Hundreds say proposed Metro rate hikes will hurt poor and minorities the most

Protestors sang, chanted and marched in front of MTA headquarters Saturday March 29, 2014, before a public meeting about the proposed bus and rail fare increases.
Protestors sang, chanted and marched in front of MTA headquarters Saturday March 29, 2014, before a public meeting about the proposed bus and rail fare increases.
Deepa Fernandes / KPCC

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To the beat of drums, protesters on Saturday circled the downtown Los Angeles headquarters of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to oppose proposed fare increases on the region's buses and trains, saying they would fall disproportionately on the poor and minorities.

Chanting “somos pasajeros," or "we are passengers" in Spanish, many came to the protest by bus and train, the very transportation that may cost more come September.

Protesters, representing various community groups from the Bus Riders Union to the Fight for the Soul of L.A., believe increasing the fare will price out Metro’s core ridership – low-income people of color. According to MTA, almost 80 percent of bus riders are Black and Latino, and the average household income of riders is just over $16,000.

The demonstration preceded a public hearing to give community members a chance to address MTA board members, including L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who will vote in May on the proposed increases.

There are currently two plans before the board and both involve raising the basic cost of bus and rail trips. Metro representative Marc Littman said the transportation authority is staring down a $36.8 million deficit, which he said could grow to over $200 million in ten years if action is not taken.

"We've been cutting back staff, and for about five years our staff didn't get any raises," Littman said. "We've done a number of things to tighten our belts but we just can't sustain it." 

Manuel Criollo, organizing director for the Strategy Center, called the proposed fare increase "a violation of our civil rights." He said his organization attended the hearing to present board members with a "new vision for public transportation." The solution, he said, is to entice more car drivers into becoming bus or rail passengers, a solution that would not only increase Metro revenue but also reduce smog and have a positive "climate impact." 

Inside the packed board room people scrambled to find open seats. Tracy Green, a legal consultant who lives in Beverly Hills, said she uses Metro transportation everyday as she travels around for work. She is frustrated by the poor service.

“I've waited for a bus for an hour,” she said. By the time it comes, Green said, “you're late for work, you're late for school, you're late for everything.”

Green said she’s taken to leaving two hours early to accommodate for slow service, and she wasn’t willing to pay more for a service that wasn’t “quality.” It was a sentiment that was echoed by others in the room.

Nicholas Kfouri, an engineer who is currently unemployed, said he has been riding the Metro a lot in the last few years. His message to board members was simple: “The increase in fares is going to push people back into their cars and that's going to produce less revenues.” Kfouri wondered why Metro was not working on a campaign to increase ridership, a strategy that he believes would also close the deficit through increased passenger revenue.

In a short opening statement, MTA CEO, Arthur Leahy, told the packed room that board members had two choices, “to raise fares or to reduce service.” Metro staffers laid out the case for the increase and said if no action was taken to boost revenue service cuts will begin in December 2015.

“These cuts will be drastic,” said Michelle Navarro, representative from the Office of Management and Budget. She said the cuts could mean the loss of one million hours of bus service and 260,000 hours of rail service, along with  mothballing 575 buses and laying-off up to 1,100 employees.

Navarro presented two alternatives for fare changes to meet the projected deficit. The first plan would raise the basic $1.50 bus and rail fare to $1.75 in September. By 2021 it would top out at $2.25. Seniors and disabled passengers would see their fares double to $1.10 and a $5 day pass would increase to $9.

The second plan presented would keep the base fare at $1.50 during non-peak hours but raise it to $2.25 during peak travel hours, and by 2021 one trip would cost $3.25. This fare increase would go into effect in September. The cost of a day pass would jump to $13 in 2021.

No board member offered comment and the floor was opened for public response. The first speaker was Damien Goodman from the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, and like many speakers that followed, he voiced concerns that the fare hike was "unfair" because it disproportionately affected black and Latino riders, most of whom live on limited incomes.

"Please stop pouring salt in the wounds of bus riders," Goodman said to much audience applause. "These actions make no sense given Metro has seen its budget increase over the last seven years from $3 billion to $5 billion," he said. "The problem at Metro is not one of resources but one of priorities."

Mayor Garcetti, who is the first vice chair of the MTA board, has acknowledged the proposed fare increases are an “economic justice issue.” He listened intently as speaker after speaker voiced concerns.

There was some support for the increases. One speaker said he supported the first pay increase proposal but asked for a two-hour free transfer window.

Gerald Wright, vice chair of the Citizens Advisory Council, said his organization carefully researched the issue and is supporting the first proposal. He had the following advice for board members: "Keep the fare structure simple at all times of the day, every day."

MTA's Marc Litman told KPCC that the cost of riding the bus or rail in Los Angeles is relatively cheap.  "Our fares are among the lowest in the world," he said. Even with the proposed increase Littman says the fares "will still remain low."

He said the ticket sales currently cover about 25 percent of Metro’s general operating expenses. Metro hopes to increase rider revenue to cover 33 percent of costs.

The last fare increase occurred in 2010 when the base fare rose from $1.25 to $1.50. Measure R has ensured that the subsidized fare for seniors, students and disabled passengers has remained at 55 cents.