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LA Metro Will Get More Than $1 Billion In Federal Aid For Regional Transit Relief

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Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority discussed federal funding, the one-bag policy and more during Thursday's meeting. (Courtesy Adrian Hernandez/LA Metro)
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The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority held a virtual board meeting today, punctuated by the noise of paper being shuffled, speakers talking over each other, and perhaps even a dog bark or two — all the familiar staples of our new teleconferencing reality. But Metro’s leaders also made some key announcements and decisions.

Los Angeles County has been allocated more than $1 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding to help keep regional public transit moving, Metro CEO Phillip Washington told the board.

Washington said the money comes from the CARES Act, which was passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump last month.

That money is specifically for Metro and other transit agencies that operate in the county — including 17 municipal transit agencies, Access Services and potentially Metrolink. The agency’s board of directors will be tasked with dispersing the funds across those agencies.

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Washington said his office would provide funding recommendations for the board to act on in May, but the “long and drawn out” process means Metro will have to submit its allocations to another regional government body before they’re put in the federal grant system. After that, funding recipients like Metro can submit invoices and start using those federal dollars.

Metro ridership is down roughly 70% systemwide. As of last week’s estimates, weekday bus ridership is down 65% and rail down 75%, Metro spokesman Rick Jager told me this week.

That’s just one part of the “double-whammy” Metro is facing, Washington explained last month. Because of the dramatic drop in sales tax revenue — which accounts for about half of Metro’s budget — the agency could lose between $650 and $750 million in sales tax revenue by the end of this fiscal year, Washington said.

“We know that this is a moment in time,” Washington told the board today. “We're going to get through it.”

Here are a few other topics and decisions from today’s meeting:

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Metro’s (unofficial) one-bag policy is causing some concern. Board member and L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin urged Washington to reconsider what he called a “punitive and harmful” enforcement effort by Metro to limit riders to carrying one bag each on its system.

Washington noted that this was not an official policy but is part of an effort to maintain social distancing, adding that transit officers are using a "level of discretion” in how they enforce it. That raised a red flag for Bonin, who argued it’s a legal land mine waiting to go off.

“If it’s not an official policy and the intention is to [only] enforce in certain circumstances against certain populations, that is going to bite us in the butt,” Bonin said, “and it’s going to be a bigger problem long term than it is right now.”

More money (and backlash) for South Bay’s high-speed internet project. The board also approved a motion to allocate an additional $2.5 million for a controversial fiber optics project. Back in September, Metro approved $4.4 million to create a high-speed internet system for municipal workers from more than a dozen cities in the South Bay in an effort to improve and increase telecommuting and ease congestion.

The project has faced heavy criticism from some business leaders and transit advocates, who argue it should not qualify as a transit project. Public comments referred to the project as "a farce," a "boondoggle" and a misuse of Measure M funds.

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The agency is eyeing the road to recovery. Washington also noted that he’s putting together a team to guide Metro through the recovery effort. The goal, as Washington framed it: “to advance mobility without congestion as the new normal.”

In other words, Metro will look for ways to capitalize on the side effects of the health crisis that fit in the agency’s broader long-term goals, like our noticeably cleaner, clearer air and reduced congestion on regional roads and freeways.

Washington has also been tapped to co-chair a national transit recovery task force.

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