In case you missed it, the agency’s Board of Directors last week approved holding a special meeting to discuss and update the public on the fare increases that are scheduled for July 1. (Here’s a full list). The meeting will be held Saturday, May 8, at Metro headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.
A few dozen members of the Bus Riders Union were not so happy about that and protested vocally at the meeting. What surprised me is when some media outlets around town began reporting that the Board of Directors had refused to delay the pending fare increase despite Bus Rider Union protests.
That’s certainly true — no action is expected to be taken on the fare hikes — but I thought the coverage missed a key point: there had never been a serious discussion among the Board of Directors to suspend or delay the increases which were approved back in 2007. And, quite frankly, there hasn’t exactly been a howl of protests from the general public, media or transit advocates.
Nonetheless, the ferocity of the protests last week inspired me to go back and look at Metro’s fares and ask this question: how fair are the fares?
In my view — even with the fare increases — the agency has a variety of fare products that make riding Metro a reasonable proposition while also protecting the most vulnerable low-income passengers. It’s not a perfect system, mind you. But it’s one that’s in line with other big transit systems around the country.
For example, under the new fares a regular monthly pass on Metro will cost $75. At the moment, a monthly pass is $89 in New York City, $86 in Chicago, $70 in San Francisco (with BART rides within city limits included), $70 in San Diego and $86 in Portland for an all-zone pass.
Metro also offers some heavily discounted fares. For example, seniors, the disabled and Medicare qualifiers pay 55 cents for a regular ride — and that fare is frozen until July 1, 2013 thanks to the Measure R sales tax increase approved by voters in 2008. By contract, regular users will pay $1.50 for a regular ride on July 1. Students on Metro also get a good deal: a monthly pass is $24 for K through 12 students and $36 for kids in college.
In fact, due to Measure R, only 48 percent of Metro riders will see their fares changed in July because fares for seniors, students, the disabled and Medicare recipients will not change.
I know the email that some of you are about to send me: Metro does not have a system that rivals, for example, the New York City subway system and shouldn’t be charging those type of prices. But Metro does have an extremely vast bus system that covers 1,433 square miles, has 191 bus lines and puts more than 2,000 buses on the streets on the average weekday. In addition, Metro has 79 miles of rail service — and more on the way. The agency is the third-largest in the country.
Running all those buses and trains isn’t cheap, nor is it inexpensive to try to expand the system to better help current riders get around and attract new ones. Yes, some Metro buses are very crowded. But a lot aren’t, one big reason that Metro will still subsidize 72 percent of the cost of providing service after the fare change.
There are also a few other points worth mentioning. Metro — like most other large transit agencies — is facing an $181-million operating deficit this year, the reason there will be layoffs at Metro later this spring. State funding has shrunk in the past decade, the feds have yet to step in and help local transit agencies with day-to-day costs and this is just the third fare increase at Metro in the past 15 years.
All those points, I believe, add up to rationale basis to preserve the fare increase.
That said, I do think there is a point worth discussing when it comes to Metro’s fares: the issue of transfers.
The cost of a regular single ride Metro fare is now $1.25 and will rise to $1.50 in July. That’s low compared to other large agencies, but there’s a catch.
If someone wants to ride the bus for two stops to the Red Line, that trip costs two tickets — $2.50 currently, $3 after July 1, when one can also buy a day pass for $6. That’s a little different from other systems–i.e. in Portland, for $2.30 a rider gets to ride the entire system, buses and trains, for two hours. In a recent survey of Metro customers, 53% of those who responded said they would be willing to pay $2 to ride the entire system for two hours.
Rather than the same old discussion that Metro fares must always remain the same, that to me seems a more reasonable course so that service is preserved and value is added.