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Metro’s fareless transit initiative has gone through many setbacks and changes. Though fareless reportedly has strong support from several Metro board members, Metro staff, transit advocates, and the public, they all support different versions of the proposed program.
With Metro’s revenue coming predominantly from sales taxes, with fares representing less than 10% of agency revenues in recent years, the agency is near-uniquely well-suited to make fareless transit work. According to CEO Phil Washington’s testimony at the Executive Management Committee meeting, Metro typically collected $230-240 million in gross fare revenue before COVID, while spending $70 million to collect that revenue.
For many years, public transit advocates have been reportedly pressing Metro to provide transit for free. Alliance for Community Transit (ACT-LA) Advocacy Manager Alfonso Directo notes that, for the past year of the COVID pandemic, Metro has essentially already been operating a “universal fareless pilot program” on all of its buses.
Now, the point of contention is that Metro’s fareless pilot is proposing to cut back its current universal fareless state to a means-tested version that applies to only certain riders, mainly students and low-income.
Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) Community Organizer Oscar Zarate is critical of the challenges of enrolling low-income riders for a fareless pilot. “A truly equitable fareless initiative that centered on the material conditions of many of the system’s riders would be universal,” he reportedly told StreetsBlog.
According to Metro’s 2019 data, around 70% of Metro riders could qualify for the agency’s low-income fare program called LIFE (for Low-Income Fare is Easy). LIFE enrollment is currently only around 79,000 participants, which is about 40% of Metro’s 200,000+ core frequent riders. Metro estimates that 1.6 million L.A. County residents are eligible for LIFE.
In addition to helping riders save money, free transit would reduce the opportunities for problematic interactions with law enforcement, which unfortunately in many cases have led to wrongful death by police.
Fareless proposals are reportedly on the agenda to be discussed at the upcoming Metro board meeting. The current pilot is not universal, so ACT-LA’s action alert encourages Angelenos to push Metro “to run a fully fareless transit system with no means testing,” emphasizing that the program is important for a just recovery as the “pandemic’s financial toll is hitting Metro’s riders especially hard.”
At a previous meeting, Mayor Garcetti described Metro’s fareless pilot as, “We will jump in the water before we know whether we can swim the whole way. We can’t just stay on the banks either and assume that one day [other] people say ‘the water is nice come on in.’” Garcetti expressed his support for the fareless pilot that would include both K-12 students and community college students.
Short-term funding for the program would come from a mix of cost-cutting measures, including reducing bus and rail unit cost from cleaning contracts, slowing MicroTransit pilot expansion, retooling the state of good repair cash flow, and more. In the future, Metro could utilize some advertising revenue, seek federal funding, and/or utilize revenue from a future congestion pricing program (assuming it gets off the ground). Metro is also reportedly seeking to negotiate with colleges for some portion of the funding.
A board vote on some form of Metro fareless pilot is anticipated in May.