A Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority committee Thursday advanced a proposal to begin a 23-month pilot program that would make Metro buses and trains free for students starting in August and for all low-income riders starting in January.
Although some members of the Metro Executive Management Committee expressed concerns about the inner workings of the program and its financial viability, the panel agreed to advance the proposal to the full Metro Board of Directors for consideration.
L.A. Metro currently offers fare discounts to people who make $39,450 a year or less, people age 62 and older, veterans and people with disabilities, K-12 students and people in college or vocational school.
Under the proposed pilot program, K-12 students and people enrolled in community college of all incomes would be the first to ride L.A. Metro fare- free, with that phase expected to begin in August. Low-income riders, who make up 70% of Metro’s ridership, would be phased in starting in January 2022. Funding would need to be secured for the second phase, according to the board.
A 23-month pilot for K-12 and community college students would cost $49,179,167 in lost fare revenue, according to Metro officials. Fare revenue pays for transit operations and maintenance, but Metro receives additional funding through sales tax and state and federal grants. Additional funding options for the pilot identified by L.A. Metro officials include advertising revenue, cost-sharing and grant funds through the Traffic Reduction Program.
Glendale City Councilman Ara Najarian, a member of the Metro Executive Management Committee, expressed concern about the finances of the program, saying he was “not quite convinced those funding pools are going to be enough to make this a viable project.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who chairs the Executive Management Committee and has championed the fare-less pilot program, said he was confident the agency would generate enough funding.
During an April Board of Directors meeting, Garcetti said Metro will “leave no stone unturned when it comes to funding,” and emphasized the need for the federal government, the state and municipalities in the county to chip in. He added that organizations like LAUSD should provide funding, since the fareless system will likely increase school attendance and therefore increase school funding.
Metro CEO Phillip A. Washington expressed confidence that the federal government under President Joe Biden would provide funding for the pilot and permanent funding for a fareless Metro system in the future.
He noted that Los Angeles County is the most diverse county in the United States, and the Metro system has the highest percentage of low-income riders in the country.
“So we believe that what we are doing fits right into the `Justice40 Initiative’ from the Biden-Harris administration … so what we are saying is that we are in the best position in this country with the hopeful approval of a pilot next month to be that test case for the federal government,” he said.
In a survey with about 46,000 responses, L.A. Metro found that 86% of Metro riders and 80% of non-Metro riders support going fareless.
Board member and L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn expressed concern in April about the impact the fareless initiative would have on the quality of the transit system and become a “you get what you pay for” system where people aren’t paying so they have to expect problems.
“This board has been so clear about our service to our ridership so far. We really have wanted to put more money into our buses, we want to put more money into making stations clean and appropriate, and I’m a little concerned when staff says that we can cut some of what we spend on transit service without any impact,” she said during the April meeting.
“I think all of us are concerned that maybe at some point that would mean that would translate into dirtier buses, less service, dirtier stations, our buses and trains might break down more.”
The pilot — which would end on June 30, 2023 — would allow Metro to test the feasibility of permanently eliminating all fares on Metro trains and buses. After the pilot concludes, the board would consider extending, modifying or discontinuing fareless service. To help inform that decision, Metro staff would report to the board each month on the status of the pilot program. Metrics that will evaluate the success of the program may include financial sustainability, program participation, increased boarding by pilot participants, level of service, quality of services, increased trip by low-income riders, employee safety, rider safety, system security, according to L.A. Metro Principal Transportation Planner Doreen Morrissey.