Metro staff provided an update today on the agency’s Fareless System Initiative (FSI), saying although the study is still in progress, a leading concept has emerged to do a fareless pilot program that would provide free rides on Metro for low-income riders and K-12 students.
Metro staff working on FSI told the Metro Board of Director’s Executive Management Committee that they are looking at a potential January 2022 start date for the low-income part of the pilot program and August 2022 start date for testing fareless for K-12 students. The pilot program would conclude June 30, 2023.
The Metro Board would then decide how to proceed. It’s important to note those dates depend on the ongoing pandemic easing and the majority of the population and Metro Bus and Rail Operators having access to COVID-19 vaccines. The pilot program would only be for Metro and not other local transit agencies.
Metro staff stressed that the FSI study is still very much a work-in-progress and many details still need to be ironed out. But the project team is aiming to bring a firm proposal for the Metro Board to consider in May 2021.
Metro staff believe testing the fareless concept with low-income riders and students will deliver results to people who most need financial relief during the economic recovery from the pandemic. Low-income riders and students are currently eligible for discounted fares — but getting rid of that cost altogether (and streamlining the application process) would give workers, students and families time and money they could use on other needs and expenses.
Data from Metro’s Customer Survey in Fall 2019 (pre-COVID) indicates that approximately 70 percent of Metro’s existing riders could potentially qualify for the Metro pilot program and about 1.6 million people in L.A. County could qualify according to Census data – although it remains to be seen how many people would ride. There are about 79,000 participants who currently receive Metro’s LIFE fare discount that would also automatically qualify. There are also 1.4 million K-12 students in L.A. County. A fareless initiative could save riders up to $1,200 annually.
One aspect of FSI that is still being studied is the cost of going fareless. There are many factors involved, including the cost of adding service for increased ridership and, of course, making up the revenue lost to not collecting fares.
Many transit agencies in the United States are closely watching a federal bill before Congress known as the Freedom to Move Act that would establish a $5-billion competitive grant program for local agencies that want to go fareless. The bill was authored by Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Mass. Senator Edward J. Markey. The FSI team is also evaluating local and state funding opportunities and taking a hard look at Metro’s budget to see if reprioritizing some funds might be possible.
Some important background: Metro CEO Phil Washington announced the launch of the agency’s Fareless System Initiative last August. On many occasions, Phil has said that he believes Metro has a moral obligation to Los Angeles County residents to help the region recover from the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and to help counter the high expense of living in our region.
In particular, housing and transportation are known as the two biggest expenses facing many households — and the fareless proposal would eliminate one of those. Going a step further, this could mean the difference between a family of four being able to make rent or risk being unhoused. Farelesss transit would also:
•Put money back into the pockets of essential workers, moms and dads, students, seniors and riders with disabilities.
•Increase transit ridership and increase access to opportunity for more residents while giving people an incentive not to drive, thus helping to reduce traffic and pollution. Metro’s ridership has been about 40 to 50 percent of the 1.2 million weekday boardings pre-pandemic — which we believe shows how heavily people depend on us to get around.
•Reduce fare evasion penalties that disproportionately impact low-income riders.
Metro staff are also evaluating impacts to other Los Angeles County transit providers, as well as other potential impacts such as the number of bus operators Metro may need.
In addition, the FSI team is studying several ways to go fareless, including the possibilities of a fully fareless system, using fareless transit as an incentive to ride during off-peak times and going fareless in certain geographic areas. The potential pilot that staff discussed would be a good way to test the concept before considering whether to expand it to other riders.
Metro will be conducting public outreach meetings on the pilot project in March. Stay tuned to The Source and Metro’s social media channels (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram) for the dates and times of these meetings.