Metro considers free rides as a way to support working families and essential workers. Photo by Brennon Dixson.

Metro buses and trains could be free to all riders one day if a new task force can determine the move to be feasible for the Southern California transportation system.

A new Metro task force began working Tuesday after recently receiving approval from the Metro Board of Directors. The effort will be called the Fareless System Initiative, and the task force intends to deliver a plan to Metro CEO Phil Washington and the Board of Directors that will be considered by the end of 2020.

No other large transit system in the world has gone entirely fareless, but Washington said in a recent media briefing that he views the elimination of fares as a way to put money back in the pockets of those who need it the most.

“LA Metro has a moral obligation to pursue a fareless system and help our region recover from both a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and the devastating effects of the lack of affordability in the region.” Washington said as he described how fare-free transit will help essential workers, moms and dads, students, seniors and riders with disabilities.

Just as firefighting, policing and library services are, Washington said, Metro believes transit should be made available to the populous through the public purse of government because it would improve mobility for all people, reduce traffic congestion and provide better air quality in L.A. County and California. “And we also believe, as I was talking to a group just earlier today, that this can be seen as a tax decrease for low-income families as well. It will have that impact.”

Metro officials understand there may be some challenges presented in the path to a fareless system but they said the thought is especially important to consider as Los Angeles County recovers from the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.

After all, the median household income of Metro riders is very, very low — $17,975 for bus riders and $27,723 for rail riders — according to Washington, who cited a customer survey conducted by Metro in Fall 2019.

“I often talk about how we have the highest percentage of low-income riders in this country for a transit agency,” Washington said. “And we also know that low-income people in this county have been disproportionately impacted both in health and the economy as a result of COVID-19… And so we believe that this is an economic development tool for the low-income riders here in L.A. County.”

Since the announcement, Steve Hymon said the transit system has received many comments expressing concern about the fareless system’s impact on the homeless situation aboard Metro trains and buses. He added the task force does intend to learn more about how a fareless system would affect the ongoing issue of homelessness in the region and on the Metro system and stated officials believe free fares would encourage higher ridership, which could make riders feel safer.

“We’re also receiving comments asking if we’re planning to raise sales taxes to fund this,” Hymon said in an online announcement, adding, “The answer is: NO. We have no intent or plans to seek an additional sales tax. Rather, we’re going to study whether fareless transit could be paid for with grants from the state or federal government.”

If the fareless system were to come to fruition, Washington said it’s something that can change the social and economic fabric of the county. But until then, Metro is collecting fares and enforcing fare payment.

Brennon@smdp.com