Last September, Metro CEO Phil Washington proposed making all Metro buses and trains free for all riders, to increase both system ridership and equity for all transit users. At the time, Washington appointed a task force to study the proposal, and suggested it could go into effect as soon as January, 2021. That schedule proved a bit too ambitious, but the task force has been hard at work since then, and during the month of March, Metro held a series of community meetings to update stakeholders on the progress of plans to make Metro fully fare-free, and to present its plans for an 18-month pilot of a more limited fareless system, which would start in 2022. We caught up with one of these meetings – a telephone town hall session – last night.
Speaking to attendees at the meeting, both Washington and Metro Board Member Jacquelyn Dupont-Walker reiterated their strong commitment to creating a fare-free transit system, with Dupont-Walker saying it’s “long overdue,” and Washington calling it a “moral obligation.”
Washington said the benefits of eliminating fares include increased transit access for more people, reducing the percentage of household income spent on transit (which is often the second most expensive item – after housing – in most people’s budgets), increased equity, less traffic congestion, and improvements in air quality.
Washington said these benefits will be especially important for low and extremely low income riders, those with incomes under $35,000 per year, who make up 70% of Metro’s current customer base (the largest percentage of any public transit system in the country).
Among the challenges of going completely fare-free, Washington said, are funding and the effects it would create on other local transit systems. But Washington said the task force is studying both of these questions, and will make a report to the Metro board with its findings in May.
At the same time that the task force will present the results of its studies to the Metro board in May, Washington said, it will also present plans for an 18-month pilot program to test fareless rides for two key groups – low income riders and K-12 students.
According to task force leader Doreen Morrissey, the pilot program would start in January, 2022, with free fares available to low income riders. Then, in August, 2022, the free fares would extend to students in grades K-12. (Riders who register for the program would still use their Tap cards to enters buses and trains, but would not have to load the cards with fare money.) The trial would run through June, 2023, at which point the task force would bring its findings back to the Metro board, with a recommendation on whether or not to extend the program and make Metro buses and trains permanently free for all riders.
In a comment and question session after the brief presentation, several concerns were raised.
One stakeholder noted that her experience with previous Metro programs requiring documentation to prove low-income status were too complicated, and kept out many people who should qualify. Morrissey agreed that this is a “front of mind” concern for Metro, which is committed to streamlining registration for the low-income pilot program.
Several other attendees urged that the pilot be expanded to include community college students, most of whom are also low income, and most of whom are frequent transit riders.
The question of how a fare-free system can be sustainable was also raised, and Washington said that’s one of the things Metro is researching. But he said he believes sustainability is possible, and that the federal government seems willing to help, with several agencies now working with Congress to provide funding for fareless public transit. One current proposal would provide up to $5 billion per year for five years, Washington said, and he belives this is just the beginning of a longer trend, with Los Angeles poised to be among the first in line for funding.
At the same time, however, Morrissey acknowledged that there are still many unknowns about how a fully fareless system will work over the long run, which is exactly why the task force is proposing the 18-month pilot program. According to Morrissey, no other transit system the size of Metro has ever created a fully fareless system, so there are many questions about finance, sustainability, security and more that still need to be studied and answered.
For more information on the farless transit proposal, see http://www.metro.net/fareless or contact [email protected] For more detailed information from the regional meetings held in March, see the presentation slides at https://media.metro.net/2020/SFV_Item_FSI_20210303.pdf