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L.A. Metro to Develop Free Transit Program for Some Riders

The Los Angeles Metro Board voted to move forward with developing a pilot project that would make transit free for students and low-income riders on one of the nation’s largest transit systems.

people waiting at subway
One of the largest transit organizations in the nation is exploring the elimination of fares for students and the economically disadvantaged.

Thanks to a unanimous vote, L.A. Metro will move forward with developing a plan to devise a “fareless initiative” that would make transit free for K-12 and college students, as well as low-income riders.

“This is the biggest equity thing we can do. This is what it’s all about,” said Mike Bonin, a member of the Metro Board of Directors and the Los Angeles City Council, during the May 27 board meeting.

Metro findings show that 70 percent of riders are considered low income, meaning they earn less than $35,000 a year.

Mayor Eric Garcetti said he would like to see the plan in place by the time school resumes in the fall. However, such timing could be a heavy lift. The measure passed the transit board with several key conditions and caveats. Namely, the program needs a funding plan. It’s estimated a 23-month pilot of this nature would cost Metro about $321 million, said Rick Jager, a Metro spokesman.

“A number many on the board found concerning,” Jager remarked. Prior to the pandemic, Metro collected about $250 million to $300 million annually from fares.

The program shouldn't affect Metro’s current level of service or impact capital projects, said Janice Hahn, Metro Board member and part of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

“It really matters how we get there, and how we implement it,” said Hahn at the board meeting.

Program staff at Metro will explore funding the initiative with state or federal grants. Since the COVID-19 pandemic decimated ridership nationwide last year, Congress has sent public transit nearly $70 billion in relief funding.

However, the idea of using “one-time funds” to support a project L.A. transit leaders see as ongoing was worrisome for some board members.

“This is a great idea," said Ara Najarian, Metro Board member and a city councilman in Glendale. "I’m concerned about how we’re going to fund it. One-time funds scare me, because, by definition, they’re one-time funds. How can you develop a sustainable initiative when each year you’ve got to cross your fingers and go lobby Washington or Sacramento for funding that would keep this up?"

“If this thing falls on its face, you guys tell the riders, ‘We tried it. Now you have to fork up some money.’ So let's make sure none of us is put in that situation,” he added.

L.A. Metro isn't the first transit agency to eye a fareless strategy. Kansas City, Mo., has already moved forward with this concept. Washington, D.C., is also exploring it, reports The Washington Post. The pandemic put into sharp relief the wide gaps in equity among cities, as more well-to-do white-collar residents worked from home, while lower-income working-class residents continued to board buses and trains to arrive at what are often essential jobs. Eliminating fares stands to make transportation more equitable, say supporters.

The plan in Los Angeles could also help revive still lagging ridership numbers, as ridership across the nation’s transit systems fell 53.3 percent in 2020, according to the latest statistics released by the American Public Transportation Association.

“I think we all know our priority is increasing our ridership, as we come out of the pandemic,” Hilda Solis, Metro Board member and member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, told her fellow transit colleagues.

L.A. Metro ridership was down 45.7 percent in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020, according to Metro statistics.

“We don’t know how travel will stabilize following this pandemic,” Garcetti told the board. “But what we do know is transit is under threat. And fareless combined with our next-gen efforts and construction program are all the linchpins in our agency’s future.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.