextstopstl!

  6. Carmel says:

    Thanks for the post, I had no idea and always wondered why! 🙂

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