In a bid to yield declining ridership, Metro chief executive officer Phil Washington announced an initiative that aimed to eliminate fares across the agency’s bus and rail system last year. Now, a new staff report given to the Board’s Executive Management Committee reportedly offers a look at the proposed pilot program that could be the first step towards reaching that goal.


According to the staff presentation, the fareless system initiative could save Metro passengers $1,200 each annually, which is a substantial benefit for the agency’s core constituency. Metro estimates that 70% of its regular passengers have annual incomes of less than $35,000.


Currently, the Metro task force leading the fareless system initiative is considering several concepts for a pilot program. Per the staff presentation, the leading proposal is to offer free fares to low-income passengers and K-12 students. Other scenarios being considered by the agency include being limited to peak or off-peak hours, bus lines, rail lines, certain geographic areas, and a full fareless system.


If the pilot program moves forward, Metro would launch the pilot for low-income riders in January 2022 and then expand the offering to students in August. This schedule, naturally, is contingent on the containment of COVID-19. The pilot program would conclude at the end of June 2023, and only then could it be continued or expanded should Metro secure financing.


As previously mentioned, the proposed pilot would be limited to Metro’s buses and rail services. Municipal operators, like the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus and Culver City Bus, would not be included, though. Also not included: Metrolink’s commuter rail network, Metro bike share, and Metro’s micro transit program.


Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Metro’s ridership numbers have tanked. According to the same staff presentation, the 1.2 million daily riders the agency saw in 2019 has been cut to just over 500,000 currently. Metro anticipates that the fareless pilot program could raise that figure to more than 740,000 daily riders, which would be an increase up to 141,000 boardings. 


It is estimated that the cost of the 18-month pilot ranges from $301 million to $335 million. Potential funding avenues include Federal, state, and local sources, including FTA grants and California’s Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program. Metro is also studying caps on fares — an effort that could benefit passengers who do not participate in the fareless pilot.


According to a post on The Source, Metro plans to conduct public outreach meetings on the pilot project in Mar. The fareless system task force hopes to present its proposal to the Metro Board for a vote in May 2021.


Metro’s current initiatives, which include new rail and bus rapid transit lines all over the city, there’s also a possible pilot program for congestion pricing, which could charge drivers for access to high-traffic corridors in the near future. Moreover, the agency is also in the midst of rolling out its NextGen bus plan, another effort to reverse declines in ridership over recent years.


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