Tuesday, April 14, 2020

COVID-19 and Metro – More questions than answers

Los Angeles community members are currently under state, county and city stay-at-home orders. Public Health experts strongly suggest continued mitigation strategies to prevent coronavirus transmission for the foreseeable future. For the transportation field, this means almost every aspect of the industry – mass transit, rideshares, taxi, bike/scooter share, parking, tolls, and gasoline – is being negatively impacted and drastically changed. 


For LA regional transit, initial reports from Metro staff show that bus ridership is down 70% and rail ridership is down 85%. This is good. We want people to stay home right now.  And while still so much is unknown about COVID-19 – one thing that is undeniable, the impacts are and will continue to be the hardest for Black and brown and low-income households – who are the majority of Metro’s transit riders and have few safe and reliable transportation options. Many essential workers from these communities rely on transit  to get work, stock grocery store shelves, prepare take-out meals, provide health care services, and take care of the region. These households also have members who are staying home but still rely on transit to access a grocery store or food pantry and medical services. How is our region and our transportation ecosystem taking care of these folks right now? And what about when we enter the recovery phase? 


Investing in Place has been exploring the implications of COVID-19 for transit service, transit riders, and transportation plans and projects. We’re finding ourselves with more questions for Metro, than answers from them. At the crux of our questions is equity.


Metro is in for a major decline in revenue, which means there will be some big and tough decisions for Metro leadership to make. How will smaller cities fare? What plans will Metro advance, and which will be tabled? In the midst of this crisis, and then during recovery, will Metro lead with the goal of ensuring safety and access for those who are most exposed and most vulnerable in its system: bus drivers and bus riders?


Transparency in Budget Impacts and Decisions

Transportation agencies need to be nimble and rise to the occasion. Metro must demonstrate leadership and help get us past this historic pandemic. Metro plays an essential role, no agency is more important for planning LA’s transportation system than Metro. While Metro is best known for running buses and trains, they do so much more. Metro also funds local street and highway projects, and serves as a real estate developer for land it owns and leases near transit stations. And each year, the agency directs the investment of billions of dollars from sales tax revenues (Propositions A and C and Measures R and M). Metro directs funding for local cities and councils of governments, carpool lanes, sidewalk repair, rail construction, bicycle lanes, bus service, and other projects and programs that affect how we get around the Los Angeles Region. It is critical that Metro’s response to the COVID-19 crisis leads with equity, upholds clear and consistent communications, and demonstrates transparency.


Metro CEO Phil Washington has stated that he anticipates an $800 million dollar shortfall in Los Angeles County transportation sales taxes over the next several months. Last year Metro had a $7 billion dollar annual budget – so the projected financial loss represents 11% of Metro’s budget. It’s likely that the deficit will continue to grow.


How will Metro address these shortfalls? Which projects will be cut, which services will be prioritized and funded? How will cities, communities, and stakeholders be involved in this prioritization? How the agency addresses equity in broader planning, programming, and investment decisions will be critical. Will the agency reduce or have free transit fares to support low income households and the influx of unemployed people?


And how will Metro prioritize the coming relief from the Federal Bill: 3548 The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act  which will provide $710 to $810 million, or even up to $1.2 billion, in assistance to LA Metro. Will this funding go towards bus and rail operations, capital projects? And how will this relief funding be prioritized?


Metro’s COVID-19 Response and Recovery Will Reflect its Values

And after several years of developing an Equity Framework – Metro has the guiding principles in place to center equity in its crisis response. Last summer, Metro adopted its first-ever agency wide definition of Equity Focused Communities. This definition identifies two demographic factors that have historically been determinants of disinvestment and disenfranchisement, as well as a third factor Metro added to the mix: (1) race/ethnicity, (2) household income, and (3) households with low vehicle ownership. 


We are entering a massive recession and transportation budgets will shrink in the aftermath and throughout the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. An important question now is: how will Metro use its Equity Focused Communities to inform recovery? Key decisions will have to be made. 


Metro leadership needs to clearly articulate the outcomes they are working towards during the pandemic and once we enter the recovery phase. The agency should set metrics and clear and communicated guiding principles for changing investments, programs and stakeholder engagement. Will Metro’s COVID-19 recovery strategies be motivated by making Measure M and 28 x 28 capital projects whole again? Or is it focused on providing good services, getting NextGen back on track and prioritizing our most vulnerable communities in recovery? Metro operates as one of, if not the biggest transportation funder for 88 cities, unincorporated Los Angeles County, and over 30 municipal transit operators (think Big Blue Bus or Foothill Transit). Setting regional goals and metrics, and establishing leadership and clarity in communications now is critical. 



While Metro is more than just buses and trains – it’s a regional transportation agency – getting it right on transit right now is key. If we are leading with the goal of safety and access for all of those on the bus – both bus drivers and passengers, we need transparency on data and funding and clear ways for stakeholders to understand the trade-offs being made before policy decisions are made. 


Data is essential to making informed policy decisions that, in this case, prioritize shrinking resources. Metro needs to publish bus and train ridership data weekly  to identify where ridership is dropping off during the pandemic, but more importantly what are key lifeline transit lines for essential workers and essential trips? This data should also be coordinated with local cities/municipal transit operators to create a more informed picture of what is happening on the streets and what travel demand looks like during COVID-19.


Response and Recovery efforts must be grounded in equity 

This week Metro has their first Metro Board committee/meeting cycle while operating under COVID-19. How the agency addresses equity in broader planning, programming, and investment decisions will be critical. And although everything in the  transportation field right now is in flux, one constant remains: the inequities that characterize our transportation network continues to reflect years of inequitable public policymaking and a persistent lack of investment in lower-income communities and communities of color. As we look at the immediate response to the COVID-19 crisis, we should not lose sight of this reality. In response to the pandemic, Metro’s short term goal should (rightly) focus on advancing public health goals and protecting the most vulnerable among us. But as we look ahead to our recovery from this crisis, our goal should not be a return to “normal.” The status quo was not, is not, and will not be satisfactory. Instead, we should demand a recovery plan that emphasizes our goal of creating a transportation network (and a transit system) that reflects our broader desire for a more inclusive, just, and resilient society. Now, as we prioritize the safe transit of essential workers and our vulnerable neighbors, Metro leadership must also consider how this approach can inform our changing world. That means looking at ways to permanently implement fare-free transit for low-income transit riders, prioritizing investments that create a safe and reliable bus network for historically marginalized riders, and coordinating with local jurisdictions to prioritize transportation investments that expand access and opportunity for underserved communities. Right now, more than ever, Metro leadership needs to ensure that the agency’s response and its broader recovery efforts are grounded in equity. 


Next Steps:

  • Attend the April 14th Better Buses Work group meeting via zoom (This work group is open to all. We meet monthly on the 3rd Tuesday of every month from 3:30 – 5:00pm.)
  • The Metro Board of Directors meetings scheduled for March were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to comply with local and state directives limiting the number of people that can gather, the Board will forgo holding meetings at Metro headquarters and instead hold virtual meetings. Board Committees will take place on Wednesday, April 15, and Thursday, April 16, and the full Board meeting will be Thursday, April 23.
  • All of the meetings will be accessible via video stream at http://boardagendas.metro.net or by phone by calling 213-306-3065 and entering the meeting ID number associated with each meeting.
  • A written public comment submission period will open up 72 hours before each meeting. Because in-person comments are not possible, the public will have the following three methods to provide public comment:
    1. By emailing your comment before the meeting to jacksonm@metro.net, making sure to note the agenda number and item along with your comment

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