A single trip on a Metro bus or train currently costs $1.75 regardless of the destination, which already makes it one of the cheapest transit systems in the country by a couple of quarters. But Metro may be about to one-up that and become the first large transit system in the world to go fareless.
On Thursday, Metro CEO Phil Washington announced that the transit agency will consider a proposal to eliminate fares and offer free rides for all on Metro buses and trains. As detailed in a recap on the agency’s Source blog, a new exploratory task force will begin work on the Fareless System Initiative on September 1, with the goal of putting a plan up for a vote in front of the board of directors by the end of 2020.
One of the biggest questions, of course, is funding. Metro says it’ll focus its attention on how it can move around money at all levels of government, as well as how it can take advantage of advertising and sponsorship opportunities. This actually won’t be the first time that the agency has considered getting creative with funding: Tied to the voter-approved Measure M, Metro has previously said that it’ll experiment with using freeway tolls to subsidize transit fares, and that the concept will be tested at a pilot location in 2021. Outside funding isn’t the only area of interest, though. The task force will study whether procedures like locked turnstiles and fare enforcement actually make any business sense: Metro only recovers about 13% of its operating budget from fare collection, and that number has been in decline over the past two decades.
But the fareless study will address way more than just money. It’ll examine the impact on the ridership of a system that on average serves Angelenos with a lower-than-median household income, and one with a current fare enforcement system that’s faced allegations of targeting people of color. It’s, as Washington describes it, “a moral obligation” to address “the devastating effects of the lack of affordability in the region.”
It’s worth noting that this plan would only apply to Metro and not other transit agencies within the county like Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus, LADOT’s Dash network or the San Gabriel Valley’s Foothill Transit—but part of the study is to gauge the impact Metro’s free rides would have on the ridership and funding of these other fare-required lines. Also, the plan’s outline acknowledges the ongoing issue of homelessness but hypothesizes that free fares would lead to higher ridership and an increased sense of safety.
Because everything good in 2020 comes from a wish on a monkey’s paw, the proposal comes amid some bad news. Metro is facing a projected $1.8 billion deficit over the next two years, and one of the mitigating measures outlined in today’s Metro Board of Directors meeting is to maintain the system’s current service hour cuts. Metro’s bus recovery phasing plan calls for continuing a 20% cut to total operating hours (compared to pre-stay-at-home levels) through June 2021, in which lower-trafficked lines would stick to a Sunday schedule all week long. For the year following that, service hours would improve to an 8% cut. For rail service, the cuts are a little less drastic, but we’re likely to see a 7% reduction in service hours through June 2022.