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, according to leaders of the transportation agency who are exploring the feasibility of a completely fareless system.

A task force approved last September by the Metro Board of Directors kickstarted the efforts and earlier this month, CEO Phillip Washington met with local residents, riders and other stakeholders to discuss a pilot program, expected to launch in January 2022, that would eventually allow low income and K-12 students an opportunity to ride at no cost.

Nearly three-quarters of Metro riders are low or extremely low-income, which is the largest percentage of low income riders in the country, Washington noted, which is a large reason why he and his peers are exploring the possibility.

“I believe we have a moral obligation to LA County residents to pursue a fareless system and help our region recover from the pandemic and the effects of the lack of affordability in terms of housing,” Washington said as he detailed how the elimination of fares would put money back in the pockets of those who need it the most while also promoting social equity and expanding economic opportunities. “We know that housing and transportation are the two biggest expenses for households. So, imagine if we could eliminate one of those expenses.”

No other large transit system in the world has gone entirely fareless, Washington said, but the prospective 18-month pilot program would prove useful in determining how to proceed to a completely fareless transit system for all riders in the future.

Doreen Morrissey, who has worked to bring the fareless system initiative to reality, highlighted Metro low farebox recovery is about 13% of its operating costs.

“And while that’s not an insignificant amount, it does raise the question of what does it cost to collect fares?” she said when Santa Monica residents and college students had an opportunity to phone in with questions.

“The study, right now, is very much a work in progress, and we’re still ironing out a lot of the details,” Morrissey added. “But, as a project team, we’re really committed to bringing a firm proposal to the Metro board and that will be this May.”

The leading concept is an 18-month pilot that would provide free rides on Metro buses and rails for low income riders beginning next January 2022. From there, it would expand to all K-12 students, starting in August until June 30, 2023.

“And at the conclusion, we would bring our findings to the Metro Board in order to assess whether the pilot should be expanded to a fully fareless system in the future,” Morrissey said.

Metro will also evaluate local, state and federal funding opportunities, including reprioritizing Metro pods to replace farebox revenue. And thanks to callers like former Santa Monica City Councilmember Denny Zane and Yasamin Hatefi, a member of Santa Monica College’s Associated Student Board, the task force will also consider allowing community college students to use the system for free as well.

“I think, as we’ve heard tonight, even from Santa Monica, that we know that fareless transit attracts people to transit, and that’s a great thing — that’s our business. We want people to use public transit, whether you have a car or not,” Morrissey said. “We know that it’s good for our communities, it’s good for our economy, and it’s good for our environment.”

Metro Board of Director Jacquelyn Dupont-Walker thanked everybody for their work throughout the last few months as she discussed how the program will save riders money during a period of economic stability and allow for more reliable and streamlined services.

“I want to share,” Dupont-Walker added, “that we all believe this is a long overdue idea that many have championed.”

Brennon@smdp.com