One of the hardest hit businesses in Los Angeles during the coronavirus pandemic is Metro, which operates buses and trains throughout the region. Phil Washington, Metro CEO, said bus ridership is down 75 percent and rail ridership is down 80 percent from normal numbers. Metro used to carry 1.2 million people every day, and now it transports about 421,000.
“We realize that to win riders back, the most important thing we have to do is restore the public's confidence in transit,” Washington said. “A big part of that involves safety and cleanliness for both our riders and Metro employees.”
Buses and trains are cleaned daily, and high touch point areas at rail stations are sanitized three times per day.
“We continue to review all of our cleaning protocols to ensure they’re adequate as the situation evolves; making sure there's [personal protective equipment] for all of our frontline employees, including bus and rail operators; and we require our bus operators to use the safety barriers that we have installed.”
Riders are required to enter through the rear of buses and trains to protect operators, and they must wear masks at the stations and while on board, unless there’s a medical reason not to. Hand sanitizer has also been installed at transit hubs.
“We're looking at the possibility of cleaning all buses and trains at the ends of the line for every trip, and we're looking at UV lights and other advanced cleaning technologies to use as well,” Washington said. “We’re also dealing with the unhoused that are on our system and making sure that they get to local shelters.”
Cleanliness comes at a cost. With reduced ridership, Washington estimates that Metro will lose $1.8 billion total over the span of two years. Metro is funded by sales tax revenue and farebox revenue, which is revenue made from riders paying a fare. Metro also operates, implements, and maintains express lanes, which have taken a huge hit during the pandemic since less cars are on the road due to the stay-at-home order.
“On our farebox revenue, that's typically about $300 million a year, or about $22 million a month. That's down 90 percent,” he said.
In March, the federal economic stimulus bill allocated $25 billion toward the transit industry. Washington said Metro in L.A. got about $1 million of that.
“We are making distribution of that to all of the smaller operators in L.A. county,” he said. “There's no doubt that the financial hit on our programs is unprecedented, but we're trying to get through it.”
In the midst of all of this, Metro is working on the Crenshaw/LAX Transit Project with the help of a contractor, Walsh/Shea Corridor Constructors. Metro is ending its partnership with Walsh/Shea Corridor Constructors at the end of the year.
“There has been a lot of issues with this contractor. The contractor sits now at about 95 percent complete; however, the last 5 percent of any project is primarily systems, and it's making sure that the systems can talk to each other,” he said. “There were a number of things that this contractor did not do right, and I simply demand a quality project for this community and any community.”
Washington said the Crenshaw/LAX line must be top-notch and safe. Walsh/Shea Corridor Constructors is already redoing some of the work it completed earlier.
“The remaining work really involves completing the three underground stations [and] installing and successfully testing the communications systems that monitor the line and connect its many components to our Metro rail operations center. So many of these systems are vital for safe and reliable train operations, and that includes the electricity that powers the elevators and escalators,” he said. “We are insisting on a quality job.”
The pandemic has reduced Metro’s ridership and revenue, but Washington said there are some silver linings. Metro is speeding up the construction of several projects since there are less people riding rail lines right now.
“We are managing about 20 billion dollars in projects,” he said. “On many of those projects, we've taken advantage of the reduced traffic [and] retail being closed, so we're actually accelerating many of our projects, especially the project on Westside, which is called the Purple Line, that will go all the way out to the veterans hospital.”
Washington is trying to determine the “new normal” for Metro. Many cleaning and safety procedures have been implemented during the pandemic, and Washington hopes to keep those in place forever.
“There's a number of things that we're doing temporarily that we should look at implementing permanently. When you start thinking about clean air here in Los Angeles, we had already presented a plan for traffic reduction about a year and a half ago to our board that would reduce traffic.”
Washington said clear air and less traffic congestion are both positives that have come out of the pandemic.
“I have created a task force to come back to me with ideas on things that we can maintain as permanent and that will result in a better system, that will result in better and new improved mobility options. And of course, it will improve and address some of the climate change issues that we're seeing right now. So there are silver linings in multiple areas and we're presenting those things to the board to make them permanent.”
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