December 2, 2020

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What would regional public transit and mobility look like if Los Angeles County’s buses and...

What would regional public transit and mobility look like if Los Angeles County’s buses and trains were free for everyone? The L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is trying to answer that question.

Metro CEO Phillip Washington launched a task force today to study what he has dubbed the “Fareless System Initiative, or Operation FSI.” And he wants to move fast.

Last week, Washington told Metro’s board of directors he hopes the system could go fare-free as soon as “the beginning of the new year.”

During his virtual presentation, he cited the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on communities of color and low-income residents as one reason to pursue free transit, which he compared to public services such as firefighting and policing:

“In many cases, people are having to choose between paying rent, paying utilities or utilizing transit. We believe that achieving [a] fare-free public transit system — for young people, for seniors, for working moms and dads, for essential workers, the disabled [and] students — will change the trajectory of millions of people and their families here in the largest county in America.”

Washington gave three key goals the agency is striving for, should it go fareless:

  • Improving equity and economic parity for riders, a large portion of whom live under the federal poverty line
  • Creating an incentive to take public transit over personal vehicles, which would alleviate L.A. County’s crippling congestion
  • Rethinking public space and how cities are managing streets with more people moving in communities without cars.

The task force will study the complexities of how going fareless could impact ridership, operations and homelessness on the system. They’ll also analyze the current costs of managing fare collection and reduced fare programs, Washington said.

Of course, the biggest question is how to pay for it. Washington said the task force will explore the possibilities of federal and state funding, and reallocating existing agency funds, such as from advertising revenue.

Metro offers reduced fares for certain riders and is exploring free fares for K-12 students, but Washington says those are “Band-Aid” solutions that don’t go far enough.

“What we’re doing here is ripping the Band-Aid off, and we’re saying that as the largest agency in this country to pursue a fareless system, I can see us as a pilot agency. I could see us seeking federal funds to do this as a pilot to show that it can be done.”

Several Metro board members spoke in favor of the initiative.

“I think the time is now,” said board chair and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti. He called the proposal “a brave way forward” to invest in mitigating climate change and rebuilding ridership.

It’s important to note that rider fares are a tiny slice of Metro’s annual revenue. In the agency’s 2020 budget — approved pre-pandemic — fare revenues represented just 4% of the agencies projected resources for that fiscal year.

This pie chart shows L.A. Metro’s available resources for the 2020 fiscal year. (Courtesy Los Angeles Metro)

Previously, Washington had been hesitant to offer free fares on Metro. In the early months of the pandemic, as smaller transit agencies in the county and around the U.S. waived rider fares, Washington cautioned against that for L.A. Metro, saying it might draw too many riders and counteract social distancing.

The pandemic hit Metro hard. The agency lost roughly 70% of its riders amid stay-at-home orders. The larger, long-term impact is a drop in sales tax revenue, which accounts for about half of Metro’s operating budget. Officials project the agency will lose $1.8 billion through the upcoming fiscal year, ending in June 2021.

Relief from the CARES Act will help close some of that gap.

L.A. County has been granted nearly $1.1 billion specifically for public transit to cover operating expenses impacted by coronavirus, although Metro has joined a coalition of U.S. transit agencies seeking a second round of federal relief.

The Operation FSI task force is expected to come back with recommendations for Metro’s leaders by the end of the year. In the meantime, you still have to pay to ride the system.

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