A combination of service cuts, fare increases, and outside circumstances have battered Los Angeles County's bus ridership over the past decade. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic worsening existing problems, Metro officials could take an aggressive step to reverse the longtime trend.
In a report given to the Metro Board of Directors on August 27, Metro CEO Phil Washington announced the launch of a task force charged with delivering a plan to eliminate all fares for the agency's buses and trains.
“LA Metro has a moral obligation to pursue a fareless system and help our region recover from both a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and the devastating effects of the lack of affordability in the region.” Washington said in a statement published by The Source. “Fare-free transit will help essential workers, moms and dads, students, seniors and riders with disabilities. I view this as something that could change the life trajectory of millions of people and families in L.A. County, the most populous county in America.”
The task force, which will operate under the name Fareless System Initiative, is expected to report to the Board before the end of 2020 on:
- local, state, federal, and other revenue sources to cover the cost of the program;
- potential impacts to other transit agencies in Los Angeles County;
- the cost of Metro's existing fare collection efforts; and
- potential impacts of fare elimination on ridership for Metro and other transportation agencies in Los Angeles County;
Additionally, the report is expected to discuss how fare enforcement disproportionately has targeted persons of color, as well as how the elimination of fares could affect homeless persons who use Metro's buses and trains.
The Fareless System initiative is billed as an attempt to increase Metro's ridership, while also providing relief for low-income riders. Survey data cited by the agency indicates that the median household income of a Metro bus rider is less than $18,000 per year, and less than $28,000 for rail riders.
The proposal to do away with fares, while potentially an unprecedented step among large transit agencies, comes as Metro has struggled to balance long-declining ridership with new challenges posed by the coronavirus. While recent months has seen the restoration of some service, the agency is currently operating fewer buses and trains than before the outset of the pandemic, and is seeing roughly 50 percent of its normal ridership. Metro's proposed proposed budget, which is scheduled for a vote at the September meeting of the Board of Directors, could cut bus service by 20 percent.
However, the agency is also in the midst of an ambitious makeover of its bus network - the NextGen plan - which is intended to increase service on some of its busiest corridors. The NextGen plan, which is scheduled for implementation through December 2021, is expected to boost bus ridership by as much as 20 percent, and could be coupled with new investment in bus-only lanes and other transit-supporting infrastructure.
Metro is also studying congestion pricing, a scenario in which drivers are charged for access to high-traffic areas or corridors, which could potentially provide a robust new funding stream for transit operations.