Thoughts on Metro’s Fare Restructuring

(I want to be explicit this is solely my own opinion, and in no way endorsed by either Streetsblog or Southern California Transit Advocates – DG
But I can’t help notice that So.CA.TA. has a special meeting just to discuss the changes this Saturday. – DN)

300px-TAP_CARD_001Metro staff recently released two options for fare restructuring that as Steve Hymon notes “would raise fares in three phases over the next eight years while also making Metro more customer-friendly by allowing riders to board an unlimited number of buses and trains for 90 minutes in any direction for a single fare.”

This has garnered coverage in the media and the blogsphere. I agree with the comment DTLA Star made on LA Curbed “Metro has proposed this plan knowing full well that much of the less popular items will be stripped out after public comment”.

In 2007, Metro had an all day hearing on restructuring fares. I actually took a day off from work to attend, along with my fellow transit advocate the late Woody Rosner. When it was over we took the Red Line and Hollywood DASH to have dinner at the since shuttered Old Spaghetti Factory on Sunset. Woody’s quip was the dinner was the only useful thing we did that day.

Electeds and stakeholders made presentations. Then the many transit users that signed up to speak were given 60 seconds in which to make comments. Like many activists I had worked up my own proposal. Plus I had agreed to present a consensus position that the membership of Southern California Transit Advocates had agreed to after a lengthy study session.

You can imagine how well I did trying to convey two separate proposals in 1 minute.

I had neglected to ask for a block of time for the group. But given how things played out it was no great loss. I discerned as I watched the Metro Board have a discussion after the hearing closed that the main dynamic was opposition to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s proposal, driven basically by a desire to deny him a political prize. It was clear his admittedly often showboating style had irritated the rest of the Metro Board and there was a desire to take him down a peg or two.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina produced an alternative to Villaraigosa’s proposal based on keeping the fare at $1.25 for the time being. It easily was adopted despite the opposition of the Mayor and his three appointees on the Metro Board. Yes, indeed, I had a front row seat (actually one in the far back of the Metro Board meeting room) to history in the making — politics of the classic sausage making variety which isn’t pretty to watch.

So you may wonder where I stand on the current “options” offered up by Metro staff and the upcoming hearing scheduled for March 29th.

Meh.

Some people are so excited by Metro's fare system they take to creating art to share with the world. Image: ##https://twitter.com/laura_nelson##Laura Nelson/Twitter##

Some people are so excited by Metro’s fare system they take to creating art to share with the world. Image: Laura Nelson/Twitter

I can’t work up the agitprop (in the best tradition of Howard Beale) of such statements as “I WILL not stand by idly to watch these price increases hurt the people” and “You can be remembered as the mayor who raised the fares, or you can be remembered as the mayor who stands for the people”, both posted to L.A. Mayor Garcetti’s website. I imagine we’ll have a lot of this sort of overheated rhetoric at the March 29th hearing.

Jarrett Walker has correctly pointed out “for many riders — those whose trips require a connection — the proposal is a fare reduction, because the transfer penalty to be eliminated ($1.50) is far bigger than the hike in the base fare ($0.25)”.

calwatch (a frequent commentor on this blog) in commenting on the Walker piece notes regarding distance based fares which have been touted by some, including at least one Metro Board member, that “distance based fare would dramatically increase complexity, encourage gamification, and provide unknown impacts to Title VI protected populations – none of which can be solved in the span of when Metro wants to do fare increases, which is September”. I

have confirmed with Metro staff it would also entail additional TAP Vending Machines within the paid areas, additional validators at stations and recalculation of exit capacity. One wonders at fairness given that distance based could not be implemented on the buses which seems a disparate impact on using bus versus rail. Maybe someday distance based fares will happen but not any time soon.

Walker’s commentary also provoked some of the most extreme comments I have come across on the net about the fare proposal posted by persons calling themselves Nexus I and Millennial Power. I especially enjoyed being called old and out of touch. Talk about the callowness of youth.

Another dimension of all this is some tout transit as a tool for equity and low fares as furthering that policy goal. As Walker notes the pursuit of fairness in fares can become quite complicated a la this comment to Mayor Garcetti stating a study of income to commuting distance is needed to guide fare changes. That is rather myopic and I can’t see it having much political traction. And as I have stated previously, transit’s main purpose is to move people, not solve pollution, social equity, congestion, etc.

At the January 28th quarterly Metro Service Council Meet & Confer a presentation on the fare restructuring was made which included a bit of information that is a true game changer for the process. Heretofore the only mandate impacting the level of fares I was aware of is from the state to qualify for Transportation Development Act funds:

a transit claimant must maintain a ratio of fare revenues to operating cost at least equal to the ratio it had during 1978/79, or 20 percent if the claimant is in an urbanized area

But the presentation on the 28th revealed two salient facts:

  • The Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP) adopted in 2009 by the Metro Board assumes a 33% farebox recovery (i.e. how much of the cost of operating a transit service is derived from fare revenues)
  • The federal Full Funding Grant Agreements being sought for funding the Purple Line extension and Regional Connector are based on the LRTP.

