When you work in transportation, you learn that access is everything. In a county as sprawling as Los Angeles, you need wheels to get where you need to go. That’s why Metro launched LIFE –– short for Low Income Fare is Easy, a fare discount program for qualifying individuals –– in 2018. But where did LIFE come from? How does it work? What’s next on its horizon?
I was curious, so I caught up with Heidi Jackson, LIFE’s program manager, and Ronni Jackson, the director of transportation at FAME Assistance Corporations, one of Metro’s two partnering organizations that administer LIFE.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. Here we go!
So you’re both named Jackson. But no relation … uh, right?
Ronni – We’re actually related!
Heidi – First cousins! We’re ten years apart. I’m the older one, but now Ronni is my boss!
How did you both get into the field of public transportation?
Heidi – When we were younger, we both took the bus everywhere. Whenever I wanted to go to the mall, I had to take Ronni with me. She was well, kind of like that annoying little sister I never had! And we both grew up in South LA. I grew up in the Crenshaw area (known then as Santa Barbara) and Ronni grew up in Baldwin Hills. We lived maybe five to seven minutes away, and went to the same schools, starting in the local elementary school. Later on, we were both bussed to high school in Pacific Palisades.
What was that like?
Heidi – We really loved it. It was a program called PWT (or Permit with Transportation). The program started when I was nine and was open to families in certain neighborhoods on a first-come, first-serve basis. At that time, it was a big deal to bus inner city children out to an upper-middle class neighborhood for school. Some objected, pointing out that there was already a school in my neighborhood. But going to Pali High gave us the opportunity to see other things, meet other people, and build relationships with people from outside the community. Did I want to go at first? No! I wanted to go to Dorsey High or Crenshaw High with my friends! But Pali High offered better opportunities as far as college was concerned.
Both of you work at FAME Assistance Corporations, which has a fascinating history of its own. Mind explaining to readers where FAME came from?
Ronni – FAME Assistance Corporations grew out of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (the First AME Church) in Jefferson Park. It’s home to LA’s oldest Black congregation and has been around for 150 years. After the ‘92 Uprising, the pastor––his name was Reverend Cecil Murray,[i] and was a huge influence in the community back then––began FAME Renaissance, a nonprofit economic development organization. The goal was to provide training and technical assistance to local entrepreneurs and job seekers, and as well as legal aid and microloans to small businesses.
For a long time, Heidi and I never quite knew how the transportation piece fit in. But it went like this: After the Uprising, there were many areas that had been totally destroyed. Local residents were having trouble getting to doctor’s appointments and childcare centers and grocery stores. FAME worked with the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC)[ii] to launch a program called Operation Food Basket, which provided $7 taxi coupons to residents in the most hard-hit areas.[iii]
Heidi – You’d call, a taxi pulled up, and you’d get a ride to wherever you needed to go.
I’ve heard that the ’92 Uprising had a major impact on Metro’s programs and policies –– things like local hiring, union apprenticeships, and small business preferences and set asides all responded to it … and are still around today. After ’92, the Crenshaw rail corridor project (now the K Line) became an important priority. You’re saying that LIFE grew out of the Uprising too?
Ronni – Exactly. Within a year, the $7 taxi program had become so successful that it expanded from a few pockets of South LA to a countywide program. By 1993, it had been renamed the Immediate Needs Transportation Program and started distributing bus tokens. But in order to get community members the tokens, the program organizers had to partner with several hundred nonprofits across LA County.
By 2008, when Heidi started at FAME, the program had morphed into the Rider Relief Transportation Program, which distributed paper coupons that provided discounts off the cost of bus passes. The program became LIFE in 2018. The following year, the taxi coupon program merged with LIFE.
Heidi – And that’s where we are now. Currently, riders who qualify for LIFE can get a fare subsidy of up to $24 on a Metro 30-Day pass, or the option to receive 20 free regional rides each month.
Got it. What is your day to day like?
So anyone from the community can come in Monday through Friday to sign up. We manage over 250 nonprofits that help clients with the taxi subsidies as well as our “for ride tickets” that help get people onto the buses and trains of our partners for free.[iv] And then we frequently get calls from patrons who want to learn what LIFE is all about: how to enroll and load cards and things like that. There’s also a lot of work on the back end –– using Salesforce to create accounts for new agencies, onboarding the agencies, and training their staff to help their clients.
How big is LIFE?
Heidi – In 2022, we set a goal of 100,000 new enrollments. And we surpassed it –– that was thanks to outreach, the administrators, our partnering agencies, and efforts by Metro’s marketing team. Now, we have about 230,000 people enrolled in LIFE. And we’re continuing to grow. We probably do six to ten outreach events each month.
Metro has also recently altered the program so people don’t have to re-enroll. Once they enroll, they are lifetime members. All they have to do is reactivate their card.
What would you say is LIFE’s biggest challenge right now?
Heidi – There are so many organizations that partner with the program, and each one of these orgs could have up to 20 authorized users. That means managing over 2000 different users, so it can be challenging to make sure that everyone knows how to enroll people and use the program correctly.
Ronni – We see a different side of things than Metro, but making changes requires a lot of different steps and a lot of coordination among different organizations, such as Metro, TAP, and taxi service providers. One thing we’re always thinking about is the customer experience –– how can we improve the TAP system on the user side? How easy is it for agencies to enroll? How can we educate both TAP and Metro about the responses we’re getting?
What do you like most about your job?
Heidi – I never dread going to work. I always have a smile on my face when I go. Working with this program is very rewarding, but there’s also a cohesiveness in the office and in how we all work together. The vibe is great. It feels like a family here.
Ronni – I echo what Heidi said! We are fortunate to work with some amazing people at Metro. Back when we were running the Rider Relief program, we would have hundreds of people waiting in line for re-enrollment. One man, even after waiting in line for hours, thanked each one of the staff, and gave us all bubblegum. The gratitude that people had -– sometimes they were in tears –– was really powerful. It made you realize that this is why you’re here all day, every day, grinding it out to serve 400 to 500 people.
Heidi – We open our doors at 8am, but people would get in line as early as 5am to get these monthly discounts. For some folks, these $24 discounts determine whether they can afford to buy groceries that week.
[i] An ex-combat pilot and Claremont Ph.D. Cecil Murray became the pastor of the First AME Church in 1977. Over his 27-year tenure, he grew the congregation from about 250 to more than 18,000. He was cast in the national spotlight during the ‘92 Uprising, delivering sermons that condemned the violence as well as the systems of oppression faced by Black Americans and other people of color. After ending his tenure at the church, the University of Southern California appointed him to its faculty (he retired last year) and shortly thereafter created the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement, which still exists.
[ii] LACTC, established in 1976, was a commission responsible for approving plans and funding the transportation agencies in the region. In February 1993, it merged with the Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD) to create the LACMTA (or better known as Metro).
[iii] Operation Food Basket was funded by Prop A and started within a few days of the Uprising. Customers received a maximum of $28 each month.
[iv] Combined, LIFE partners with over 500 agencies in all, ranging from homeless shelters to food banks to schools. And the number is growing.
Curious about LIFE? Learn more about the program here.
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Categories: Transportation News