Times: Metro Should Raise Fares

1_26_10_bus_stop.jpgThe Times wants to raise fares on transit riders. Photo: Pgsvenk/Flickr

In today’s Los Angeles Times, the local paper of record follows up on this weekend’s look at Metro’s operational funding crisis with an editorial urging the Metro Board to increase fares to help close the agency’s roughly quarter of a billion annual deficit for 2011.

To be fair, the editorial strikes a lot of the right notes.  It does talk about the Metro’s relatively low farebox recovery ration, the major problems with the state’s yearly grab of operating funds, and the pain felt by all Angelenos if transit riders feel forced into their cars for their commutes or other trips currently made by transit.  But, the only solution offered for fixing the $250 billion deficit is fare increases.  From the editorial:

In most big U.S. cities, it
costs at least $2 to ride the bus, and big-city transit agencies
typically make enough from fares to cover about 40% of their operating
expenses. In L.A. a one-way ride costs $1.25, and fares cover only
about 26% of the MTA’s expenses. The fare will jump to $1.50 in July,
but that still won’t be enough to make up for the budget shortfall. One
solution would be to impose an annual schedule of hikes to put fares in
line with other cities and allow them to keep up with inflation.
Ridership would probably fall in the short term, but such fare-based
plunges seldom last long; moreover, L.A. bus and rail riders are going
to have to pay their fair share of the costs if they want to avoid deep
cuts in service.

But, the editorial also misses on a lot of points.  First, it doesn’t mention the riders for whom a fare increase won’t mean going back to their car, but will mean less food on the table or more debt.  As is often pointed out in the Streetsblog comments section, Los Angeles has a sizeable population that is transit dependent, and they shouldn’t be excluded from the discussion when the impacts of fare increases are discussed.

Second, the only politician mentioned by name is Antonio Villaraigosa.  The Mayor takes a shot for putting his capital behind the Subway to the Sea but not fixing Metro’s operating funding issues.  This seems an odd target, because over sixty percent of Metro’s deficit is caused by the state’s transit raids, ruled illegal by the State Supreme Court, that there is a push to continue this year.  The Mayor may have a lot of pull, but the name of the person who could do the most to fix Metro’s problem is another Angeleno.  Unfortunately, this one commutes by jet to Sacramento, so he doesn’t have to worry about the trains running on time.

  • DJB

    It comes down to who bears the brunt of the recession. Middle and upper income taxpayers, or mostly low-income transit riders (not to mention people on MediCal, students in public schools, etc.)

    My personal preference is to hit up the rich through the tax system. They can afford to make a sacrifice. Poor people can’t. I think transit fares should rise to match inflation, but we should really try and keep them as low as possible. I’m personally willing to pay more, but that’s because I can. It’s a really tough situation.

    If we’re going to name names, I think we should name some feds too (I’m looking at you Obama). They think the world’s biggest military budget is a more important spending priority than public transit, and many other things. This crisis is at every level of our government.

  • I can think of one way around this. Keep the monthly passes at $62 but raise the cash fare to $2+. The transit dependent won’t notice, and the transit optional will be more enticed to purchase a monthly pass (meaning they’re more likely to use it instead of their car as the perception of value is greater). A monthly pass is a more reliable form of revenue than a cash fare – and there will still be enough cash fares to help balance the budget.

    Alternatively, you could raise the standard monthly pass rate but say that anyone making a certain amount or less per year gets a lower monthly pass rate. Or if you trade in your driver’s license for a DMV ID card then you could qualify for the lower rate, I’ve heard of this incentive being used somewhere but I can’t remember where. Tiered passes beyond what is already offered would of course increase the need to hire people to determine eligibility etc. so that may not be optimal.

    There are plenty of creative alternatives that would help Metro’s budget while not creating additional problems for the transit dependent. The key thing is to think outside the box of simply raising fares across the board.

  • Erik G.

    Yes, the fare in other cities is $2 or more.

