UPDATE, 11 A.M. FRIDAY, SEPT. 4: Metro CEO Phil Washington held a media briefing earlier this week to discuss fareless transit and take questions. Watch the briefing here.
UPDATE, 10:45 A.M. FRIDAY, AUG. 28: We’re getting a lot of comments expressing concern over how fareless transit would impact the homeless situation on the Metro system. As the post below explains that key issue will absolutely be part of the study.
UPDATE, 2:25 P.M. FRIDAY, AUG. 28: We’re also receiving comments asking if we’re planning to raise sales taxes to fund this (local sales taxes are a major revenue source for Metro). The answer: NO. We have no intent or plans to seek an additional sales tax. Rather, we’re going to study whether fareless transit could be paid for with grants from the state or federal government, existing revenues (such as advertising) and other sources.
A new internal Metro exploratory task force will begin working September 1 on a proposal to eliminate fares for all riders on Metro buses and trains, Metro CEO Phil Washington announced at today’s meeting of the Metro Board of Directors.
The effort will be called the Fareless System Initiative (FSI or OPERATION FSI) and the task force will deliver a plan to the Metro CEO and ultimately to the Metro Board of Directors for their consideration by the end of 2020 with the plan including possible funding scenarios and sources.
No other large transit system in the world has gone entirely fareless. In his remarks, Phil said that he views eliminating fares as an economic development tool that will also improve mobility for all people and put money back in the pockets of those who need it the most. That’s especially important as L.A. County recovers from the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.
Phil also made it clear that he views fareless transit as a transformative effort. Combined with Metro’s other work to reduce traffic congestion, fare-free transit would greatly increase transit ridership, free up space on our roads, help create more public spaces that better serve the majority of people, and improve air quality in L.A. County and California.
“LA Metro has a moral obligation to pursue a fareless system and help our region recover from both a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and the devastating effects of the lack of affordability in the region.” Phil told The Source. “Fare-free transit will help essential workers, moms and dads, students, seniors and riders with disabilities. I view this as something that could change the life trajectory of millions of people and families in L.A. County, the most populous county in America.”
The median household income of Metro riders is low — $17,975 for bus riders and $27,723 for rail riders, according to a customer survey conducted by Metro in fall 2019. We know that low-income people have been hit especially hard by the virus in terms of their health, jobs and overall ability to pay bills. The chart below from the L.A. County Department of Public Health shows that the mortality rate for COVID-19 has been significantly higher for Blacks and Latinos and those who are impoverished.
The Initiative’s task force will consist of Metro staff and will begin their work next week. Among the things that will be studied:
•Funding opportunities in terms of local, state, federal grants, and/or re-prioritizing Metro funds — such as revenues from advertising or sponsorships — that may be available to pay for a free fare program.
•The impact of fareless transit on other transit agencies in L.A. County. Metro will work with other transit agencies, to look at the impact on their ridership and the issue of local and state fund allocations – which are, in part, based on fare revenues.
•Determining how much it costs the agency to collect fares in terms of equipment purchase and upkeep, staff and enforcement. In fiscal year 2019, which ended prior to the pandemic, Metro collected between $250 and 300 million in fares versus $1.9 billion in operating costs — for a fare recovery ratio of approximately 13 percent. That percentage has been in decline for the past 20 years and is expected to decline further as operating costs rise.
•The impact of a fareless LA Metro system on ridership, the rider experience, the 16 Munis, Access Services, Metrolink, the safety of Metro employees, the impact on car traffic, and the impact of a fareless system on bus and train service levels and operations.
•How fareless transit will mitigate and/or eliminate allegations of targeting people of color for fare enforcement.
•We also need to learn more about how a fareless system would affect the ongoing issue of homelessness in our region and on the Metro system, an issue that we hear about from riders almost every day. We do think that free fares would encourage higher ridership and having more people on buses and train would likely make riders feel safer.
As those who follow Metro know, going fareless is something we have discussed in the past in the context of the agency’s Measure M and it’s Traffic Reduction Study to use tolls to reduce traffic congestion and subsidize fares. That study is underway and in 2021 we will propose a pilot location to test the concept.
Metro has also been researching how to allow students to ride for free and conducting a comprehensive pricing study as part of the agency’s Vision 2028 Plan to provide high-quality and affordable transportation services available to all. The new exploratory task force will build on the work of the pricing study.
As Phil sees it, fareless transit should be considered no different than other public programs funded by the public purse such as firefighting, policing and other public infrastructure that serves as a public right and common good. In that sense, if approved it’s something that can change the social and economic fabric of our county.
The idea that a system the size of LA Metro could go fareless is certainly big news — it’s arguably one of the most important initiatives LA Metro has ever attempted. We also must emphasize this: this is the beginning of a process and until the Metro Board takes action, Metro is collecting fares and enforcing fare payment. We’ll also continue to find ways to make paying fares safer and more convenient, especially during the pandemic. There will be more news on that front very soon.