Wardlow Station

The Metro A (Blue) Line Wardlow Station in Long Beach.

Staff at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) provided more details of a fare-free bus and train rider pilot program last month that may start as early as January 2022.

And Long Beach Transit officials say they are not excited.

"Usually when Metro does something, all the other transit systems follow," said Mike Gold, LBT's executive director and vice president of customer relations, in an interview Thursday. "The question is, where's the money going to come from? We're happy to look at it, but we need to know how we'll make up the difference."

Long Beach Transit gets about 20% of its annual budget from fares charged to bus riders; the rest comes from state and federal grants. While LBT technically is owned by the city, it receives only about 5% of its budget from the municipal government, and that money is from grants.

Metro officials began talking about providing free rides to low-income passengers last August, after the coronavirus pandemic shutdown caused ridership to plummet. Called the Fareless System Initiative (FSI), it has evolved into a free ride program for low-income riders and K-12 students, staff told the Metro Board on Feb. 18.

On Tuesday, March 2, Metro announced a series of virtual public meetings organized around its five area Service Councils. Long Beach is in the Gateway Cities Service Council, which will meet at 2 p.m. Thursday, March 11. The South Bay Service Council meets at 9:30 a.m. Friday, March 12, and people can watch and be part of that meeting as well.

According to The Source, a Metro blog written by Steve Hymon, the pilot system would start in January 2022 for low-income riders, and August 2022 for students. It would run until June 30, 2023, and would only be for Metro buses and trains, not other local transit agencies.

Long Beach Transit connects to Metro routes in multiple ways, including the A (Blue) Line light rail system. Gold said that passengers transferring from LBT to Metro and vice versa already are charged a fee. If Metro riders — paying or not — transferred to Long Beach buses, they would be charged as things stand now.

FSI staff said a Metro customer survey in fall 2019 showed about 70% of riders at that time (pre-COVID-19) would qualify to ride for free. Metro already offers discounted fees to several categories of riders.

Long Beach has offered free and discounted rides in specific areas in the past, but those programs were subsidized. Cal State Long Beach was charged per ride during a students ride for free program; Belmont Shore employees got passes subsidized by the Belmont Shore Business Association and the long-running Passport program downtown was financed by a combination of business and government payments.

The FSI staff report emphasized that the pilot program timing depended on the pandemic easing and access to vaccinations for the majority of the population. Gold said that Long Beach ridership has dropped by 50% since the pandemic began, and other transit agencies have seen similar drops.

"The CEOs of the other agencies have been coming together (with Metro) to discuss the fare-free approach," Gold said. "Going that direction wouldn't be required, but…"

The public meetings of the Service Council can be accessed through the website at www.metro.net/about/about-metro/advisory-meetings/. For more information, email fareless@metro.net.

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Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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