Metro Board approves going forward with development of fareless test program

The Metro Board of Directors today approved going forward with development a fareless pilot program to benefit students and low-income riders and to determine whether fareless transit could be expanded to more riders. 

In approving a motion with a friendly amendment by a 12 to 0 vote (the approved motion is at the bottom of this post), Metro Board made clear that several conditions must be met before a fareless test program can be launched. Among those: the completion of a final funding plan and assurances that the pilot program would not impact Metro’s service or ability to keep its transit system in a State of Good Repair.

For now, there is no official start date for the fareless program.

As this recent article in the Washington Post makes clear, many transit agencies around the world are mulling fareless programs as a way to provide mobility to those who need it most. Fareless is also seen as a way to pursue other worthy societal goals — such as reducing greenhouse gases by giving people an incentive to drive less.

When the test program goes forward, Metro will likely be the largest transit agency in the world to put such a large test program into action. In our region, the impetus for the program is glaring: about 70 percent of Metro’s riders are considered low-income (meaning their annual income is less than $35,000) and the fareless program would help fulfill the agency’s pledge to put equity at the forefront of its mission to improve mobility for all in our region. The fareless program would also directly benefit many of the people most economically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and who most depend on Metro to get around. During the pandemic, Metro retained a higher percentage of riders than many other large transit agencies.

A team of Metro staffers have been studying fareless transit since last September and have found abundant evidence that putting money back into peoples’ pockets matters — a lot. In addition to the bleak household incomes for many Metro riders, an estimated 69 percent of K-12 Students in L.A. County are low-income. Surveys suggest that about 75 percent of the county’s community college students who ride transit are also low-income. Introducing students to transit could also help students connect with educational, cultural and recreational opportunities.

The overall goal of the test program is to determine whether it’s possible for Metro to go fully fareless in the future. The test program would provide data and other insights needed to make that decision. Board has the discretion to terminate the program at the conclusion of the pilot if long-term Federal or State funding commitments are not secured.

Not surprisingly, the Metro Board on Thursday focused on the issue of how to pay for a fareless test program. Metro staff had earlier estimated that a 23-month pilot program could cost about $321 million including local and municipal operators — a number many on the Board found concerning.

As a result, Metro staff will continue to explore funding scenarios, including state and federal grants (Congress is considering new legislation to support fareless transit initiatives around the country) and contributions from schools, sponsors and/or stakeholders. Another big issue that needs to be worked out: how the other local bus agencies in L.A. County could participate in a fareless program and exactly how that would be funded.

Some other important details:

•Current Metro daily ridership is about half of the 1.2 million daily boarding Metro served in 2019. As the pandemic eases, we expect ridership will grow but there will still be ample capacity for returning and new riders when the pilot program launches.

•Vaccinations are now widely available to anyone 12 or older and Metro requires all riders to wear masks. We believe that getting vaccinated and wearing a mask makes riding transit extremely safe.

•Since Metro launched its fareless study last summer, we’ve heard from plenty of riders and stakeholders — a survey earlier this year received 46,400 responses with 86 percent of Metro riders supporting fareless and 80 percent of non-riders also supporting it.

•Stakeholders definitely have concerns, namely impacts of going fareless on safety, operations, cleanliness and — in particular — the number of homeless riding the system.

Metro takes those concerns very seriously and the agency has a number of initiatives underway as part of its recently released Customer Experience Plan. These include increasing Metro staff presence at facilities and on Metro vehicles, elevator attendants at stations, adding blue light call boxes and continued efforts to connect homeless people to social services and shelters.

Metro CEO Phil Washington — today was his last day at the agency — first called for staff to begin developing a fareless plan last August. Many observers said the fareless study is testament to Phil’s work at Metro over the past six years to expand access to opportunity for riders and residents.

10 replies

  1. Instead of fareless, how about one way trips rounded to $1, no transfer fees, and all day fare is capped at $2 (trips beyond 2 are free). This is a 43% savings on a Metro ticket. Why shouldn’t the 30% of commuters not be given the benefit of low fares to get them out of their cars? This will help everyone take Metro.

    As a commuter who drives, a round trip of $3.5 is not incentive since a gallon of gas is similar and equivalent to 20 miles. Paying $2 round trip is like a rebate of $1.50.

    • “ As a commuter who drives, a round trip of $3.5 is not incentive since a gallon of gas is similar and equivalent to 20 miles. Paying $2 round trip is like a rebate of $1.50.”

      – Man, you just straight up exposed the main reason Metro can’t even compete. That, on top of a billion other things wrong with the system.

  2. Just how is this actually implemented?

    Because there has gotta be some sort of verification for the free ride eligibility, e.g., a student TAP, School ID, or something ….. does it mean all other riders will once again be required to pay the bus fare, with front door boarding resumed?

    • Hi Jason;

      That’s something that will have to be worked out — and it was discussed by the Board during their meetings this month. The gist of it: there’s definitely sentiment that administration should be kept to a minimum and that riders who are eligible shouldn’t have a big barrier to take advantage of the program. Exactly how that looks remains to be seen and that is one of the big things to get done, in addition to a funding plan the Board can agree on.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  3. Lets see how this rolling homeless sheltering experiment goes…
    My guess is it’ll go poorly.

  4. The highly paid Metro bureaucrats who planned to implement this all along are going through the motions. The meetings were bureaucratic fake-work pretending to listen. We reward failure with huge pension obligations.

  5. I hope this approval is not going to be really becoming a true, otherwise my households are going to order me neither to ride a bus nor a train because they said that there might be going to be very crowded on the bus or train if the fareless pilot program becomes a true, and they said that at that time, either all of us on the bus or train might be going to be infected, even if all of us have been fully vaccinated or even if all of us still be going to continue to wear masks or even if all of us still be going to keep a social distance at least six feet away from each other.

  6. This is an old post, but I have a question. I’m a bit confused as to whether LA Metro is now free, or we still need to have our fare with us. I’m referring to Mike Bonin’s tweet on 5/27 saying “Service on Metro buses and trains will remain free as the agency develops details of a fareless pilot program.” I thought Metro was insisting that service is not free (we need to have our fare with us), and that fare collection is only suspended on buses, not trains. Can you clarify what the policy is now?

    • Hi John;

      Fares are not currently waived. You are not required to use fare boxes on buses, but please carry valid fare during travel and TAP at rail stations.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source