MTA board votes to expand transit ambassador program

Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — Extending a program county transit leaders contend has improved public safety and helped increase ridership on its transit system, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board of Directors Oct. 26 agreed to make its ambassador pilot program permanent.

The board voted unanimously to permanently establish the Transit Ambassador Program and transition the program in-house over the course of 12 months. MTA staff will provide a report detailing the transition process of the program in-house — away from a pair of outside contractors — in six months.

“Over the past two years now, I have seen a dramatic change in the system — a cleaner and safer system,” Director Tim Sandoval said prior to the vote.

“One could argue that our Metro ambassadors, along with our bus drivers and train conductors, are the face of Metro. Perhaps there’s a correlation between the ambassador program and the increase in ridership because it is a safer system,” Sandoval added.

Sandoval pulled the item from the consent calendar to introduce a friendly amendment, requesting a report in six months with progress on the transition of the program in-house.

He also requested a cost estimate of the program and how it would impact the 2024-25 fiscal budget with the potential changes in operation, and the possibility of expanding coverage across the entire transit system.

Director Fernando Dutra, a Whittier city councilman, backed Sandoval’s amendment. He also wanted a better understanding of the financial impacts of making the program permanent, and to clarify the duties and responsibilities of ambassadors.

“It’s important that the public know what’s expected, what they’re responsible for,” Dutra said. “I’m a believer of the program and I also want to make sure that we address these issues before they come to the West Santa Ana Branch Project.”

Director and L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn said the program “has been very successful” and that she hears people talking about it often.

She noted that some ambassadors have been trained to use Narcan, or naloxone, an opioid reversal agent.

“So they are really kind of our, really, roving eyes and ears,” Hahn said. “They’re saving people’s lives. They’re in a way protecting people. They’re certainly improving the customer experience — we love all that.”

According to a report, from October 2022 to September 2023, ambassadors have had 677,407 face-to-face customer service interactions; reported 9,404 cleanliness and maintenance issues, 2,809 graffiti sightings, and 2,571 escalator and elevator problems.

Additionally, ambassadors submitted 1,785 safety-related reports using the Transit Watch App and made 381 calls to 911 or the MTA’s Security Operations Center.

The agency also reported ambassadors, since April, used Narcan 52 times and saved 20 lives using CPR and suicide prevention.

While Hahn applauded the program, she also expressed feeling conflicted about taking steps to move the program in-house because the success of the program so far was, in part, due to the two contractors Metro hired to implement the program.

Metro staff reassured the Board of Directors the agency would be fulfilling the contract and would be working with both contractors on the transition plan.

Metro contracted with Strive Well-Being for 55 ambassadors at Union Station for a three-year cost of $15.8 million, and RMI International Inc. for 244 ambassadors for a three-year cost of approximately $55.4 million — with the possibility of extending the program for two additional years.

The program launched in September 2022, after an initial process began in 2020 to reimagine public safety on Metro.

During public comment, contractors expressed their concerns and urged the board to extend the contracts. Members of All4Transit and Community Power Collective backed the board’s action because, they say, the program costs less than armed transit police.

“I too am very supportive of today’s motion, and welcome the amendment so we have information to ensure we’re getting all the pieces of information we need to be informed about — especially our financial decisions, how it impacts who we’re currently contracting with and how it will impact our overall budget,” Director and L.A. County Supervisor Lindsey Horvath said.

“I’m very supportive of this program, and I’m excited to see that we are investing in people and bringing people into the Metro system. We always want to expand who we’re doing business with for a variety of services that we as an agency will need, but investing in people is very important,” she added.