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Metro Scales Back Fareless Initiative to Initial Phase for Students Only

This Thursday, the Metro board will vote on approving an initial phase of its Fareless Services Initiative - FSI. Disappointing many, Metro does not have a clear timeline for when and how the agency might move beyond a nearly-two-year student pilot into to an actual fareless system.

Metro is currently operating buses fare-free, and has been since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Announced in August 2020 by then-CEO Phil Washington, Metro's FSI was supposed to "eliminate fares for all riders" starting in early 2020 - though many noted that the announcement appeared timed to distract from deep service cuts.

During the past year, as FSI was studied and discussed by staff and board, FSI's scope has been pared back, and its schedule delayed. In May, the Metro board, which has been divided on how FSI should work, theoretically approved moving forward with FSI, though contingent on a further board approval of a funding plan. At that time, thanks to an amending motion by County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, the board approved keeping the current fare-free bus service in place until FSI was approved and underway.

At last week's Metro board Executive Management Committee meeting, staff presented [staff reports, presentation] the latest version of FSI. Universal fare-free transit, for now, is no longer on the table. The current proposal includes:

    • Free fare for students in grades K-14: elementary, middle, high school, and community college - called Phase 1 of FSI.
    • Improvements to Metro's low income rider discount program - Low Income Fare is Easy (LIFE) [LIFE proposal detail staff report]

The current FSI proposal was approved by the committee last week, and is slated for a vote of the full board this Thursday.

If approved, changes would go into effect on November 1:

    • Fare collections resume - with six months of half-off fares (as approved in May 2020)
    • Discontinue rear-door boarding - except on lines that already had all-door boarding: Wilshire Rapid (720), Vermont Rapid (754), and J (Silver) and G (Orange) Lines
    • Start free student fares - see below
    • Start new LIFE program improvements - see below

Phase 1 - Free Transit for Students

For students to ride free, they would have to obtain special TAP cards, which would be made available through school districts. Since early August, Metro has piloted the program with three smaller school districts and three charter schools. In the advance student FSI pilot: Metro distributed 5,600 test TAP cards, 1,149 of which were registered via Metro's online portal, 613 unique cards have already been used to board Metro, for a total of 7,046 recorded boardings.

Free student fares would start November 1, 2020, and continue through the end of the following fiscal year - June 2022.

Metro has already arranged student fareless partnerships with six municipal bus operators: City of Commerce, Culver City, Santa Monica Big Blue Bus, Foothill Transit (Community College program), Montebello, and Norwalk. Metro is still negotiating possible partnerships with additional Munis [FSI transit agencies list].

Metro anticipates the nearly two-year student pilot will cost $49.9 million in estimated lost fare revenue. The majority of the student pilot costs would come from COVID stimulus monies in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) already allocated to Metro and to Munis. A smaller portion of expenses would be paid by cost-sharing arrangements with school districts. LAUSD has "verbally agreed" to participate in FSI, and is expected to fully approve participation very soon. Six other districts have already approved their participation, and Metro is working with numerous school districts [FSI district list] throughout L.A. County.

Low Income LIFE Discounted Fare Improvements

Metro has long offered fare for riders who enroll in programs for discounted fares, though the process for low-income (and student) enrollment has been too cumbersome for the program to serve a majority of eligible riders.

Per the LIFE program staff report, Metro estimates that 60 percent of its low-income riders are enrolled in LIFE (92,000 of 300,000.) That number has increased during COVID as ridership dropped much faster LIFE enrollees. Metro Pre-COVID LIFE coverage was 35 percent of eligible riders.

Metro is proposing a modest suite of changes to facilitate more people enrolling in the LIFE program. Registration would be somewhat easier - including making sign-ups available online starting in October 2020. Can anyone imagine a program geared to drivers - say setting up a Metro ExpressLanes account - not available for online sign-ups? Since its inception in 2019, LIFE program enrollees must submit (and annually re-submit) paperwork via mail. Only recently did Metro allow for applications to be done in person - by appointment - at Metro's five customer centers (yes - that is five customer centers for a county of ten million people spanning over 4,700 square miles.) Metro plans to expand this to allow enrollment at selected transit stations.

Under COVID, Metro started to allow for automatic renewal of LIFE program enrollment - and to extend eligibility from one year to two years. Metro is also partnering with county EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer - known as food stamps) agencies to get LIFE TAP cards to their clients.

Metro is tweaking LIFE benefits to offer set numbers of free rides, in addition to discounted single-ride fares and weekly/monthly passes. Starting in December, Metro plans to offer single-day fare-capping, so for one day, riders paying per-ride would not pay more than the cost of day pass. Metro is also doing additional LIFE promotion and redesigning its LIFE website.

What about an actual fareless transit system?

Per Metro staff's assessment [page 11], there is "Not enough capacity in the current Metro Transit Operations budget for Phase 2 launch of the pilot for low-income riders" so "Future implementation is contingent on new sustainable federal, state, local, or other funding sources."

Advocates are critical of the latest version of Metro's FSI, which is a step down from Metro's current no fare collection practice. Though the new version allows for many students to ride free, it keeps in place the requirement that busy riders to take the time to enroll to obtain a special TAP card - this like previous largely-ineffective Metro programs that suffered from low enrollment. Without universal free fares (even for students), Metro would conduct fare enforcement, which has resulted in over-policing of communities of color.

Alliance for Community Transit (ACT-LA) Advocacy Manager Alfonso Directo stated that his organization is "urging the board to keep buses fare free and to work on a path toward universal fareless transit." "As a precondition of their pilot," Directo stated "we’re urging them to conduct an evaluation of the current universal fareless bus operation so the board has an baseline understanding of how their decision will impact current bus riders." ACT-LA has created a toolkit for interested people to comment, in advance of and at Thursday's board meeting.

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