An important discussion on bus and rail service levels will take place at the Metro Board of Directors meeting this Thursday, August 27, as part of Item 25. If you want to listen, a link to the live web stream will be here. The meeting begins at 10 a.m.
With that discussion on deck, we wanted to explain our plans for the amount of bus and rail service we plan to provide for the remainder of the fiscal year (it began July 1 and runs through June 30, 2021), the NextGen effort to restructure our bus system and other improvements we’re making to speed up buses.
To be clear: we are aware that some stakeholders are concerned that we’re cutting service.
We don’t believe that captures what is happening. Rather, we’re proposing to run at the service levels that we are currently running — about 80 percent of our pre-pandemic service for what’s currently about 50 percent of our pre-pandemic ridership. As we add service in the future, we plan to add that service under the NextGen plan.
We think this is a realistic and fiscally prudent plan given the number of COVID-19 cases in our region and the fact that it will likely take time to rebuild Metro’s ridership. We’re also planning on spending $123 million in the current year’s budget on projects that will benefit bus riders in the short- and long-term.
Before we go further, let’s back up a step.
Metro’s usual budget process was adjusted due to the ongoing pandemic. In a normal year, the Metro Board considers a budget in May. But this year we pushed the budget approval to September to get a better grip on the pandemic’s impact on our finances. The budget establishes bus and rail service levels, thus the reason we’re having this discussion now.
At this point and considering we received some federal relief in the form of CARES Act funding, Metro is now forecasting a budget deficit of at least $1 billion over the next two years. We’re hoping additional federal stimulus money and a rebounding local economy will help erase some of that. But it’s hard to say for certain what will happen given so many uncertainties with Congress and the virus.
As for service levels, Metro scaled back bus and rail service by about 30 percent in April in response to the county’s safer-at-home orders. After the local economy began reopening in May, we then added back about 10 percent of our service in June.
We were planning on adding more service in August as students returned to school. But then COVID-19 cases surged this summer. With students at home and many workers telecommuting, we’ve stayed with the service levels we established in June. As the chart below shows, ridership has been gently increasing – but it’s still nowhere near the number of people we carried in February (pre-COVID).
For now, the idea is to run more service than is needed to allow for social distancing when practical. We’re aware there is some crowding on buses at peak hours, but we’ve tried to be surgical and reallocate resources and add bus trips where needed. In terms of safety, we have required all riders to wear face coverings, have strengthened our cleaning regimes and are working to ensure ventilation on buses and trains is strong.
With the number of COVID-19 cases still high in Los Angeles County, we think it will be some time before ridership fully recovers. We can and will be flexible if there’s a sudden surge in riders later in the fiscal year.
Something else that should be emphasized: we are continuing to invest in our bus system in other ways (see the graphics at bottom):
•As mentioned above, we are in the final stages of our NextGen Bus Plan to restructure the vast Metro bus system and make service much more frequent for more than 80 percent of our riders. Public hearings began last week and we’re planning for the Metro Board to vote on the NextGen plan in October. If the Board approves, we’ll follow the NextGen Plan in the future when adding service.
•We’re spending $7 million this fiscal year and $8 million in FY 2022 for upgrades that are a companion to NextGen. This includes bus lanes on high ridership routes, more all-door boarding and more traffic signal priority so that our buses automatically trigger green lights. These will translate to faster bus trips.
•We’re in the process of putting the finishing touches on improved bus stops at some of our busiest locations including: the new platform at Patsouras Plaza for the Silver Line and other Metro and muni bus lines (opening this fall); a new pavilion for buses adjacent to Union Station at Cesar Chavez Boulevard and Vignes Street (also opening this year) and an entirely new bus plaza at Willowbrook/Rosa Parks Station.
•We’re planning on making the bus lane that opened last year on Flower Street permanent. And we partnered with the city of L.A. on creating the new bus lanes on 5th and 6th Street in DTLA that debuted earlier this month.
•Planning is ongoing for two bus rapid transit projects to be built this decade as part of Measure M, including one between North Hollywood Station and Pasadena via Burbank, Glendale and Eagle Rock, and another across the northern San Fernando Valley. We are also continuing the planning for the Vermont Avenue Transit Corridor project between Hollywood and South L.A.
•And, last but not least, the first of 40 electric buses began running on the G (Orange) Line in July. We’re also in the midst of the planning work to install railroad-style gates on the G Line and build bridges over busy intersections. That project will help quicken bus trips across the San Fernando Valley. Work to electrify buses on the Silver Line begins next year.
The amount of service that Metro provides, and our budget are important — and we are pleased that stakeholders and the media are paying attention. This has been an unprecedented year for the agency and we are trying to find a delicate balance between providing mobility for essential trips, public health and protecting our finances so that we can offer excellent and frequent bus and rail service for many years to come.