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The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority was one of the government agencies that were hit the worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. It crushed its ridership and strained the budgets, which left the agency battered. And while many public transit systems throughout the country have returned to collecting fares after suspending them early in the pandemic, Los Angeles transit officials are instead “taking a radical step to advance transportation equity in a metro area that has the highest percentage of low-income riders in the country,” as The American Prospect recently wrote in an article.
Over the past year, the Metro has put together a blueprint for what could become the largest free mass transit system in the world. The agency’s board will vote later this month on a two-phase pilot program that would waive bus and rail fares for students in K-12 schools and community colleges starting in Aug. Low-income riders making less than $35,000 a year, which comprise 70% of its customer base, would be phased in next Jan.
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. The proposal in Los Angeles, which is endorsed by mayor and board chair Eric Garcetti, would last through June of 2023.
Moreover, 86% of Metro riders and 80% of non-Metro riders said they support going fareless, according to a recent survey. If the pilot is successful, the agency could decide whether to expand free transit access to all Angelenos regardless of income.
However, while some transit advocacy groups applauded the agency’s “commitment to economic justice,” they also expressed concerns about its needs-based enrollment system. “Our position has been that working-class folks don’t want a litmus test for something that should be a human right,” Channing Martinez, a lead organizer for the Bus Riders Union, which represents more than 500 Metro riders and has been campaigning for fare-free transit for two decades, told The American Prospect. “To some extent, it’s insulting that you have to prove you’re poor in a city that has billions of dollars and can afford to provide free public transportation to everyone.”
Metro had already reportedly launched several reduced-fare initiatives to help low-income passengers. However, the benefits are limited, and unhoused and disabled people who lack documentation, like a W-2 form or pay stubs, to prove that they meet income requirements, are ineligible for the existing programs. Sabeerah Najee, a SAJE organizer and a longtime Metro rider who is disabled and works with disability communities, told The American Prospect that it is difficult for these individuals to register for means-tested programs because “how can you prove that you don’t make anything?”
Metro officials have reportedly said they plan on working with community organizations and social services agencies to register residents who may not speak English well or lack the necessary paperwork to document income.
The 18-month pilot could cost Metro up to $335 million, but the agency expects significant savings on equipment upkeep and fare enforcement costs. “We spend more on [fare collection] than people realize,” Metro CEO Phillip Washington told The American Prospect. “If we go permanent with a fareless system, a lot of that might go away.”
Eliminating fares also reportedly reduces the targeting of Black and Latino riders for fare evasion. From 2012 to 2015, Black people made up less than 20% of Metro riders but received more than half of all fare evasion citations, according to a 2017 study from the Strategy Center quoted by The American Prospect. The pilot program could also further reduce bus driver assaults: More than 40% of these confrontations stem from fare disputes. Since Metro waived bus fares last spring, reports of driver assaults have plummeted to nearly zero.