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Metro Approves Student Fareless Pilot, Plus Major Push for Low-Income Program Enrollment

Enrolled students ride free on Metro starting October 1. Photo via Metro student pass webpage

Today, the Metro board approved a pilot program that will provide free transit for students starting next month - plus an initiative to double enrollment in Metro's Low Income Fare is Easy (LIFE) program, which offers discounted fares for low-income riders. The LIFE Program motion was spearheaded by L.A. County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, who stressed that the improvements were a needed stopgap measure and do not preclude pursuit of a universal fareless program.

The fare-free student pilot is phase 1 of Metro's Fareless Services Initiative (FSI.) Announced in August 2020 by then-CEO Phil Washington, Metro’s FSI was supposed to “eliminate fares for all riders” starting in early 2020. Since then, FSI’s scope has been pared back, and its schedule delayed. In May, the Metro board approved moving forward with FSI, though contingent on approval of funding.

The latest Metro staff version of FSI, approved by Metro's Executive Management Committee last week, includes two components:

    • Free fare for students in grades K-14: elementary, middle, high school, and community college
    • Improvements to Metro’s low income rider discount program (LIFE)

That staff proposal drew a lot of criticism from transit advocates for not going far enough. Since COVID, Metro bus riders have been riding fare-free, so a Metro's proposed student fareless pilot ends up being a step down from what riders experience today. In the staff report, Metro countered that there is “Not enough capacity in the current Metro Transit Operations budget for Phase 2 launch of the pilot for low-income riders” so the agency is seeking an estimated $440 million from other funding sources, such as federal grants.

Enrollment in Metro's LIFE program - from Metro staff report
Enrollment in Metro's LIFE program - from Metro staff report
Enrollment in Metro's LIFE program - from Metro staff report

Today, the board approved the student pilot - and, under Mitchell's leadership, put some real teeth into improving LIFE.

LIFE has been around since 2019, but, due to a somewhat cumbersome means-testing application process, has struggled to enroll many of Metro's low-income riders. Pre-pandemic Metro estimated it had enrolled 35 percent of eligible riders in LIFE. With ridership dropping and LIFE enrollment continuing to grow, that has risen to 60 percent.

The Mitchell motion directs Metro to double the number of LIFE Program enrollees by the end of 2022. The motion mandates for Metro to undertake various measures to make this happen, including incentivizing enrollment by providing three months of free rides to new sign-ups. Additional LIFE Program improvements mandated include:

    • Expedite a streamlined application system that enables on-the-spot enrollment and the immediate issuance of LIFE Program benefits through a process that allows applicants to self-certify qualification
    • Ensure that fare capping applies to LIFE Program participants. [Fare-capping allows for riders to stop paying additional single-ride fares once they have paid the cost of day/week/month pass. Metro plans to offer single-day fare-capping for all transit riders starting this December.]
    • Expand partnerships with local, state, and federal public benefit programs to automatically enroll qualifying members
    • Partner with community-based organizations to canvass Metro buses and trains to enroll qualifying riders

With Mitchell's LIFE motion, and her earlier successes (including extending the current fare-free COVID boarding), the supervisor has unsurprisingly emerged as an important voice on the Metro board pushing the agency to make good on its commitments to improving mobility for bus riders, predominantly low-income people of color.

In a telling exchange with Boardmember Fernando Dutra, Mitchell did not hesitate to set the record straight on how her motion was really getting Metro to take seriously the commitments it had already made. Dutra, in expressing support for the Mitchell motion, had called it an “expansion” of Metro’s LIFE program. Mitchell gently responded that the motion isn’t actually expanding the LIFE Program, as it does not expand eligibility to additional riders. Instead, she said, it acknowledges that Metro hasn’t done enough to reach already-eligible low-income riders for the LIFE Program already approved and budgeted, and the motion commits Metro to do much better to reach those riders.

Several boardmembers, most prominently L.A. City Councilmember Mike Bonin, pledged to continue to pursue a broader future phase of FSI. Bonin noted that Fareless moves Metro toward meeting numerous agency goals - ridership, equity, climate - and that Metro's cost analysis was overly conservative, not taking into account several favorable cost factors - including fare collection costs. One twitter user has noted that, for building ridership, FSI is actually more cost effective than nearly all Metro rail-building projects.

Bonin requested that staff report back with refined FSI cost figures that incorporate the additional information.

Metro is already piloting student fares with several smaller school districts - and is in the final stages of an agreement with LAUSD. The newly approved fare-free student pilot is scheduled to be broadly available starting October 1. The student pilot extends through June 2023.

Metro plans to resume bus fare collection on January 10, 2022. For the following six months all Metro transit fares will be be half-off (as approved in May 2020.)

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