Metro L.A. to look into free fares for all bus and train riders

Metro Los Angeles has formed a task force that will begin exploring how it can eliminate fares for all riders on its network of buses and trains.

The work for the program, dubbed the Fareless System Initiative, will begin Sep. 1, with a final presentation to the Metro Board of Directors by the end of the year that will outline possible funding sources along with varying scenarios as to how the program could tangibly play out.

Metro CEO Phil Washington, who made the announcement at today’s board meeting, noted that eliminating fares—while having never been fully achieved at any large metro system worldwide—should be used as an “economic development tool” that encourages transit use among those who often dismiss it in favor of a car while also saving money for those that depend on transit as their main form of transportation. He also noted that this is an “essential part” of the county’s recovery from the pandemic.

“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 affects of the lack of affordability in the region,” Washington said in a statement. “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.”

According to Metro, the task for will look at the following areas for study:

  • 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,” wrote Steve Hymon of Metro. “We do think that free fares would encourage higher ridership and having more people on buses and train would likely make riders feel safer.”

Metro emphasized that this study period does not mean fares have been immediately eradicated. Until the study is presented to the board and its proposal approved, all fares remain active on Metro buses and trains.

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 19 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.
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