In an effort to boost Los Angeles County’s historically poor voter turnout, Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials agreed Thursday to offer free fares on the sprawling bus and rail system on election day.
On Nov. 6, rides on Metro’s six rail lines and 2,200 buses will be free from 12:01 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. Eliminating the $1.75 fare for a day will cost the agency an estimated $600,000, officials said.
During the midterm election four years ago, Los Angeles County’s voter turnout rate was 31%, the lowest in California.
“We know there are so many impediments to folks voting,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, one of the authors of the motion, said at Metro's Thursday meeting. “We know how critical voting is, and what an important election we have that’s coming up.”
A Massachusetts Institute of Technology survey of 10,200 voters in the 50 states and Washington, D.C., found that access to transportation was one reason that 31% of registered voters did not go to the polls in 2016. In California, the figure was higher, at 51%.
“I know it’s a little bit of a financial hit to us, but I think it’s well worth it for our democracy,” Garcetti said.
Waiving one-way fares for a day would not eliminate all of Metro's fare income, because some riders purchase unlimited monthly passes or qualify for subsidized passes for seniors, students and the disabled, Metro spokesman Rick Jager said.
The Metro system is already heavily subsidized, with about 80% of operating costs covered through taxes.
The free fare policy will bring Los Angeles into step with other major U.S. metro areas, including Houston, Dallas, Minneapolis and Kansas City. Next year, Los Angeles County’s top voter official will recommend whether the policy should be made permanent.
Metro’s decision will not apply to most of the municipal carriers that set their own fares and carry passengers along smaller local routes. But the city of Los Angeles is considering a similar policy for its DASH buses.
One of the most closely watched U.S. House races is in northern Los Angeles County, where Republican Rep. Steve Knight is fighting Democratic challenger Katie Hill.
Another key issue on the Los Angeles ballot is Proposition 6, Garcetti said. The measure would repeal the bundle of higher gas taxes and vehicle fees that the Legislature approved last year. Metro secured more than $700 million in grants this year funded by gas tax revenue.
Metro will also offer a free one-way ride on its bike-share system, which has stations in Venice, Echo Park and downtown Los Angeles. Users should enter the code 1162018 to waive the $1.75 fee.
The nation’s two largest ride-hailing companies, Lyft and Uber, also offered discounts and subsidies to some voters through partnerships with voter turnout organizations.
Still, the MIT survey suggests that a free or discounted ride may do only so much to improve voter turnout.