Last year, in a bid to halt long-declining ridership, Metro chief executive officer Phil Washington announced an initiative aiming to eliminate fares across the agency's bus and rail system. A staff report given on February 18 to the Board's Executive Management Committee offers a look at the proposed pilot program that could be the first step towards reaching that goal.
The fareless system initiative, per the staff presentation, could save Metro passengers $1,200 each annually - a substantial benefit for the agency's core constituency. Metro estimates that 70 percent of its regular passengers have annual incomes of less than $35,000.
The Metro task force leading the fareless system initiative is considering multiple concepts for a pilot program. The leading proposal is, according to the staff presentation, to offer free fares to low-income passengers and K-12 students. The agency is also considering scenarios limited to 1) peak or off-peak hours; 2) bus lines; 3) rail lines; 4) certain geographic areas; and 5) a full fareless system.
Should the pilot program move forward - a schedule which is contingent on the containment of COVID-19 - Metro would launch the pilot for low-income riders in January 2022 (one year after originally anticipated), and then expand the offering to students in August. The pilot program would conclude at the end of June 2023, after which point it could be continued or expanded should Metro secure financing.
The proposed pilot would be limited to Metro's buses and rail services. Municipal operators - such as Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus and Culver City Bus - would not be included, nor would Metrolink's commuter rail network, Metro bike share, and Metro's micro transit program.
Metro is looking to attempt a fareless pilot program as the COVID-19 has decimated its ridership numbers. Per the staff presentation, the 1.2 million daily riders the agency saw in 2019 has been cut to just over 500,000. Metro anticipates that the fareless pilot program could raise that figure to more than 740,000 daily riders - an increase up to 141,000 boardings
The anticipated cost of the 18-month pilot ranges from $301 million to $335 million, according to the staff report. Potential funding avenues include Federal, state, and local sources, including FTA grants and California’s Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program.
According to a post to The Source, Metro plans to conduct public outreach meetings on the pilot project in March. The fareless system task force hopes to present its proposal to the Metro Board for a vote in May 2021.
In a parallel effort, Metro is also studying caps on fares - an effort which could benefit passengers who do not participate in the fareless pilot.
In addition to its capital programs, which include new rail and bus rapid transit lines, Metro's current initiatives also include a possible pilot program for congestion pricing, which could charge drivers for access to high-traffic corridors in the near future.
The agency is also in the midst of rolling out its NextGen bus plan, another effort to reverse declines in ridership over recent years.