In May, Metro will vote on the approval for its 2022 budget, following a year of Covid-induced financial stresses. The vote marks a return to normalcy for Metro after the 2021 budget vote was delayed for months in the wake of the pandemic declaration and the accompanying economic shutdown. But for transit riders in Los Angeles, a return to the pre-pandemic normal is not a welcome prospect.
Under the old normal, transit ridership plummeted deliriously as riders abandoned a service made unreliable through cuts and disinvestment. It saw the needs of a privileged minority of “choice” riders pitted against those of a stable base of bus riders, with the latter’s needs routinely being disregarded.
Things have been going wrong at Metro for far longer than the world has been in quarantine, and the blame for that can be traced directly back to the financial decisions baked into Metro’s annual budget process. As the primary transportation provider and planner for Los Angeles County, Metro’s budget accounts for more than $6 billion in annual spending on transit, highways, roads, and more. But the process by which that money is divvied up is decidedly old school: it’s a black box from which numbers emerge apparently at random with no explanation and next-to-no input from riders.
That’s why Investing in Place sent Metro a letter last month requesting that the agency begin to change the way it approaches budgeting to address procedural equity concerns. Procedural equity can be thought of as the way in which a service provider centers the needs of those most affected by its policies in its internal structures. Are there organizational structures and policies that support access to spaces where decisions are made? Are groups who face greater barriers to accessing service proactively sought out so they can authentically engage with decision-makers? Can they really expect to influence how decisions are made?
In Metro’s case, Investing in Place believes the answer to each question is “No.” While, truthfully, much of the change will require a major shift in organizational thinking within Metro – a shift that we are hopeful incoming CEO Stephanie Wiggins will help to bring about – there are small improvements that Metro could make without delay.
In particular, one proposal that Investing in Place submitted to Metro was that the agency should commit to extending the public review period for the budget from two weeks to a full month. The current 14-day window forces riders, activists, and organizers to compress a great deal of activity into an arbitrarily truncated timeframe. There is insufficient time to analyze the contents of the budget, conduct community outreach, and to collaboratively develop a response to Metro’s proposal. And, given that drafts of the budget are already available, it does not seem to be a hardship to suggest that they be shared publicly. Nonetheless, Metro has indicated that they will proceed with the 14-day timeframe for at least another year.
On our part, this ask was not for a silver bullet or panacea. We were asking for a show of good faith. A modest adjustment to the baseline that would demonstrate Metro’s commitment to making more lasting improvements to procedural equity going forward.
The role of transit advocacy groups like Investing in Place is to provide a source of analysis that can help build capacity and spread awareness in transit-riding communities. These are functions that Metro can and should be interested in fulfilling itself, but at a minimum it is in the agency’s best interest to support an informed and engaged ridership. It is our sincere hope that Metro will come around to viewing the development of its budget as a participatory process, and one of the region’s greatest tools for achieving equity.