The Metro Board of Directors voted Thursday to raise Metro bus and train fares no earlier than September 1 but declined to impose the agency’s staff recommendation for additional increases in 2017 and 2020. The Board also decided to freeze fares for students.
Under the new fares, the regular fare will rise from $1.50 to $1.75. The cost of a day pass will increase from $5 to $7, the weekly pass from $20 to $25, the 30-day pass from $75 to $100 and the EZ Pass from $84 to $110.
However, the new fares will include free transfers for two hours for those using TAP cards. This is unlike the current base fare which is only good for a single ride on a bus or train, no matter the length of that ride. For example, a rider who currently rides two buses to reach their destination and pays $3 (the cost of two $1.50 fares) would only pay $1.75 under the new fares as long as the second bus ride begins within two hours.
Metro CEO Art Leahy, who began his job in 2009, and many experts outside the agency have said that encouraging transfers is a far wiser and efficient way to run a transit agency, given that about half of Metro’s riders must transfer to complete their trips. The Metro Board voted to drop transfers in 2007 as a way to reduce fraud and raise revenues.
On Sept. 1, the senior/disabled regular peak-hour fare is scheduled to rise from 55 cents to 75 cents, with the non-peak senior/disabled fare rising from 25 cents to 35 cents. (However, the Board will again consider senior/disabled fares at the June meeting.) The day pass will change from $1.80 to $2.50, the 30-day pass from $14 to $20 and the EZ Pass from $35 to $42.
This is the fourth fare increase since 1993, when Metro began operating as a new agency. The last fare increase was in 2010 when the regular single-ride fare was increased from $1.25 to $1.50. Fares for seniors, disabled riders and students have not changed since 2007; the Measure R half-cent sales tax increase approved by Los Angeles County voters in 2008 froze those fares through mid-2013 and they remain at 2007 levels.
There were two key votes on Thursday.
First, the Board voted 12 to 0 with one abstention (by Board Member Gloria Molina) for a motion by Board Members Mark Ridley-Thomas, Eric Garcetti and Zev Yaroslavsky to postpone the 2017 and 2020 round of fare increases pending further analysis that also asks Metro to identify potential revenues that could offset the need for any more fare hikes.
In the second vote, the Board voted 12 to 1 to accept Metro’s staff proposal for fare increases for 2014. The vote against came from Gloria Molina.
Metro staff have said that fare increases were necessary to keep pace with rising operating costs and to avoid a budget deficit of $36.8 million beginning in 2016 and potentially rising to more than $200 million within a decade because of inflation and the increase cost of operating a transit system with more than 2,000 buses, 87 miles of rail (and many more miles on the way), van pools and other services.
Staff also have repeatedly pointed to two statistics: the average Metro fare — when discounts are factored in — is only 70 cents. And each fare only covers 26 percent of the cost of providing service. Metro officials say that they want that number to reach 33 percent to better cover expenses and to ensure that the agency continues to receive needed federal grants.
Metro currently has three rail lines under construction. Both the second phase of the Expo Line and the Gold Line Foothill Extension are scheduled to open in early 2016 while the Crenshaw/LAX Line is forecast to open in 2019. Two other rail lines — the Regional Connector and the Purple Line Extension of the subway — will soon begin construction and are forecast to open in 2019 and 2023, respectively.
Discussion among members of the Metro Board revealed that many were highly uncomfortable with raising fares given the $16,250 median household income of the agency’s bus riders and $20,770 for rail riders.
Board Member Eric Garcetti expressed disappointment that many low-income riders do not get discounted fares for low-income riders even though they qualify.
Gloria Molina offered the most pointed criticism of Metro, as she has in the past. Molina said that Metro has far more low-income riders than in other metro areas with vast transit systems. She criticized the agency’s efforts to reduce its subsidies for riders, saying it’s inappropriate in a region with so many low-income riders, many of which are making the minimum wage or less.
Instead, Molina offered a motion asking the agency to trim its operating budget by 1.5 percent, which she said would prevent the need for fare increases. That motion failed to secure a second from other Board Members. However, it was folded into the Ridley-Thomas-Garcetti-Yaroslavsky motion a request for Metro staff to determine what cutting 1.5 percent of the budget would entail and if it could be used to defer any fare increase.
And she said that Metro is not running a bus system effective enough to attract a diverse ridership that would raise more revenues. “You can’t ghettoize our buses,” Molina said.
The Board heard nearly two hours of public testimony before casting their votes. The prevailing sentiment from speakers — many from the Bus Riders Union — ran against raising fares.
One key factor in the fare discussions is a potential ballot measure that Metro is considering taking to Los Angeles County voters in 2016. Such a ballot measure — if approved, which is no easy task — could potentially raise more money for operating buses and trains, which the Ridley-Thomas-Garcetti-Yaroslavsky motion cites as funds that could possibly be used stave off the need for more fare increases.
On the other hand, the same ballot measure could also fund the acceleration and/or construction of more Metro transit projects, which in turn would raise operation costs. And a fare increase in close proximity to a potential ballot measure requiring two-thirds voter approval (under current law) could also be politically tricky.