LA Metro may be calling you to talk money.
The giant transportation agency covering Los Angeles County is making random telephone calls to 100,000 residents in hope they will pick up and participate in an online discussion about its vast fiscal year 2023-2024 budget.
Or if you don’t get called, you can pre-register for the Tuesday, Jan. 17 webinar from 6 pm to 7 pm Each registrant will receive a phone call that plugs them into the live webinar. If you aren’t registered you can still get patched in when the webinar gets going, by calling 1-888-400-1932 for English, or 1-888-400-9342 for Spanish.
If you have a computer and Wi-Fi, you can get into the meeting through the following links: (English) https://janus.teletownhall.us/?id=Metro&eid=90452; (Spanish) https://janus.teletownhall.us/?id=Metro-sp&eid=90453.
It’s barely 2023, there is no fiscal year 2024 budget draft to review, and yet LA Metro is asking riders to give their thoughts on how the agency should spend what is mostly taxpayers’ dollars. The agency has a current $8.8 billion budget that runs through June 30. Metro carries about 800,000 boardings daily on seven rail lines and 2,200 low-emission buses and is nearly finished building a new rail line and extending another, while planning several new transit lines.
The first telephone “town hall” on budget priorities was in October 2022. This will be the second. A third is set for March. Then the Metro Board of Directors will hold a required public hearing in May when their vote on the next budget is scheduled. The budget will cover the period from July 1, 2023 to June 30, 2024.
“Metro encourages all Angelenos to participate and offer their input on the kinds of work and projects that should be prioritized in the FY2024 budget,” wrote Rick Jager, Metro spokesman, in an emailed response. “Public participation and input are important so that the budget under development reflects the needs and priorities of the public.”
Jager stressed this is not a survey. It is a virtual town hall meeting hosted by Metro CEO Stephanie Wiggins, who wants to hear the public’s desires and “how you feel about last year’s challenges and successes,” according to the Metro invite to the webinar.
The agency will be asking participants to inquire about Metro operations, programs and line item spending. Metro wants to know what programs are important? What should Metro spend more money on? What should the agency spend less money on?
“Metro often says we want to improve to get ready for the 2028 LA Olympics. But what about the people? Metro has a lot of power and they have a lot of money. We really want to shift the paradigm and get them to invest in the people,” said Elizabeth Medrano, an organizer with women Organizing Resources Knowledge and Services (WORKS), a nonprofit that directs low-income people to housing, healthcare and transportation services.
Some of the issues from 2022 included what to do with the unhoused population who ride the buses and rails for shelter. Increasing safety on Metro trains and buses became an issue after a Metro survey found the number of women riders has been dropping. Last, cleanliness issues on buses, train cars, bus stops and train platforms emerged in a survey by the nonprofit group Investing In Place was released in September.
Medrano said safety should be looked at through the prism of reliable bus and rail service. “For me, safety means the bus is on time and I can get a seat,” she said on Thursday, Jan. 5.
From women she talks to who rely on buses, and as a bus rider herself, the Koreatown resident said there are too many instances in which buses don’t arrive, leaving passengers waiting 1 to 1.5 hours for a bus. Some riders don’t feel safe waiting after dark for a bus that doesn’t come.
“There are ghost buses that keep you waiting. Metro’s Transit app calls it a ‘cancellation.’ But that impacts delays and causes overcrowding on the bus. It’s the lack of frequency of buses, basically them not being reliable,” she said.
She would like to see Metro’s next budget include a bump in funding for the bus system. She said Metro needs to recruit more bus operators and retain existing ones. She’d also like to see a greater budgetary emphasis on building dedicated bus lanes.
Metro may be in better financial shape than other agencies, such as those in the Bay Area that are making cutbacks as federal COVID-19 relief dollars run out, said Bart Reed, executive director of The Transit Coalition and a longtime Metro watcher.
“Metro is relatively flush with cash,” Reed said. “I think the budget will be something to be celebrated,” he said.
For the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2022, Metro reported receiving $1.1 billion more in sales tax revenues from its four sales tax measures than it had budgeted. The agency reported $5.4 billion in overall sales tax and operating revenues for the same time period.
The extra tax revenues — most likely stemming from a booming economy and higher retail prices due to inflation — left Metro with more cash than anticipated. While Wiggins announced that Metro restored its bus service to pre-pandemic levels on Dec. 11, 2022, some say Metro should have done that earlier, or that Metro should expand bus service further to meet public needs.
“I would like to see them use these revenues to increase bus service above the pre-pandemic levels,” said Eli Lipmen, executive director of Move LA, a nonprofit that has worked on transportation affordability in LA County.
In the current budget, Metro spent $263 million on capital projects related to improving bus service. A good portion went into buying all-electric buses and adding charging infrastructure. The agency budgeted $3.6 billion for capital and bonds, usually meaning rail projects.
Lipmen said Metro needs to spend some reserves to increase bus service, since 80 percent of Metro customers take the bus. He favors more projects like the North San Fernando Valley Transit Corridor Project that would add bus-only lanes to Roscoe Boulevard between Lankershim and Topanga Canyon boulevards.
Medrano said the next budget should include money for bus shelters. Both Medrano and Lipmen said Metro can work more collaboratively with cities to build more bus shelters and keep them clean and well-lit at night.
“We need to think about those who currently ride,” Lipmen said.