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‘Our future is fareless’

Historic Broadway is one of three new underground stations to be created as part of the Regional Connector LRT programme. This USD1.8bn project is on course to welcome its first passengers in 2022.

Phil Washington

In October 2020, LA Metro CEO Phil Washington shared not only a detailed update on the agency’s major projects, but also his bold vision for a fareless future (see TAUT 996).

Two months previously he had set an ‘aggressive schedule’ for the study into the opportunities to go fareless and promised to update us in the New Year.

In February it was confirmed that he is to step down when his contract expires in May. So, with the fareless studies now complete, we caught up with Mr Washington to share what he has learned, and also his highlights from six successful years in Los Angeles…

Things have moved on a lot since we last spoke in October 2020. You’ve also announced your retirement – what do you feel you’ve achieved in your six years at Metro?

Things are going well right now. We’re in the transition period and there’s a lot of things to hand-off, but I feel good that we’re leaving the place better than we found it.

On our achievements, Measure M [Ed: A sales tax measure to expand rail, rapid bus and cycle networks, approved by voters in 2016] is probably the most significant as it’s still the largest programme of its kind in North America. With all the coalitions we brought together, in the most diverse county in America, to get a 71% approval rating with no sunset is pretty remarkable. That has to be at the top of the list.

Then you have all the projects that emanate from that and all the innovation we have implemented: the Office of Extraordinary Innovation, the transportation school, micro-mobility, the Workforce Initiative Now programme, the leadership academies, NextGEN, there are so many things.

By the time I leave we will have produced six CEOs around the country – that’s extraordinary in itself. Our ‘brand’ is expanding and I like to think we are the farm team for the industry.

There’s been some real movement on your fareless travel initiative. How’s that going?

I feel very strongly about this one. As I mentioned back in October, I believe we have a moral obligation to look into going fareless. Transit should be a public good, just like libraries, fire stations and that sort of thing, so we have pushed this idea forward and looked at all the opportunities and challenges that come with a fareless system.

One of the main points here is that our farebox recovery is so low anyway that we’re in a better position to do this than any other large transit agency, probably in the world. The fares we collect make up about USD240m a year and our recovery rate is 13% – and it’s dropping. Our operating cost is around USD2bn a year, and that is climbing.

I remember when we first started talking about this, I got calls from transit colleagues back east who said: “Phil, what the hell are you doing? You realise you’re going to put pressure on every other agency in this country to go fareless”. I replied by telling them: “That’s exactly what I want to do!”

Their farebox recovery, to give you a comparison, is almost 50%. In London it’s over 70% and that’s incredible. They depend much, much more on the fares than we do. We can afford to do this, but of course the Board has to make some major policy decisions as we still have to cover that USD240m that we collect annually. That may not sound like much compared to our operating expenses, but it’s still a lot of money.

We’ve also quantified the numbers on the cost of fare collection for us and that’s about USD75m annually. I’ve looked at the contracts that go out until 2026-28 on maintaining and repairing farebox equipment, doing this and that. Millions of dollars. I’m dealing with what I call the ‘Transit Industrial Complex’ which may not want to go fareless – I joke about needing police protection!

I know that our Board and the Mayor of LA are behind the initiative, but we still have some work to do so in May, right before I leave, I am going to offer a final recommendation to introduce a pilot. My hope is that our Board approves a 23-month programme to see how it works out. We’ll start the pilot with kids and then those on low incomes, and monitoring it closely to determine whether we can make it permanent.

[Ed: The updated Fareless System Initiative recommendation is to launch the 23-month pilot in August 2021, starting with K-14 students (this includes kindergarten up to and including the first two years of university or community college), adding those on low incomes from January 2022].

Have you come to any conclusions about the ‘free riders’ and the homeless issues you highlighted last time we spoke?

The homeless situation is one of our biggest challenges, but I’d argue that we have been piloting this since the pandemic started. We’ve gone to rear door boarding, haven’t been actively collecting [bus] fares anyway and our homeless challenge has not increased significantly. We’ve effectively been fareless since last March.

The crime figures are also interesting. Although we’ve had lower ridership, petty crime has increased. Law enforcement experts and activists tell me that the more people you have on the system the less crime you have, because when you have high numbers of people on the system people feel safer. But I don’t know if I buy that.

We also have the ‘Operation Shelter the Unsheltered’ programme that has been very successful, so while I believe this initiative will work, my point is that we don’t know what we don’t know unless we run a pilot.

Have you been collecting fares on the Subway?

It’s been spotty, but yes. Officially we have been collecting fares, but not on the buses. Fare revenue is down about 90%, so we are currently surviving on the sales tax revenue we’re collecting, the CARES Act funding and the rescue package we have received.

We were typically moving about 1.2 million riders each day pre-pandemic and right now we’re at 600 000. We believe we can absorb the increase associated with going fareless because it’s going to be some time before we hit that 1.2 million again – maybe a year or more.

So watch this space?

Absolutely. We are bringing options to the Board to cover that fare loss and pay for the pilot. That includes the possibility of Federal dollars as I believe that with the Freedom to Move Act and Justice40 [Ed: This initiative seeks to deliver 40% of the benefits of relevant Federal infrastructure investments to disadvantaged communities], which are in the Biden-Harris agenda, this is an easy win.

