This Time, It Really Would Be a Restructuring
One of the more maddening parts of covering and discussing the mass transit system in Los Angeles is a fare structure that, quite honestly, doesn’t make a lot of sense. Fares vary wildly depending on whether one is riding Metro or a local system. Transfers are rare among agencies, and difficult for new riders to figure out on Metro. If you have to transfer between buses, it can cost you more to go a mile with a couple of transfers than it would to go from North Hollywood to Long Beach via train.
And let’s agree to not even talk about places such as Santa Monica Boulevard, where short line service will force a transfer, and a new fare, even if you’re traveling in a straight line.
“The current system is not equitable,” commented Transit Coalition Executive Director Bart Reed in a phone interview.
So, Metro is trying to create an equitable fare system that also raises more money for the agency.
The Metro Board of Directors has a history of avoiding fare increases. “Fare Hike” headlines make for bad press, on Streetsblog and elsewhere. It’s also never easy or fun to stare down a room with hundreds of angry and desperate yellow-clad protestors and vote to make their lives a little harder.
In addition, Metro’s operations budget is not in line with what the Board has demanded it should be. When it passed a Long Range Transportation Plan in 2010, the Board of Directors set a 33% “farebox recover ratio.” That means one-third of the cost of operating buses and trains should be paid by passengers.
The current farebox recovery ratio is 26%. This means a $37 million deficit in 2017 that would have to be addressed by either a traditional fare hike, cuts to the number of buses run, or something else. Of course, the largest transit advocacy agency in the county, the Bus Riders Union, rejects that argument and instead pushes for operating dollars to come in greater volume from Measure R and other transit taxes. The BRU did not respond to a request for comment
And so, with a gap in the operating budget and fewer and fewer transit lines left to cut, Metro staff prepared a report on a fare restructuring proposal that appears to fix some of the structural problems with Metro’s flat fare, transition to modern fare collection, create a more equitable system, and increase revenue.
As Reed notes, “You can’t keep cutting the service until there’s nothing left. You have to figure out a different model to make things sustainable.”
Maybe a combination of distance and time based fares is the “different model.”
Here’s how it would work. Instead of the $1.50 flat fare, Metro moves to a combination of time-based and distance-based fares. A time based fare would allow limitless transfers between Metro lines during a short period of time, say 90 minutes. This will open up Metro for people who don’t use the bus lines because it can be too expensive with multiple transfers. It also makes round trips to locations such as the grocery store less expensive, assuming one can get in and out of the store in a short period of time.
Under the proposal, Metro would also add a distance based fare, which would undoubtably make commutes more expensive for the hypothetical North Hollywood resident commuting to Long Beach mentioned earlier. While full figures haven’t been realized yet, it would also likely make my regular commute, from the Westside to Downtown, more expensive as well.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Moving to a modern system of fare collection is an important step for Metro. While riders and critics should wait to see the final proposal before voicing support or opposition, there’s nothing wrong with a real restructuring that isn’t just the word “restructure” replacing the more accurate “increase” or “hike.”
Some hope this process will lead to a more fair fare system that has less politics than previous increase debates.
“What I hope to see is the start of a process which gradually brings equity between the different fare classes while improving the farebox recovery ratio, without drastic jumps at any given restructuring point,” writes Kymberleigh Richards.
“As an example, the senior fare is horribly out of proportion with reality, especially as most agencies follow the FTA guidelines/regulations that call for a discounted fare only outside of weekday rush-hour, and then still charge 50% of the regular fare. As it stands now, the senior pass, coupled with high usage by seniors, results in an average cash paid per boarding equivalent of about two cents. You’re not going to be able to pay for a lot of service with that kind of revenue.”
Richards currently sits on the San Fernando Valley Service Council and webmaster for the San Fernando Valley Transit Insider.
Metro also seems to be learning a lesson about how to role out a restructuring. In the past, the agency would announce a proposal, schedule hearings, and brace themselves for months of angry testimony and aggressive headlines. This time, they’re announcing the outline of a proposal now that will be voted on early next summer. They promise hearings to elicit feedback BEFORE a final proposal, with all the fare details, is announced and more hearings are scheduled.
“They’re trying to do this so that there’s enough money and time to get it done,” continued Reed. “They want to do this on a methodical basis instead of just announcing a hearing in May or June.”
There’s nothing wrong with distance based or time based fares and Metro faces a real operating gap. Whether or not the final proposal earns support or not should depend upon the details.