Advocating for a More Equitable and Rider-Focused Budget at Metro

While one can easily get buried in LA Metro reports, plans, and proposals for public transit, the most important document every year is the budget, even though it is the hardest to understand. While certain expenditures were required by statute after voters passed Measures R and M, budgetary items like debt service on obligations, subsidy funding programs, overhead, revenue service hours, FTEs, carryover, and transportation infrastructure development are all quite opaque.

For the past couple of budget cycles, Move LA has been trying to get clarity on the budget in order to organize and advocate for one that is more transparent, sustainable, equitable, and rider-focused. The first year we were—in all honesty—caught flat-footed.

The Metro budget is not usually released until a few weeks prior to the Board vote when it is essentially a “done deal” because Metro has already been preparing for hires and projects that the not-yet-approved budget can fund. In 2019, for example, we called for more equity in decisions about transit infrastructure, more resources for bus operations, reductions in fares, and funding for discounted transit programs for students, seniors, and persons with disabilities—all aimed at increasing ridership. Read our letter to Metro here.

But while there were some small wins in that year’s budget, our efforts came too late and we didn’t have time to build enough community support to win significant changes. This did, however, arm us with a new understanding: 1) The budget process starts almost nine months before the Metro Board takes action, 2) making measurable changes to the budget requires a dedicated effort to build sufficient community support, and 3) an increase in funding for transit doesn’t necessarily mean that service—especially bus service—will be increased.

Once we better understood the process, we began organizing meetings with Metro staff, board members, and transit advocates to identify the opportunities we believed would create a more equitable, sustainable, and rider-focused budget. In 2020 we asked transit riders to sign on to an open letter to the Metro Board asking that bus service be prioritized because the decline in service was causing a decline in ridership, as was the lack of affordable housing near transit where low-income riders could live.

Along with dozens of other community organizations, we participated in Metro’s NextGen Bus planning process—the first comprehensive reorganization of the bus system in almost 25 years. This afforded us the opportunity to talk about the need to expand bus service and to build a broad-based constituency of advocates—from business, labor, environmental, social justice, transit equity, and other organizations.

Around the same time, Investing in Place formed a Better Buses Work Group that brought key advocates together with agency staff to talk about the need to invest in more bus infrastructure and service. The Alliance for Community Transit Los Angeles (ACT-LA) organized town halls, Metro station activations, and a Transit Justice Summit to educate and activate transit riders. And Move LA organized 25 community organizations to advocate for bus riders at the meeting where the Metro Board voted whether to adopt a bus plan that expanded service or that maintained the current service level. READ THE LETTER.

We prepared for the board meeting by really digging into the budget: Investing in Place, ACT-LA, and SAJE (Strategic Actions for a Just Economy) held a “Budget Teach-In” and Move LA produced a “Metro Budget Guide.” And then the pandemic hit, followed by the protests for racial justice after the murder of George Floyd—and far too many other people of color—by police. Metro postponed the passage of the budget until it had a better understanding of revenues and expenditures because ridership and revenues had dropped precipitously due to the stay-at-home orders.

In response, ACT-LA led an effort to divest from policing and to invest in community safety, and Move LA, Investing in Place, LA Walks, Streetsblog, Active SGV and others tried to restore service cuts in the FY21 budget when it was passed in the fall. But with the pandemic raging, revenues down, and ridership at half what it was in the previous year, the Board voted to keep service at historically low levels. And we began to think about how we could restore service in the next year’s budget.

In January 2021, Metro released its “Mid-Year Budget Adjustment”—typically a perfunctory document. But this year was different: Metro announced it would have a windfall of nearly $300 million in unanticipated sales tax revenue (in addition to half a billion dollars in savings from restructuring its capital projects debt).

Working together we hastily organized a meeting of more than 50 advocates and created a shared document with talking points, social media messaging, and other ideas for public comment. Scott Frazier, a local podcast host, wrote about the service cuts

Image courtesy of Scarlett De Leon, Alliance for Community Transit Los Angeles
Photo Courtesy of Scarlett De Leon, Alliance for Community Transit Los Angeles

ACT-LA gathered powerful community stories they’d heard from riders and shared them directly with policymakers, including Mayor Eric Garcetti, chair of the Metro Board (pictured). And dozens of other groups mobilized, resulting in 150 written comments and over 100 calls from low-income riders and others.

The message was clear—board members should oppose the Mid-Year Budget Motion unless amended with a plan to restore service. Elected officials listened, introduced and then unanimously passed a motion to restore funding to transit operations, to restore service to pre-COVID levels by July, and to prioritize vaccinations for bus drivers.

This was a major victory for advocates that had taken more than 18 months of hard work. We want to heartily thank ACT-LA, Investing in Place, SAJE and the dozens of other organizations that mobilized riders around this issue, and to thank our national partners—the TransitCenter, Alliance for a Just Society, and NRDC.

There is still much more work to do. In a report issued in February 2020, Metro staff said it would not be possible to restore service to pre-pandemic levels until December 2021. Metro needs "all hands on deck" to move fast to put more service back on the road so essential workers (and all of us) have alternatives to single-passenger vehicle travel as schools, businesses, and offices re-open. LA County Public Health needs to prioritize vaccinating transit workers and Metro must immediately begin hiring more operators and mechanics. We cannot repeat the mistakes of our last economic recovery when Metro never restored service to pre-recession levels. Let's set an example for the nation on how we can build back better service, better jobs, and better transit.

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