    BUT, in other cities this includes the FREE transfer(s) necessary to complete a journey across the system, regardless of the route taken or the whims of the system’s route planners.

    Not only can you not get a free transfer in Southern California anymore, you cannot get a receipt from the driver in the case of a fare dispute. I am surprised that the transit unions in this area have allowed this situation to be allowed to be.

    And then add the ongoing TAP-follies, a smartcard that could solve so many issues, but that’s for another thread.

  • This highlights one glaring problem in the way the MTA is run: they don’t advertise enough with the LA Times.

    If the MTA dedicated more money to the paper by buying ads, I guarantee that coverage of issues such as this would include suggestions that car drivers have it way too easy with FREEWAYS, free towing off the highway, emergency services, and politicians tripping over themselves to fill as many potholes as possible. If you ride the bus (as Browne is all too happy to point out) you’re literally left out in the cold.

  • LAMosca

    Haven’t we learned that fare increases have a direct negative impact on ridership?

    Perhaps because of the fact that most streetsblog readers aren’t part of the working poor/transit dependent, the concept of raising fares doesn’t really resonate. A few dollars won’t hurt someone earning the area median income, but for someone struggling to make ends meet, a few dollars can mean a lot. Los Angeles has the highest income inequality of all major urban areas in the country (that statistic alone is astounding) so it’s hard to compare that to other major cities with a large transit system.

    There are some greater structural issues preventing Metro from being able to close the deficit. (Like our state government and our inability to raise taxes) It’s sad that we’re advocating for taking it out on riders when we have such high unemployment and underemployment.

  • “Perhaps because of the fact that most streetsblog readers aren’t part of the working poor/transit dependent”

    I am below the poverty line and I support the concept of raising fares in Los Angeles. They are among the lowest in the country among big transit agencies. I feel that if you raise farebox recovery ratios than Metro has a greater incentive to provide good customer service.

  • “Alternatively, you could raise the standard monthly pass rate but say that anyone making a certain amount or less per year gets a lower monthly pass rate.”

    I wouldn’t base the discount solely on income but an incentive based system. Those who work part-time or full time *and* meet income requirements should be eligible. You should also be eligible if you are in an accredited degree or vocational program and meet income requirements. Discount passes should be distributed through the unemployment office or a jobs placement program and you only get the discount if you are actively seeking employment.

    As usual, seniors and the disabled should always qualify for the discount.

  • Brian

    “As usual, seniors and the disabled should always qualify for the discount.”

    Why?

    Poverty is more highly correlated with race than either of those factors in LA County.

  • Ryan Holman

    @Brian, well then what would you suggest? Eliminating the discounts all together or having different fares for different ethnicities?

  • Under current regulations senior and disabled persons must be provided a discount of half the base fare at least during off peak periods if an agency receives any federal funds.

  • Erik G.

    For most people. LA Metro costs $2.50 one way because that is one-half of the $5 day pass…which can no longer be bought on buses.

  • “Why?”

    I don’t know why. It just appears to be an accepted custom.

  • Jack Blount

    I support any rate increase that will not directly line the pockets of metro execs. With that being said, I also understand that there are programs in place that have employers subsidize employee metro passes. I also know that the federal agencies utilize these programs. If the city council would place tax breaks as incentives for more businesses to participate in this activity it might help those who are in low paying jobs to off set any rate increace.

  • S.S. Sam Taylor

    Jack: Take some accounting classes. Your math skills are less than grade school. Do you know how much the Executive Operations at Metro cost? You could get rid of all of them. And them who would take care of the business operations? Let me tell you that the deficit is about $250 million. Take away the complete executive staff, which is about $10 million. Now, how do you cover the other $240 million?

    And, by the way, Metro has a department to watch for corruption. People do get caught. Their career ends and they spend time in jail or pay huge fines. Since you like Magical Thinking, your suggestions are Black Magic.

