Common sense continued picking up speed last week as the MetroLink’s governing entity advanced its plan to finally install fare-collection gates and turnstiles on all the entrances to the light-rail system that serves St. Louis and the Metro East. This after insisting for years that such a move wouldn’t improve the system’s problematic image — even as unruly teens and dangerous criminals have exploited the system’s wide-open access to treat the trains as cost-free hangouts.
The system’s long resistance to turnstiles ignored the issue of how safe riders feel on the system (as opposed to how relatively safe they actually are, according to crime data). The perceived lack of safety — surely fed in part by the fact that anyone can step onto the trains without bothering to pay — is why so much of the public has rejected a system that could and should be a major driver in revitalizing St. Louis’ economy and community.
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MetroLink began operation almost 30 years ago as an open-concept light rail system, meaning riders simply buy their tickets from machines on the platforms (or not) and enter the trains unimpeded. Security officers randomly check tickets, but many riders will never encounter one. That method of security isn’t uncommon in urban light rail systems, and is based on data indicating that there’s no clear correlation between fare evasion and crime on the trains.
But even if that counterintuitive claim is true, it only addresses a narrow slice of the problem — actual crime — and not the broader issue of rowdy behavior on the trains and what that does to public perception about how safe passengers are. As long as young people can treat the cars as rolling hangouts, with no cost or consequence, the atmosphere was inevitably going to be one of chaos and discomfort for transit riders who are simply looking to get from Point A to Point B.
Bi-State Development, Metro Transit’s parent agency, began a long-needed about-face on this issue last year, with approval of a $52 million security plan to include installing gates and turnstiles at all 38 stations. Private funding has already poured in, largely from corporate donors who have long recognized that shoring up public confidence in MetroLink is a crucial component in the effort to repair the city’s battered image.
Bi-State’s safety and security committee last week formally kicked off that effort, voting to solicit bids for an engineering contract for the design of the new system. It’s going to be a long and complicated project. It’s important from the outset that the design realistically discourages fare-jumping without making the platforms feel like bunkers.
As Kevin Scott, Bi-State general manager of security, told the Post-Dispatch’s Jacob Barker last week, “We have one shot of doing this and doing this right.” The region is counting on it.