I imagine some folks will use this as the latest “evidence” to revive the tired bus vs. rail debate. The rest of us will shrug and say “It is sort of technical but it is a reason to change the fares”. The current farebox recovery for Metro is 26% and falling. The aforementioned presentation provides further reasons for raising fares, but I think it is clear the handwriting is on the wall and some sort of increase will occur.

What the increase will actually be is totally up in the air. EVERYONE (including Metro staff and management) are spectators of this process. The Metro Board are in the driver’s seat and their opinions alone count. But they will be well aware of the structural imperatives that I have outlined and however unenthused at having to do something as politically distasteful as raise fares recognize a hike is necessary.

A fare change will require 9 votes to pass. May is when the Board is slated to hear final staff recommendations and summary of the public comments made at the March 29th hearing. The folks who want to block a fare hike have 3 months to lobby and enlist the support of at least 5 Board members to stop it from happening. My gut tells me the chances of that happening are near zero. Ditto recent demands by the folks occupying the upper floor of the Pellissier Building for eliminating cars in Los Angeles, no fare public transit, etc. etc.

Let us be clear, this process is about increased revenue to pay for transit operations. But as a public service I want to offer two long-term actions (neither of which will obviate the need for a fare hike in the near term) to give Metro’s budget some relief that isn’t based on cutting the wages of the folks who make transit service possible (operators, mechanics, service attendants, schedule planners, etc.). They at least deserve some consideration.

The first would be to re-establish the Metro Police Dept. The politics are tricky (especially with all five L.A. County Supervisors on the Metro Board) but as this staff report from 2004 notes:

MTA studies and assessments suggest that operating an internal transit police department would allow the MTA to reduce current security operating costs by 20% to 40%. Lower costs result when the MTA directly controls the transit policing function and can design a program with an optimum mix of sworn versus non-sworn personnel classifications and determine staffing levels for each labor group. An internal unit would also have lower costs because the MTA would only pay for the marginal cost of providing service, as opposed to the fully allocated cost model of an outside agency.

Staff estimates that developing a new MTA Transit Police Department would take approximately five years to recruit and train sworn officers and civilian staff before the new unit could take over the entire regional transit policing program. During that five-year period, the new MTA Transit Police Department could ramp up by approximately 70 officers per year while the LASD demobilized by about the same number.

The full cost advantage of an internal MTA Transit Police Department over contracting with a local law enforcement agency would not be realized until the end of year five. Approximately 20% of the full cost savings would be accrued each year during the five-year program, not counting mobilization costs.

These cost savings and other benefits must be carefully weighed against the start-up costs and operational challenges of reestablishing a major modern law enforcement agency. A key challenge would be staffing the Transit Police Department. In order for the MTA to develop a sound, capable and professional Transit Police Department, the unit must be able to attract and retain high quality personnel. To be competitive in the labor market the new MTA Transit Police Department would have to offer favorable working conditions and benefits

A ten year old report isn’t exactly the most persuasive basis for pushing an idea that will ruffle a lot of feathers. Did I mention the 5 Supervisors on the Metro Board? We should at least have an audit of how well the Transit Services Bureau (TSB) is doing in terms of cost for performance, etc, compared to units of peer agencies (New York, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Seattle, etc.).

The recent revelations about fare evasion on the Orange Line is really as much about the Sheriff doing a poor job of enforcement (which is tacitly admitted in the staff report with its reference to “more aggressive roving fare enforcement” by the TSB near the end). Instead this is being spun as being all about gating especially by Supervisor Yaroslavsky. One wishes he would show similar zeal for an audit of the performance of the TSB. But I won’t hold my breath on that one.

The second budget improvement measure that deserves consideration is having a competitive procurement for the provision of Metro’s general counsel plus study the advisability of establishing Metro’s own stand-alone legal department. Public Utilities Code section 130051.9(d) states Metro “shall appoint a general counsel”. Since Metro was formed in 1993 this function has been performed by the Office of County Counsel. I think a review of their performance (much like of the TSB) is long overdue along with exploring options. Of course this also means taking on those 5 Supervisors on the Board. Gets tiresome contemplating the conflicts having elected officials drawn from various entities to make up the bulk of the Metro Board creates. UGH!

Besides posting comments if any of you want to chat further on these issues drop by the special meeting Southern California Transit Advocates is holding Saturday in downtown Los Angeles. We’ll be discussing the Metro fare restructuring concepts and any possible comments on them for us to present at the March 29th public hearing. A member requested we consider taking a position. I’ll assist the effort but obviously am unenthused.

Meh.