Amid concerns over a projected budget deficit in Los Angeles County's growing bus and rail system, transportation officials voted Thursday to raise Metro fares in September but postponed a decision on further increases in 2017 and 2020.
After a lengthy and heated meeting, punctuated by yelling and applause from the audience, board members of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted 12 to 1 to raise one-way Metro bus and rail fares in September from $1.50 to $1.75. Monthly passes will increase from $75 to $100, while day passes will go from $5 to $7.
The room was silent as the vote passed. Moments later, dozens of audience members rose in a standing ovation to cheer for the only board member to vote against the increase, Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina.
Before fares go up, Metro will begin allowing two hours of free transfers. Currently, passengers must pay a new fare each time they board a bus or train, which Metro says puts unneeded strain on some lines and leaves others underused.
Metro analysts say fare increases are needed to offset an expected $36-million gap in the agency’s 2016 operating budget. Without changes to fares, the agency will be $225 million in debt in 10 years, Metro says. If a fare hike had not been approved, Metro would have considered laying off nearly 1,000 of the agency's 9,000 employees or cutting up to 1 million hours of bus and rail service in 2015.
More than 130 public speakers, some in tears, asked Metro to lower fares or keep them at current levels. Several said they would lose their homes or would have to choose between buying food and buying bus tickets if fares went up.
Riders' advocates said the increase will disproportionately hurt minority passengers, who make up about 80% of Metro bus ridership. More than 90% of bus and rail riders are low-income, with an average household income of less than $20,000, according to Metro data.
"Do you even understand how much we're struggling day by day?" Hee Pok Kim, a 92-year-old woman who could barely see over the public comment lectern, said in Korean through an interpreter. "When we reach out to you for help, you shouldn't push us away. You should grab our hands."
A motion proposed by board member Mark Ridley-Thomas, a Los Angeles County supervisor, will keep fares for students at current rates until after a panel of independent experts can analyze Metro's long-term finances.
Molina read a motion asking the board to delay the fare increase for eight months so staff members could find ways to cut from next year's $5.5-billion Metro budget. She said the agency should not fix its budget problems "on the backs of the very poor."
"If you look at the expenses, the redundancies, the consultants, all the things that are going on, you know what I’m talking about," Molina said. "MTA needs to go back to the drawing board "
No one seconded Molina's motion. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said putting off fare increases was the easier political decision, and said the agency couldn't afford to punt on a fare hike until next year. He becomes the chair of the Metro board in July.
“One thing I’ll never do here is give people false hopes," Garcetti said. "I do believe, this coming year, we need this first step."
The fare vote comes as Metro accelerates the biggest rail boom in Los Angeles history: By the end of this year, five rail lines will be under construction, spanning downtown Los Angeles and Mid-City to Azusa, South L.A. and Santa Monica. Once operational, those lines will add significantly to Metro's operating budget.
Molina said the agency should stop worrying about the portion of its operating budget funded by fares. That ratio is currently at 26%, meaning 74% of operating costs are funded through taxes and grants. Los Angeles is one of the most subsidized transit networks in the world. Any ratio less than 33% could jeopardize Metro's chance of receiving future federal grants.
"We should abandon that model," Molina said. "It doesn’t make sense. ... There is no other bus system in the country that has a more dramatic number of low-income and minority bus riders. Those are unbelievable and startling figures that this organization has to come to grips with."
Metro board members said they would not vote on fare increases proposed for 2017 and 2020 until they could learn more about the agency's long-term financial outlook and where the agency could make cuts to the budget.
"And how about 2014?" one man shouted.
"Why don’t you sit tight for a minute and let us deliberate?” Ridley-Thomas responded.
Metro board member Mike Bonin, a Los Angeles City Council member, pushed the agency to make it easier for low-income riders to find out about the agency's fare subsidy programs, including advertising at train stations and bus shelters and working with community groups, including churches.
"Whether the increase is justified or not, the action we take is going to cause real pain to people," Bonin said. "If we're going to approve any increase, we need to bend over backwards, and break our backs, to try and mitigate it."
An alternative proposal that officials did not support would have made one-way fares as high as $3.25 during rush hour, which Metro officials said would encourage people to travel during off-peak hours.