Vice-President Harris knows we are the most diverse county in America and that we have the highest percentage of low-income riders, at 70-75%, so if they want a quick win on equity, fund our fareless initiative.

I am optimistic because going forward the trend will be that transit will be seen as a public good, not just to help those on low incomes but also to reduce our carbon footprint, especially in urban areas. If we’re serious about climate change and equity, we’ll do this. If we’re not serious, then we won’t.

We’re ahead of the curve. Even the current opponents in LA County will be at the podium trying to get the credit when this is a success. And that’s a good thing.

Have you discussed all this with your successor?

Of course. I can’t speak for her, obviously, but she knows all about it and I want it affirmed before I leave so she can run with it.

Here’s my prediction: when our Board approves the pilot there will be an incredible groundswell of support from around the country. Others are looking at it, people are just waiting to see who goes first. As we are speaking San Francisco wants to test zero-fares transit. I’ve got the news article right here: “Two members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors will introduce legislation for a three-month pilot programme of free public transit in San Francisco, financed by one-time funding to San Francisco MTA.”

There we go. This will be the norm in five to ten years: free transit all over this country.

With this do you think LA will reach its target of 25% modal shift?

I believe so, but only if we go fareless and implement congestion pricing. That is key. If we do both then you get to 20-25% transit mode share. That would be transformational, especially for a car-centric region like LA County.

Looking longer-term, how will all the major events in the County over the next few years affect transit?

There are a string of high-profile events here over the next six to eight years. First of all, the new stadium in Inglewood gives us a major opportunity. SoFi Stadium is a five-billion-dollar project and the Mayor of Inglewood, Mayor Butts, is on our Board and he is a former Chair.

But even before the stadium opens we were talking about ‘Twenty-eight by 28’ for the Olympics and we know the County has the transport and social infrastructure to accommodate major events. We have the FIFA World Cup in 2026, the Superbowl in February 2022, the Final Four in college basketball the year after that, and you’ve got baseball and football – a lot of major events. We also hosted the Oscars here at Union Station last month.

I remember back in 2001 in Denver we purchased Union Station before we passed the Measure there to fund transportation projects. That’s pretty bold when you think about it. We bought Denver Union Station for USD51m before we knew we would have a full transport system and people thought we were crazy. My predecessor, who has since sadly passed away, was a visionary as right now the real estate around that hub is valued at USD4-5bn.

We want to do the same in Los Angeles, in and around Union Station. There are some challenges of course; we’ve got a big jail right across the street and it’s tough to relocate that, but if we can carve out some space then we can make this the ‘second downtown’.

That brings us neatly to the ongoing projects – what is happening with the Crenshaw line?

We’re not pleased with the contractor and are requiring them to do a lot of re-work which is delaying the project. We will not allow them to hand over a sub-standard project for this community, so we’re currently at about 98% completion, and the principals of the firm tell me they will be ready to handover in June 2021.

If they do, we need three to four months for operational testing, and we will open this year. But we’re looking at the rate of testing and the success rate of the testing of fire and life safety systems, and there’s probably over 1000 checks that have to be done. I look at those every week and with the workforce they have on the project, and the amount of systems they have to check, just pure math tells me it’s going to be tough to meet that June deadline.

Are we looking at a realistic possibility of the Regional Connector and Crenshaw opening at the same time?

We are. The Regional Connector is going very well and is scheduled to open in the first six months of next year.

What about Metro’s other light rail projects?

We just got our Record of Decision for the East San Fernando Valley Light Rail Transit Project, which means it is eligible for Federal dollars. That’s a great thing. We are dealing with a number of utility issues in that area, and they may prove pretty challenging, but we are moving forward on that project.

The Purple line extension, sections 1, 2 and 3, are all going as planned. We’re starting heavy civil construction on section 3 now, which will go out to the VA Hospital, so all of those sections are going well and will be done by 2028. It might be close, but we think those projects will be done.

Will the Orange line be converted to light rail?

That’s a little bit further out, but the Bus Rapid Transit and the electrification of the Orange line is actually going very well. We’re planning to put railroad gates at most intersections and that is expected to cut the running time by 20%. If we go fareless it’s going to make those journeys even quicker.

How about West Santa Ana LRT and other projects?

That project we’re going to have to segment and build in stages, but we are in environmental planning right now and closing in on construction of the first stage.

For all of these projects we need to sure up the costs as we bring each to our Board for approval, as the estimates we have are from 2015-16. That is key as there may be increases around materials and that sort of thing, as well as the proverbial ornaments that elected officials and their staff put on the Christmas tree. Sometimes we don’t consider that adding scope increases cost.

We also have a highway improvement programme; remember we have both transit and highway, that makes us different than most transit agencies. It’s mostly intersection improvements as we are not going to be doing any highway widening any time in our future, because that is not where the community is at. Taking homes and ripping apart communities, nobody’s there right now, so we’ve got to reconcile that with the Measure M ordinance.

How closely have you been involved with the new Biden-Harris administration and the new USD2trn infrastructure plan – have you helped to shape that?

