LA Metro Is In 'Uncharted Territory' And Waiting For Federal Aid To Get Back On Track

TAP entry at the Pershing Square Metro Station in downtown Los Angeles on March 23, 2020. (Chava Sanchez/ LAist)

The coronavirus pandemic has (not surprisingly) sent ridership and sales tax revenue plummeting for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

L.A. Metro CEO Phillip Washington described the situation to us as a "double-whammy," and said the agency now finds itself in "uncharted territory."

As of March 24, average weekday ridership on Metro trains has fallen more than 80%, and bus ridership has dropped by nearly 70%, according to Washington.

But the ridership dollars don't make up the bulk of the agency's funding. Roughly half of Metro's annual budget comes from sales tax.

Los Angeles Metro CEO Phillip Washington (Courtesy Los Angeles Metro)

Washington said that "in normal transit crises, you have a decrease in ridership... but sales tax would stay consistent," helping agencies make up for losses.

But with the public under orders to stay home and non-essential businesses closed, people are traveling and spending dramatically less.

Metro could lose between $650 and $750 million in sales tax revenue by the end of this fiscal year, Washington said. The ridership plunge is already costing tens of millions and counting, he added.

Meanwhile, coronavirus-related cleaning and other public health protocols are costing Metro "in the millions of dollars," he said.

Metro made cuts on its system last Friday, reducing bus service by upwards of 15% and running fewer trains on a shorter daily schedule. Metro's leadership has vowed to keep the system running for essential travel, but continues to urge people to stay home if they can.

But it can't run forever with the situation as it stands now. Without government emergency aid, the system would only be able to operate for another five or six months, Washington said. But Metro and other transit agencies across the country have asked for that federal help — and Congress is working on it.

On Wednesday night, the U.S. Senate approved a $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus plan, which includes $25 billion for public transportation relief. The House of Representatives is set to take up the measure Friday.

That money would be distributed based on a formula that accounts for regional population, ridership and other factors. Based on that formula, Washington said he would expect more than $1.3 billion allotted for L.A. Metro.

L.A. Metro officials say staff is continuing to clean and disinfect all its buses and trains once a day, which happens overnight at their respective divisions. (Courtesy Los Angeles Metro)

While smaller transit agencies in the county and around the U.S. have waived rider fares during this national health emergency, Washington has advised against that for L.A. Metro. He cited concern that free fares might entice more people to ride, counteracting the emphasis on social distancing.

So federal aid is in the works, but what about help from California? Washington said it's unclear what Sacramento will do, but vowed that he will "have my hand out at the state level, too."

Washington added that there were no immediate impacts to Metro's current construction projects, though without emergency aid, those projects could later be put in jeopardy.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF MONEY AND METRO

The sales tax money that supports roughly half of Metro's budget comes 2016's Measure M and three other sales tax measures passed since 1980.

Fare revenue is a much smaller slice of Metro's costs, and typically funds a third of operational costs for Metro bus service.

Still, said Washington, "the little fare box revenue that we are collecting will help us keep the system open longer than we would otherwise."

Empty seats on a Metro D (Purple) Line car on March 23, 2020. (Chava Sanchez/ LAist)