LA Metro Ridership And Sales Tax Revenue Are Plummeting Because Of Coronavirus

(Chava Sanchez/LAist )

While much of life in greater Los Angeles (and the rest of the state) is now being lived behind closed doors, the county's public transit network will remain open, its leadership reiterated Friday.

But the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is reducing service on its bus and train lines because of a dramatic drop in ridership, CEO Phillip Washington said at an online media briefing.

Metro has lost "50 to 60 percent" of its daily riders, Washington said, which he cited as proof that "people are doing exactly what they're supposed to do" as the new realities of the public health crisis continue to permeate daily life.

But public transit is still "a lifeline for many [who] don't have the option to drive," Washington said. That includes essential workers who are desperately needed at places like hospitals, nursing homes and grocery stores — plus those who need to access those resources.

"If you need our services, we're going to be there," Washington vowed.

As of Friday, there are no reported cases of COVID-19 contracted on Metro's system and no known cases among its roughly 11,000 employees. The agency continues to follow guidance from public health experts and remains cautious, Washington said, but is "not operating from a position of fear."

The key message from Metro is this: if you can stay home, stay home.

'HYBRID SERVICE'

As a result of reduced ridership, Metro is moving to a "hybrid service" schedule (aka, reducing service levels of its buses and trains).

The agency is cutting bus service by 15 to 20%, officials said later Friday. It's managing those cuts through a new "quick-strike, on-street adjustment" system, according to Washington, which is designed so the agency's operations team can closely monitor routes and schedules to adjust bus service in near-real-time.

Metro officials say they hope to limit the inconvenience to riders who rely on the system and maintain steady service on their busiest routes.

Metro is also reducing rail line service through the week, beginning Monday, March 23.

The Red (B), Purple (D), Blue (A), Expo (E) and Gold (L) lines will run every 12 minutes between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. and every 20 minutes all other times. The Green (C) Line schedule will be: every 12 minutes from 4 a.m. and 9 a.m.; every 15 minutes until 3 p.m.; every 12 minutes from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.; every 20 minutes between 6 p.m. and midnight.

Starting Friday, March 20, the final trains will leave terminal stations at midnight. That schedule will continue "until further notice," officials said.

Riders should check Metro's service advisory webpage and rider alerts Twitter feed for possible changes.

BRACING FOR A 'MASSIVE HIT'

Fewer riders isn't the only challenge the agency faces, though. As the economy continues to slow, sales tax revenue — an important piece of Metro's funding — is also plummeting.

That will be a "massive hit" to the agency, Washington said. "We don't know the totality of that effect yet, but we're preparing and bracing for it."

Metro's leaders have reached out to both the Federal Transit Administration and Congress "to explore the possibility of federal reimbursement of COVID-19 costs," he added. No further details were given. Washington also said Metro is in need of state assistance, which has been conveyed to lawmakers in Sacramento.

Here are a few more key updates Washington and other Metro officials gave at Friday's briefing:

Plenty of room on the Red Line at Union Station this week. (Chava Sanchez/LAist )

Metro employees are not currently being tested for COVID-19 through the agency. Ken Hernandez, Metro's chief safety risk and asset management officer, said that's "because of the shortage of tests" available right now.

Sick employees are being instructed to stay home and many employees have already started telecommuting. Metro also closed its downtown headquarters to the public earlier this week.

Microtransit and on-demand transit services contracted by Metro want to step up. Washington said the agency has been in talks with Via and other microtransit providers, which have offered to expand their services.

"We are going to take them up on that," he said.

Via currently offers free rides to Metro stations in several specific service areas. That service is currently free and "we will extend that as appropriate and as the need arises," Washington said.

Metro has another microtransit pilot in the works. There are very few details about what that might look like, but officials from Metro's Office of Extraordinary Innovation (yes, that's a real department) previously told me the service would likely let riders hail shared shuttles through a phone app.

Some Metro bus lines are doing rear-door boarding, but it's not yet a systemwide practice. At least a couple other regional transit services — Foothill Transit and Culver CityBus — have moved to rear-door-only boarding (except for riders who need to use the front-door ramp) in an effort to maintain social distancing and protect bus operators.

Metro is still collecting fares, though its board will be evaluating that decision. While some other local transit agencies have waived fare fees, Washington said he's not recommending that for Metro right now. "Obviously, with the revenue loss that we are experiencing, offering free fares now would exasperate that situation," he said. "We want to operate for as long as we can."

MORE ON CORONAVIRUS AND PUBLIC TRANSIT

Deep Cleaning, Disinfectant And 'Death Stares': LA Public Transit In The Age Of Coronavirus

How LA Metro And Other Public Transit Agencies Are Adapting To Our New Coronavirus Reality