During the February meeting of the Metro Board of Directors, the transit agency was scheduled to hear two items with urgent importance to riders throughout Los Angeles: a plan from staff to restore service that was cut in September, and a request from staff for $111 million to patch enormous budget overruns for policing.
Transit advocates and community members have been pushing Metro to be more active in support of their riders, and that language has recently become a fixture within Metro’s Board meetings. In January, Directors indicated that they knew riders did not trust their needs to be met by their transit agency. Building that trust required listening and taking action based on what they heard, which the Directors sought to do in directing staff to restore bus service to pre-Covid levels by June of this year.
Operations staff returned in February with a report that said that bus service could not be restored before December, and that riders may be “confused” by the impacts of adding back cut service. Further, at the meeting of the Board of Directors, Metro staff again indicated that a building back of bus service hours was at cross-purposes with an implementation plan for NextGen that had been in place for years.
Even amidst the clear opposition from the Board, staff expressed yet more consternation about restoring service. Whereas riders and advocates have said for years that, even before Covid, successive cuts have left unacceptably infrequent service on Los Angeles streets, Metro is seeking to use ridership numbers as a reason not to provide more buses.
The frustration with these reports was evident in remarks made by the Directors. Board Chair Eric Garcetti expressed his disappointment that Metro’s service restoration plan would take so long, and that the report received was so focused on reasons why trying to serve riders better and faster might not pan out. In introducing the presentation by Operations head Jim Gallagher, Garcetti warned that he would be listening for solutions-oriented language: “I’m less interested in why we can’t do it.”
Directors Mike Bonin and Janice Hahn spoke with similar force about the pressing need to stand with the predominantly low-income, disproportionately Black and Brown riders that rely on Los Angeles’s buses. Director Bonin stated that this was now the third time that the Board would be giving the same directive to staff, and that staff had apparently thought the Board “didn’t mean it.” Directors Solis, Hahn and Garcetti each made suggestions about potential pathways to accelerating a return to pre-Covid levels of service.
As riders and advocates have become increasingly vocal about the impacts of service cuts during the pandemic, the Board has shown that they are listening. That can be seen, too, in what was not discussed during February’s meeting.
Originally scheduled to be approved, an item that would have approved $111 million in funds for Metro’s policing contracts was suddenly removed from the agenda at the last minute. This huge sum of money needs Board approval because over the last three years, Metro has already spent it. To date, the agency has spent about 15% in excess of the $750 million baseline contract approved by the agency in 2017.
It is hard to imagine any other category of spending in which budget overruns like this could be racked up over a period of years without, apparently, any authorization by the Board. Further, advocates and riders continue to press Metro to change what public safety looks like on the system in a fundamental way.
Metro’s relationship with police is under widespread scrutiny, like many other public agencies in Los Angeles. While the county, LAUSD, and voters themselves have sought to pursue new models of public safety, Metro has mostly continued under the status quo.
Metro’s policing overspending item will return for consideration by the Board in March, and there is a requirement that riders and advocates will continue to place on Metro’s Board of Directors: that they give consideration to the needs of all their riders. Black riders, brown riders, unhoused riders. They, as much as white so-called “choice” transit riders, deserve to feel safe, and deserve to feel that their needs are a priority to Metro.