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Charles Fassbender walks through the first SkyTrain faregate installed today at the Marine Drive SkyTrain station in Vancouver, British Columbia August 13, 2012. Faregates will eventually be installed at the Skytarin stations throughout metro Vancouver.Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

For the first time in the SkyTrain system's 26-year existence, a fare gate has been installed, signalling a major shift in how the Metro Vancouver light rapid transit system will operate.

The move will help TransLink crack down on fare evasion while making the system safer for commuters, said Chief Operating Officer Doug Kelsey. It will also improve public confidence in a system that has outgrown the transit needs of 1986, the year it launched.

Provincial, municipal and transit officials announced the installation at a photo opportunity at the Marine Drive Canada Line station Monday afternoon. Amid a throng of news media, B.C. Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom and mayors' council vice-chairman Peter Fassbender helped put the system's first four-foot, paddle-style gate in place.

The fare gates – which, at completion, will total 245, including 151 wider, accessible fare gates for wheelchairs, strollers and luggage – will work with the Compass card, a smart card similar to Hong Kong's Octopus card or London's Oyster card. Users will tap in and out at stations and fare will be automatically deducted from the prepaid cards.

Fares will initially go by zones, as they do currently, though TransLink is looking at a distance-based model as well.

Mr. Kelsey estimated the gates would save TransLink between $7- and $10-million per year in fare evasion within a few years of operation.

The installation is one of the first visual manifestations of a major overhaul to TransLink's fare system. The outgoing "open" system, which counts on transit users to purchase prepaid passes and fare cards, or purchase a ticket immediately before walking through largely unmanned stations, has been criticized for being too trusting in a growing metropolitan city.

Mr. Kelsey acknowledged Monday there is a widespread belief many transit users don't pay their fares.

"Research has shown us that there's an optics issue, that nobody's paying their fares," he said. "Research has shown us that for a long time. The gates will demonstrate that there is a price of entry."

The transportation authority has maintained perceived fare evasion is considerably higher than actual fare evasion. Spokesman Ken Hardie estimated two-thirds of those who walk past fare machines and on to the SkyTrain have prepaid fares, such as a monthly transit pass, and up to 80 per cent of SkyTrain users arrive at the station by bus – on which they have already paid. Mr. Kelsey estimated the evasion rate to be between 3.5 and 5 per cent.

Precise user data is difficult to gather, however, which TransLink says is a large part of the reason it decided to adopt the new system now. In 2005, TransLink's board overwhelmingly rejected fare gates after a staff report found the cost of installation and yearly operations would be far more than the amount lost to fare evasion. But the ability to gather precise data – how many transit users are going where, and at what time – as well as increased ridership and a changing system, brought the idea back to the table, spokesman Drew Snider said in an interview earlier this summer.

"It's been highly educated estimates up to this point," he said of user data. "Now [planners] are going to have hard data they can work with."

The project to add fare gates, a partnership between the Government of Canada, the province and TransLink, is expected to cost $171-million. Of that, up to $40-million will come from the province, up to $30-million from the federal government and the balance from TransLink.

NDP transportation critic Harry Bains, who was at the event Monday, expressed concern with the finances of the project, citing TransLink's inability to immediately identify its operational cost.

"You're spending $170-million and you don't know have the answer [to] what the operational cost is going to be? That really, really worries me as a taxpayer."

TransLink was not able to provide a breakdown of operational costs by print deadline.

Mr. Bains was also critical that two major SkyTrain stations – Main Street-Science World and Metrotown – won't have fare gates installed until they undergo major reconstruction. The older stations, as they are, are not equipped to have fare gates, TransLink said.

"They said they have to do a lot of reconstructing, but there are other stations, like Surrey Central, that will have to do much of the same reconstruction in order to put the fare gates in," Mr. Bains said. "But they're getting the fare gates [first]."

Until the gates are installed, the two stations will have Compass card readers and additional staff.

TransLink will begin transitioning to the fare gate system next spring, with the system in service by next fall. All Evergreen Line stations will have fare gates when it opens in the summer of 2016.