The Metro board, which is considering hikes in bus and rail fares that would hit hundreds of thousands of reliant low-income riders, faces a possible showdown at its meeting today - just two months after its March meeting erupted in shouting and two audience members were arrested.
Fare revenues pay for just 26 percent of Metro's operating costs, which have risen dramatically despite only modest inflation over the past several years. Bishop Juan Carlos Mendez, who protested outside City Hall this week leading up to today's rate-hike hearing, says, "This is a civil and human rights issue" because access to transportation has a major impact on those below the poverty line.
See also: Purple Line to La Cienega is Gonna Happen.
The question is, with Metro's annual operating needs now at $1.37 billion, how does the region-wide agency pay for its ever-growing costs?
See video of today's protest below (Credit: Ani Ucar):
The average bus and rail rider has an income of roughly $20,000 a year and more than 80 percent are minorities, according to a Metro survey in 2012.
As a bishop, Mendez says, "Some have asked if we could take them to their medical appointments because they wont be able to take the bus."
Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials argue that while fares pay for 26 percent of operating costs in L.A., they cover 33 percent of costs in other more or less comparable urban transit systems.
At its current rate, Metro officials say their operating deficit will balloon to $225 million in ten years.
Metro Board Chairwoman Diane DuBois insists that fare hikes haven't kept up with inflation. She says the board is "acutely aware of the potential impact on low-income riders who rely on transit. However, we are also acutely aware that the other alternative, cutting service, will have even more detrimental impact on transit dependent families."
At a March Metro meeting, DuBois was at the center of a heated confrontation that ended with the arrests of two in the audience. LA Streetsblog reported:
Metro Board Chair Diane DuBois was very curt, admonishing the crowd not to applaud, frequently cutting off speakers in mid-sentence and speaking over them until they relented.
As the meeting wore on, a handful of speakers rebuffed the chair and finished their statements. When one speaker ignored the chair and spoke at length, DuBois threatened to have him removed for disruptive behavior. As multiple uniformed guards approached the speaker, he retreated to a seat. Other attendees surrounded the speaker to block approaching guards.
Some Metro board members have criticized the agency they oversee for not finding other ways to raise more revenue or save money. As Streetsblog reported two months ago:
... a number of Metro board members questioned Metro staff. Supervisor Gloria Molina questioned some of the staff report statistics, and asked whether the fare increase proposal might be "discriminatory." She concluded requesting further analysis.
Los Angeles city councilmembers Mike Bonin and Paul Krekorian, both appointed to the Board by Mayor Eric Garcetti, expressed the need for Metro to more fully explore other measures to cut costs and raise revenues."
Metro's base fare is $1.50, the lowest of the nation's major transit systems. San Francisco's Muni fare is $2 and New York City's subway fare is $2.50.
But those two cities' systems attract large numbers of upscale and middle-class commuters.
Los Angeles-area Metro, by contrast, is largely a transit system of the poor.
"You are raising the fare of the poor, but they are not making any more money," says Barbara Lott-Holland, co-chairwoman of the Bus Riders Union. "How they are going to pay for this?"
Of two rate increase options being considered today, one would increase the base bus and rail fare to $1.75 in September, to $2 in 2017 and $2.25 in 2020.
The other would charge higher fares during peak commuting hours, but cheaper during off-peaks hours. This proposition would increase peak-hour fares from $1.50 to $2.25 in September, then to $2.75 in 2017 and $3.25 in 2020.
Both options include free transfers within 120 minutes of boarding. As it stands, Metro users must pay a full fare for each connection.
Mayor Eric Garcetti and county supervisors Zev Yaroslovsky and Mark Ridley-Thomas, all members of the Metro board, are pushing a motion to place a temporary freeze on student fares and postpone the proposed 2017 and 2020 increases until a task force evaluates Metro's "financial performance."
If a fare hike passes, it will be the fourth in 19 years, the most recent being in 2010.
Updated at 1:40 p.m.:
Following a loud morning protest by scores of people outside the Metro board's elegant headquarters, Metro board member and County Supervisor Gloria Molina emerged as the hero of the moment, arguing that using fare hikes to make up for Metro's ever-rising overhead costs was a race to the bottom, tapping people who can't afford it.
Mayor Eric Garcetti earned loud boos and angry comments for backing the idea of a fee hike in September - despite his support for delaying the 2017 and 2020 fare increases until further evaluation. But Molina said, "The MTA is not taking into consideration that there is no way we can keep relying" on the large numbers of low-income riders to plug the budget.
She called it "shocking" how many poor people use L.A. transit, pointing out that Washington D.C. has a less than 25 percent low-income ridership compared to L.A.'s 80 percent. She asked why, in Los Angeles, Metro has not succeeded, despite years of spending and promotion, in diversifying its ridership.
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"These people are not going to look forward to any increase in the next year or two" in their own salaries, Molina said, pointing to the recent rejection of a federal minimum-wage increase. She said Metro leaders should go back to the drawing board to find a better way to cut Metro's own overhead. "You know what I'm talking about," she added.
Updated at 3:42 p.m.:
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted a short time ago, 12 to 1, to hike Metro bus and rail one-way fares in September from $1.50 to $1.75, and to boost the monthly pass from $75 to $100. Day passes, now $5, will cost $7. Further fare hikes in 2017 and 2020 were shelved for now.
Molina, the only board member to side with the impassioned audience, some of whom were in tears, could not get a second from the board for her motion to delay all fare hikes while Metro staff study ways to cut the system's $5.5 billion budget. She received a standing ovation.
Garcetti, who becomes chairman of the Metro board in a few weeks, was among those hotly criticized by the crowd, which was dominated by the elderly, minorities and students. He argued that his was the more politically difficult position to take.