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The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s board reportedly approved a plan to move forward on a 23-month fareless transit pilot program for the county’s K-12 and community college students. However, agency leaders set several conditions that must be met before the pilot can launch, including completing a plan for how Metro will cover the cost. Also, there is yet a launch date to be set.
According to Metro, the staff proposal sought to start with the student groups this August, then expand in Jan. 2022 to include “qualifying low-income residents.” “About 70% of Metro’s riders are considered low-income (meaning annual income is less than $35,000) and the fareless program would help fulfill the agency’s pledge to put equity at the forefront of its mission to improve mobility for all in our region,” reads Metro’s website.
There are studies that show that low-income riders use public transit more once fare discounts are offered. For example, an MIT study showed that low-income residents in Boston with discounted CharlieCards took about 30% more trips, especially for health care visits.
The program would reportedly conclude at the end of June 2023, and is lauded to represent a major step toward making the county’s bus and rail system free for all riders. Eliminating fares is also reportedly seen as a way to improve transit service by reducing boarding time, as well as encouraging more people to take the system regularly by removing a financial barrier.
Back in Sep., L.A. Metro CEO Phillip Washington launched a task force to study how the county’s transit agency could transition to a fare-free system by the start of 2021. It’s goal then changed to launching a two-phase pilot program in Jan. 2022, but was modified again so that K-12 and community college students can ride for free in time for the upcoming school year.
Metro estimates the pilot program will cost $250 million over the next two fiscal years and hopes to pay for it “through a combination of state and federal grants.” With the agency’s revenue coming predominantly from local sales tax revenues and state and federal grants the agency is near-uniquely well-suited to make fareless transit work. In fact, rider fares account for just 4% of Metro’s $7 billion operating budget. In contrast, fare revenues in New York comprise about half of the transit agency’s operating budget, making a fareless program there more challenging. However, should the program continue long term, the agency does not yet know how it will continue to fund it.
If in 2023 Metro decides to give the remaining riders free transit too, that would make Los Angeles the largest free transit system in the world.