During the summer, Metro got involved in the regional coronavirus vaccination effort. In August, the transit agency was hosting inoculation clinics at a variety of sites. Riders could get jabs at busy spots including Union Station, a Gold Line stop in Boyle Heights, and a Green Line station in Hawthorne. As always, vaccinations were free, and people could either make reservations or walk up.
At the same time, there was an internal effort to get the transit system’s 11,000 employees inoculated. Earlier this week, newly installed CEO Stephanie Wiggins described how Metro conducted a summer incentive-laden initiative; workers were encouraged to show proof of vaccination, and those who did had the potential to earn prizes or get days off.
The effort did not have the intended effect. As of Labor Day, only 46 percent of Metro employees had shown proof of vaccination.
“So [that is] not where we want to be,” Wiggins said Tuesday at the Palm restaurant in downtown at a luncheon hosted by the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum. “We want to be at at least 70 percent.”
Metro is far from alone in getting a workforce vaccinated. Only an estimated 56 percent of the Los Angeles Police Department’s 13,000 sworn and civilian employees have been fully vaccinated. The Los Angeles Times last week reported that 58.5 percent of the city’s approximately 3,500 firefighters are fully vaccinated, and 66% have received at least one dose.
The City of Los Angeles last month mandated that all municipal employees, including first responders, be fully vaccinated, unless they qualify for medical or religious exemptions. Thousand of police and firefighters have indicated they will seek those carve-outs. As talks continue with labor unions, a number of public safety workers have indicated they will sue to halt the mandate.
Altogether more than 1.4 million L.A. County residents have contracted COVID-19, and nearly 26,000 people have died. As of Wednesday, 1,018 coronavirus patients were being treated in county hospitals, with 31 percent of them in the ICU.
Scientific studies have shown that the three vaccines approved for use in the United States are safe and effective at preventing transmission, and even those who contract the virus tend to have less severe symptoms. Vaccination is also recommended for people who have been infected and believe they have long-term immunity.
Count Wiggins among those who will require employees to get a shot in the arm.
“Last week, I announced that we’re going to a mandatory vaccine requirement as of November 1,” she said at the luncheon. “We will be obviously offering the exemptions for those who have a viable medical or religious exemption, and then are committed to working with our labor partners on the details of the impacts of the mandatory vaccine approach.”
Vaccinating Metro’s pool of bus and train operators, and the rest of the transit, support and management staff, is only one of the challenges Wiggins faces. In June she took charge of the agency with an annual $7 billion budget that operates more than 2,200 buses and six rail lines. She used the Current Affairs Forum lunch as an opportunity to offer an update on her first 100 days.
Wiggins, who took over for Phil Washington, and made history as the first Black woman to head Metro, described the job as a homecoming. She spent the last three years as the leader of Metrolink, and before that she had worked at Metro for a decade, including time as Deputy CEO.
Like every mass transit system in the country, Metro ridership was hammered by the coronavirus, particularly early on as people sought to avoid a viral stew of crowded buses and trains. Metro reduced service hours on a number of lines.
Still, there was more passenger traffic than many might realize.
“Even at our lowest ridership levels last year, Metro still saw 400,000 boardings every day,” Wiggins stated. “That demonstrates how essential Metro is for so many Angelenos.”
In February 2020, the month before the onset of the pandemic, the entire Metro system recorded nearly 1.2 million daily boardings; Wiggins noted that approximately 70 percent of Metro customers are bus users.
She said ridership has bounced back more than anticipated, with weekday numbers now working out to about 70 percent of pre-COVID levels, above the expected 50 percent. Weekend traffic, she said, is at 80 percent of what it was before the world turned.
According to Metro ridership statistics, in August there was an average of almost 768,000 daily weekday boardings, with 613,000 of those on bus lines.
Wiggins said her principal goal is to get the riders back, and to recruit new ones. A cornerstone of that involves what is called the NextGen Bus Plan, with the aim to lure customers by providing faster, frequent and more reliable bus service (the second of three NextGen phases launched in June). Wiggins also described an effort to get more young people on the system, and detailed a pilot plan that could lead to K-12 and community college students being able to ride for free (the Metro Board on Thursday approved the pilot program).
“One of my goals is for everyone, beginning with young people, to choose Metro as their first option for transportation,” she said.
Metro is in the midst of a massive building campaign propelled in part by the 2028 Summer Olympics. Key projects include the downtown Regional Connector, which will streamline cross-county travel, in part by eliminating the need for some transfers, and finally connecting the rail system directly to LAX.
“One of my goals is for everyone, beginning with young people, to choose Metro as their first option for transportation.” —Stephanie Wiggins
Still, that is only part of what is on the books: Wiggins said Metro now has 55 ongoing capital projects, with a value of $21 billion.
Many hurdles remain. Wiggins said internal Metro studies showed that the agency’s peak construction period will be in 2026, which happens to be the same time that there is expected to be a peak regional labor shortage. Other workforce challenges are immediate—she said a need for bus operators has led to establishing a $1,000 sign-on bonus.
While revenues took a beating during the pandemic, Wiggins said tremendous help came from Washington, D.C. Yet that is temporary, and the agency is exploring other ways to bring in revenue—during the pandemic, social distancing meant many bus riders were not required to use the TAP card system near drivers, and thus have been boarding at the back and traveling for free for more than 18 months.
Wiggins said plans are in the works to have bus riders begin to pay again on January 10, 2022.
Over the years Metro has been buffeted by complaints about customer service. Wiggins didn’t shy away from the criticism, calling the need to better serve riders the “biggest takeaway” from her first 100 days.
“We must improve the customer experience,” she said. “It is not enough to meet traditional benchmarks. We are raising our standards.”
Achieving that aim includes a panoply of steps, among them better responding to unhoused people on the Metro system. Wiggins said the agency will no longer use law enforcement personnel as first responders for situations involving people experiencing homelessness.
Early next year, she said, Metro will release the agency’s first Customer Experience Plan. She indicated that the future will require a radical thinking of nearly every aspect of the sprawling transit system.
“To put it bluntly, when it comes to customer service, we are in a state of rebuilding,” she said. “We are resetting how Metro employees think about our riders.”
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