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Transportation and Mobility

LA Metro Moves Forward With Plan To Explore Free Transit System

A blue-tinted Metro train arrives to a transit platform near downtown Los Angeles as an out-of-focus man in a blue shirt walks away from the train.
(Courtesy L.A. Metro)
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Los Angeles County’s K-12 students and community college students may soon be able to ride the county’s transit system for free.

The county Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s board approved a plan to move forward on a 23-month fareless transit pilot program Thursday. But agency leaders also set several conditions that must be met before the pilot can launch — including completing a plan for how Metro will cover the cost.

Right now, no launch date has been set, though the staff proposal sought to start with the student groups this August, then expand in January 2022 to include “qualifying low-income residents,” according to Metro.

“About 70 percent of Metro’s riders are considered low-income (meaning annual income is less than $35,000) and the fareless program would help fulfill the agency’s pledge to put equity at the forefront of its mission to improve mobility for all in our region,” an official wrote on Metro’s website.

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The program would conclude at the end of June 2023 and represents a major step toward making the county’s bus and rail system free for all riders.

L.A. Metro CEO Phillip Washington launched a task force in September to study how the county's transit agency could transition to a fare-free system by the start of 2021. That was moved back to a goal of launching a two-phase pilot program in January 2022, but modified again so that K-12 and community college students can ride for free in time for the upcoming school year.

Washington, who is stepping down from his role this month, pitched exploring free transit as a moral obligation of the agency. Eliminating fares is also seen as a way to improve transit service by reducing boarding time, and encourage more people to take the system regularly by removing a financial barrier.

Transit advocates and Metro officials have also pointed to equity concerns about Black and brown riders being targeted for fare evasion, leading to confrontations with law enforcement and deaths on the system.

There are still a lot of details to be worked out, including how the agency will implement the program and how best to track qualifying riders’ trips for proper study. Metro staff have noted that low-income riders “may be too large of a group for a pilot.”

Metro officials estimate rider fares account for 13% of the agency’s operating costs, and roughly one-third of those costs go toward expenses related to fare collection, such as fare enforcement, accounting and fare box maintenance.

Metro estimates the pilot program will cost $250 million over the next two fiscal years and hopes to pay for it “through a combination of state and federal grants.”

But the agency does not yet know how it will continue to fund the program should it continue long term. In its report to the board, staff noted that “a sustainable source of additional funding” will need to be secured for fareless transit to remain viable.

One suggestion is to use revenue generated from another program Metro is studying: congestion pricing, or charging drivers to travel on certain freeways or corridors at specific times in an effort to reduce congestion.

Some Metro board members have also directed staff to “pursue reasonable cost-sharing agreements with school districts.” That idea doesn’t sit well with L.A. Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner, who said funding free transit “cannot come on the backs of schools.” He recently told LAist:

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“If school funds go to cover the cost of the MTA, that's not free public transportation. It's just shifting the cost burden from the MTA onto schools... if the MTA believes — as do we — that providing our students with free access to public transportation is a good idea, 100%, let's go together to the federal government. But if the MTA has designs on school funding — which would mean for us less math teachers, less school bus drivers — in order to fund the MTA budget? I don't think that works for us.”

LAist education reporter Kyle Stokes and LAist arts & entertainment journalist/digital producer Mike Roe contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported a start date had been approved for the pilot program. Based on Thursday's vote, no start date has been officially approved, pending further feasibility study. LAist regrets the error.