I was honoured to be involved in the policy committee work prior to the transition. We put forward about 100 ‘Day One’ policy proposals and first 100-day policy proposals. Many of those have ended up as Executive Orders, or have ended up in the President’s infrastructure proposal.

The policy committee comprised about 300 people – broken down into sub-committees for all kinds of infrastructure, not just transportation – and I was one of the five co-chairs. We worked on that for about six months, and after we got done in August last year, I was asked to lead the transition Agency Review Team of 21 people. We evaluated the US Department of Transportation and prepared Pete Buttigieg for his role as the Secretary of Transportation.

How much of this ambitious national programme will impact directly on Metro?

If we look at ‘Build Back Better’, and we see that equity is a cornerstone of the Biden-Harris agenda, we have to look at places like LA as a poster child to implement some of these things.

Over the last 3-4 months we have been talking to ‘domestic econ’, which is part of the White House Economic Policy Division, on how the programmes we have are implemented – Workforce Initiative Now, our ideas on fareless transit, our idea to manufacture passenger railcars – could be replicated at the Federal level and nationwide.

That’s complimentary to our entire team, and I think we need to maintain the reputation for innovation we have developed. We can’t go back.

You’ve had successful careers in both LA and Denver, so if you had to impart a few words of wisdom for your successor, what would they be?

Good question. A couple of things: the first is that infrastructure impacts people more than anything else. Maybe healthcare is close, but infrastructure – including highways, roads, water, power – touches so many lives: if people walk out their house and the sidewalk is buckled and all messed up, it impacts their lives.

The second is how we step into what I call leadership voids. We, with ‘we’ being my agency in LA, do not control everything but we can instigate, influence, and inspire. We can push people in charge of other things to do their jobs better, just by being the instigator.

Around our stations we are saying there should be more affordable housing, so we are pushing developers by mandating that there must be more affordable housing on our land. At the same time we can influence developers downstream because the existence of our station is increasing the value.

Another great example is the school that we just broke ground on. Guess what? We influenced a big grocery chain to put a store in an otherwise food desert. That would not happen unless we had come in with the transportation infrastructure.

So one of the big lessons I’ve learned is how influential, and how important, infrastructure can be in prompting people to do things they would not otherwise do. We should never forget our ability to do that.

What advice would you give on forging relationships? It surely gets things done a lot quicker when you’ve got everyone on the same page.

Exactly. A friend of mine developed what he calls the stakeholder wheel. You’ve got 20-30 groups – labour, elected officials, residents, activists – and it was very evident that we had to bring them all together in building Measure M. That was an awesome task.

When you look at that wheel and all the connected relationships with all of these different people, if you do it well, and I think we have, you can have a successful region and dream about creating the kind of city you want.

It’s not easy and can be a balancing act, but as a friend of mine at Harvard says: leadership is the art of disappointing people at a rate that they can absorb.

If you summed it all up, what are your highlights?

Surviving Los Angeles! Seriously, I’ve rattled off our achievements already but my biggest has been the development of people. We talk all the time about physical projects, but my priority has always been development of our human capital.

I remember somebody from one of our departments who said “you’re developing all of these people and then they leave”. My response was what if we don’t develop them and they stay? That’s a bigger problem. I would rather help people develop and send them off to benefit the industry than to not develop them and they stay and become terrible leaders.

Interview by Vic Simons and Simon Johnston. All images courtesy of LA Metro unless stated. With grateful thanks to Phil Washington, Dave Sotero, Joni Honor and the staff of LA Metro.


Article appeared originally in TAUT 1002 (June 2021)


Update (TAUT 1003): LA fareless travel pilot approved

Introduction of a fareless travel initiative in Los Angeles County took an important step forward
with the preliminary approval of plans by the board of LA Metro on 27 May.

The proposal, put forward by Metro CEO Phil Washington in August 2020 (see TAUT 994), envisages a 23-month pilot that could begin in August with student groups, extending to ‘low-income riders’ in January 2022. However the agency’s board has set several conditions – including completion of a full funding plan and assurances that the programme would not adversely effect Metro’s service.

Mr Washington told TAUT in April (issue 1002) that it was his ambition to see proposals for a fareless travel pilot approved before the end of his six-year tenure as CEO of the agency – 27 May was his last day.

A report on Metro’s blog, The Source, illustrates the scale of the challenge: “About 70% of Metro’s riders are considered low-income (meaning annual income is less than USD35 000) and the fareless program would help fulfil the agency’s pledge to put equity at the forefront of its mission to improve mobility for all in our region.”

Early estimates put the cost of the pilot at USD321m, with Metro staff exploring funding scenarios which include state and federal grants and contributions from schools, sponsors and/or stakeholders.

The California Transportation Commission has allocated USD27.8m towards the purchase of a further 78 LRVs for Metro expansion, with an option for a further 39 vehicles. Kinkisharyo has recently completed deliveries of 235 P3010 LRVs from its facility in Palmdale, CA.

In related fleet news, the last of the 15 Nippon Sharyo P2020 LRVs delivered in 1994-95 was retired from Metro service on 23 April.