  • Hey that’s funny you mention people committing fraud at Metro – one of my neighbors is a bus driver that sold day passes on the side for a profit. She got caught (after her boyfriends other girlfriend ratted her out), fired, and can now be seen walking to and from the bus stop every day. Poor lady, shouldn’t have stolen all those day passes!

  • “And, by the way, Metro has a department to watch for corruption. People do get caught. Their career ends and they spend time in jail or pay huge fines. Since you like Magical Thinking, your suggestions are Black Magic.”

    Metro’s Special Investigation Unit, which is headed up Cliff Ladage, is remarkably corrupt. Metro SIU does not so much “watch for corruption” as create poorly supported cases and claim corruption.

    As for raising fares, I have to agree with Spokker. Rather, he has agreed with me, as I have in the past written about raising fares so as to lessen Metro’s Sacramento revenue source, which would in turn persuade Metro to listen to its riders as more of the revenue would come from them. (it is so much easier to sit back and do nothing after a successful fund-raising junket to Sacramento where a handful of people are all that need to be persuaded.) That and the transfer of the annual $27 million dollars spent of free freeway towing services for private motorists, should help a wee bit in making up for Roger Snoble’s AIG leaseback scandals.

  • “Roger Snoble’s AIG leaseback scandals” — the buzz is the federal bureaucrats at USDOT were the ones pushing Metro and other agebncies to make these deals. Only to disclaim responsibility when the deals went bust.

    “transfer of the annual $27 million dollars spent of free freeway towing services” — some of that is dedicated funding; also a very popular program with the electeds, so it is pretty sacrosanct.

    “persuade Metro to listen to its riders as more of the revenue would come from them” — Since the last fare hearing in 2007 I have been pondering a strategy to not get caught up again in the fare proposal mania some of us advocates chased last time. Cutting fares etc. is not in the cards so how about putting together a list of key bullet point startegies that need leadership from the Board? The point is to have have better service as an outcome so this process isn’t just about revenues, etc. I may work up an opinion piece for Mr. Newton to post in the next week or so on all this. I really don’t want a repeat of the pointless dog and pony show we had in 2007.

  • I am sure that while we will never know how such an appalling deal was allowed to be pushed through with AIG, it would not surprise me that Snoble was not entirely responsible for the deal. Along with the TAP card and faregate-gate, though, I am sure he was responsible enough. And now he’s outside the line of fire.

    Whatever it takes to make Metro become responsible to the straphangers and bus riders is fine by me. That is ultimately what I desire: to have nothing but nits to pick with Metro, that I may concentrate on what I prefer to do rather than consume energy exposing the fraud and waste that so sadly defines Metro’s SOP. To be sure, I would rather NOT raise fares. But I would pay a bot more for significantly improved service as well as a voice that need not be expressed in the fashion I feel compelled to do while on The Bus Bench.

    Anyone who has been downtown this week will have noticed Broadway and Spring being overwhelmed with studio trucks. Moreover, the trucks are taking up entire blocks and blocking bus routes as well as bus stops—and have done so most of this month. If we recall all the screaming in late 2008 and early 2009 during the writer’s strike about how much money Hollywood makes for Los Angeles and how important it is for the studio system to not be interrupted, it begs the question: Why is Metro not hitting up the studios to compensate for the mess made during morning and afternoon/evening rush hours along high-traffic bus routes? City Hal allows the studios to film for free, which is money that could go to help alleviate the hideous traffic snarls in the Civic Center area. More buses or at least better alternate routes and far more publicizing these routes well in advance could be funded by the studios who cause such a mess. (Even worse is when all the trouble forced upon commutes is when the result is garbage such as Phone Booth, a piece of crap that closed off 5th Street for a few weeks some years ago; or Die Hard Part Whatever closing down the 405 and causing an unimaginable mess on the surrounding streets.)

    Seriously, Metro executives have got to get as creative as they force their poorly resourced operators to be at layovers with no restrooms.

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