Throbbing drums and chants of "We are passengers" in Spanish blended with the rumble of buses Wednesday morning on Wilshire Boulevard as protesters loudly denounced a series of proposed transit system fare increases.
The demonstration at the Western Avenue subway station, organized by the Bus Riders' Union, was a response to a proposal to boost bus and rail fares as much as 117% over the next eight years. Passenger advocates said the increases would be too great a burden on the system's most economically vulnerable riders, including seniors and the disabled.
"Public transit riders have already paid for the system before even getting on the bus," said Barbara Lott-Holland, co-chair of the riders' union. She was referring in part to more than $2 billion a year in Los Angeles County sales tax collections earmarked for construction and operation of the bus and rail system.
But officials with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority are warning that the agency faces a $36-million operating budget shortfall by 2016, and that could grow to $225 million in the next decade without a substantial fare increase.
Metro staffers have suggested two main fare increase options. The first would raise the basic $1.50 bus and rail fare to $1.75 in September, $2 in four years and $2.25 in 2021. Fares for seniors and the disabled would double to $1.10. A $5 day pass would increase to $9.
Under the alternative, base fares initially would remain at $1.50 during non-peak hours. During rush hour, fares would go up to $2.25 in September and would eventually more than double to $3.25 in 2021. A day pass would increase to $13 in 2021.
A fare increase would raise civil rights issues because the higher costs will disproportionately affect minorities, riders' representatives maintain. About 59% of bus riders are Latino and 20% are black, according to Metro data. The average household income of riders is $16,250, about one-third the countywide average.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who sits on the Metro board, said in an interview that he shares the "economic justice concerns" expressed by riders' advocates.
But some proposed changes involving transfers between lines could help ease the impact of the increases, he said. The current fare structure requires payments each time a passenger boards a bus or train, a policy Garcetti said penalizes riders based "on where you are, where you live, where you study." Under the proposed changes, riders would be allowed unlimited boardings for 90 minutes.
Metro's goal is to increase the ratio of operating outlays covered by fares. Ticket sales currently cover about one-quarter of bus and rail system expenses, the lowest proportion of any major U.S. transit agency. The agency hopes to boost the ratio to 33%, in part because that figure can affect the availability of federal funding.
Metro has raised fares three times since 1995, most recently in 2010. One-way fares rose from $1.25 to $1.50 and monthly passes rose from $62 to $75. But fares for seniors, students and the disabled stayed at $0.55, subsidized by Measure R, the half-cent sales tax that voters approved in 2008 for transportation projects.
To close the projected budget gap, Lott-Holland said, Metro could stop building light-rail and focus on making the bus system better. "That would put them in the black right away," she said.
The riders' union ultimately wants a no-fare bus system.
"Ideally, we'd have free transit," Garcetti said, "but we just can't afford it."
The Metro Board of Directors is scheduled to consider the fare increase in May.