LA Metro Projects Ridership Could Take 2 Years To Return To Pre-Pandemic Levels

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

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With bus and rail boardings down 70% on Los Angeles County's transit system since the stay-at-home order took effect in mid-March, fare revenues have plummeted, and now L.A. Metro's CEO is saying ridership "may take up to two years to return to pre-COVID levels."

Meanwhile, federal relief money is on the way, but it'll take several months to get here.

The L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is projecting it will lose $1.8 billion through the upcoming fiscal year, ending in June 2021, CEO Phillip Washington told the board in their Thursday meeting as he outlined the impacts the coronavirus pandemic is projected to have on the transit system.

Much of that shortfall is being driven by the dramatic drop in sales tax revenue, which accounts for roughly half the agency's operating budget.

(Courtesy L.A. Metro)

"Listening to this, it's a very dire prediction," said board member and L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn. "We're obviously going to take a lot of hits and cuts."

Relief from the CARES Act will help close some of that gap. L.A. County has been granted nearly $1.1 billion specifically for public transit to cover operating expenses impacted by coronavirus. But, as Washington pointed out, Metro is "not getting a big check for a billion dollars."

The process of creating invoices and getting them approved by federal offices will take a few months, meaning the money won't start flowing until September or October, he said. And that money isn't just for the county agency. Under the CARES Act allotment plan approved by Metro's board today, the agency's bus and rail operations will receive about $587 million. The rest of the relief funds are split among other transit agencies that operate in the county. That includes city-run agencies like LADOT, as well as regional operators like Foothill Transit, Metrolink and Access Services. A full breakdown of CARES Act funding can be found here.

Metro is also exploring other relief options, Washington said, including possible aid from FEMA.

THE IMPACT ON LA COUNTY'S TRANSIT FUTURE

Ridership on L.A. Metro's buses and trains has plummeted, but some Angelenos still rely on the system. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

So, what does this mean for Metro's ambitious plans to expand its system over the next decade? There will be delays to some projects, but that comes after many had already been pushed up.

Washington said a number of key projects will continue as part of a "first bucket" of priority projects. That includes major expansions like the Crenshaw/LAX line, Regional Connector, and extensions of the D (Purple) and L (Gold Lines) lines. It also includes projects already underway or contracted, like freeway HOV lane additions and the electrification of Metro's bus fleet.

The "second bucket" includes all other transit projects in some phase of development. Currently, those projects will "be deferred three to six months," according to Metro spokesperson Rick Jager. But the agency hopes to resume them after that, he said, adding that "most of these projects were well ahead of the schedules mandated by Measure M."

Washington credited that to Metro leaders' "aggressive" push to accelerate transit projects, saying "the very worst that can happen here is that we will end up being on the Measure M schedule — and that's incredible."

The agency is "in better shape than any other capital program in this country," he said, due to the fact that Measure M has no "sunset," or expiration date. He explained:

"Other capital programs around the country, they have a 30-year measure. I've been on the other side of those 30-year measures, and one recession can kill your whole program... the fact that our board voted back in 2016 for no sunset is paying off for us now, because instead of projects being eliminated in the program, the worst that can happen is they may be delayed."

Washington also told the board his office believes another round of federal stimulus funds for public transit is coming, and he wants Metro to be "shovel-ready" for "when manna does fall from heaven."

TIMELINE FOR RESTORED SERVICE

Metro cut back on bus and rail services as ridership began to fall in the wake of stay-at-home orders. The system is currently running on an "enhanced Sunday service" schedule, which works out to about a 30% cut in bus service and 20% reduction in rail service. The agency has outlined a plan to gradually restore service back to pre-pandemic levels through the rest of 2020. It's also continuing to work on the improvements to bus service laid out in the NextGen Bus Plan.

(Courtesy L.A. Metro)

Some Metro board members wondered how well the agency was prepared if ridership — particularly on buses — returns faster than projected.

"I've already heard anecdotally from staff and others that use the system that they see the buses are filling up," said board member and L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis. "Week-to-week, it seems to me we're getting more riders back, and I'm just concerned that we're also having our system in place to react to that."

Washington said the "quick strike service planning" Metro has implemented will allow the agency to add more service where Metro sees the need. He also noted that ridership on the system has started to increase over the last several weeks, from a low of about 275,000 daily boardings to 421,000 more recently.

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