Editorial: Give L.A.'s riders a Metro fare hike that’s fair
If you take a bus or a subway in Los Angeles, the basic fare is $1.50. But that covers only a fraction of the cost of the trip. In L.A., as in other cities, public transit is heavily subsidized. Fares paid by riders on the 10 largest transit systems in the country cover, on average, only 37% of the cost of their trips. On L.A.'s buses, subways and light rail, fares cover only about 26%; local sales taxes and state fuel taxes pay for most of the rest.
This week, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s board of directors will consider whether to make riders pay a greater share of bus and rail operating expenses, bringing their portion up to 33% of the total cost. To that end, Metro staff has proposed three fare increases over six years to cover rising costs on a rapidly expanding system.
The initial hike, which would take effect in September, is only 25 cents, bringing the basic fare to $1.75 from $1.50. That seems reasonable: It’s the first increase in four years and is a modest adjustment that reflects rising costs due to inflation, labor expenses and the needs of an expanding transit network. Metro has also, for the first time, proposed providing free transfers, allowing people to transfer between bus and rail lines within two hours without having to pay for another ride. That’s a good idea that will save money for riders. Daily, weekly and monthly passes, including those for the disabled, elderly and students, would also increase in price by 20% to 40%.
So far, so good. But Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Zev Yaroslavsky and Mayor Eric Garcetti have made a sensible argument for postponing the vote on the second two fare increases, which were proposed for 2017 and 2020. Instead, they say, a task force of transit experts should be appointed to recommend alternative ways to generate operating revenue. This would offer an opportunity to develop a new revenue model for public transit.
The task force should determine what share of operating costs ought to be covered by riders. Those operating costs are only going to increase as Metro opens new rail lines to Santa Monica and Azusa, and eventually builds the Crenshaw Line, the Westside subway extension and the Downtown Regional Connector. As the network expands, there is a public benefit in keeping fares low to encourage the maximum ridership.
So who should be bearing the burden if not riders? To start, Metro should look at ways to shift some transit system costs onto drivers, which may sound unfair until you consider that they’re getting a heavily subsidized ride on publicly built and maintained roads. If added fees make it less appealing for people to drive, that’s a good thing; fewer cars on the road reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. Metro should lobby for higher fuel taxes to fund mass transit, look at expanding tolling or congestion pricing to help pay for bus and rail rides, and charge for Metro parking lots.
The agency should also look again at a proposal to impose fees on new building development and should secure funding from the state’s cap-and-trade program, which will generate billions of dollars to be spent fighting climate change. The benefits of public transit go far beyond the individual rider, and Metro’s fare structure should reflect that greater good.
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