By Arnold Adler
NORWALK — Norwalk students may soon be riding to school free of charge in a zero-emission electric bus.
The City Council July 20 agreed to join the fareless bus program planned by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and in a separate action approved the purchase of two battery-powered buses costing more than $800,000 each along with two battery chargers.
Free rides for students is the first part of a plan which may eventually allow free rides to all, said James C. Parker, Norwalk’s executive director of regional transportation, in a report to the City Council.
It is expected to start as early as September, pending final approval by the MTA board. The electric buses are expected to arrive in early 2023, Parker said.
He said the Little Lake City School District, based in Santa Fe Springs that covers northern Norwalk, has expressed interest in the project and that MTA officials are talking with the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District, serving those two cities.
The MTA began discussing a fareless transit system last August, Parker said, and the city of Norwalk has been coordinating with the MTA in order to establish a collaborative effort in the implementation of a countywide pilot program that includes voluntary participation by area cities that have their own transportation systems, like Norwalk.
Parker said the leading concept under discussion is for a 23-month pilot program that could start as soon as this fall, making public transit fareless for all students in the county, from kindergarten through community college.
Parker said the Norwalk Transportation System currently provides free rides to students at Rio Hondo Community College in Whittier.
“Pre-COVID-19 ridership for 2018-19 included 70,869 Rio Hondo passengers,” Parker said in his report.
Proposed funding is from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. Norwalk and other municipal transit agencies would be able to use a portion of their federal funds to cover the full amount of fare revenue loss for student riders, Parker said.
He said the MTA staff has contacted 23 school districts in the county seeking their participation in the program. Under the plan, the districts would provide $3 per student to help cover cost of a transit access pass (TAP) card and unlimited rides during the pilot period.
“Approximately 850,000 new TAP cards would be provided to school districts throughout the county, under the program.
Looking ahead, Parker said the MTA will seek additional federal funds to expand the pilot program to phase 2, which would provide free rides to low-income passengers and senior citizens.
For the bus purchase, Norwalk Transit System is seeking to participate in a purchasing cooperative agreement with the Washington State Department of Enterprise Services.
The agreement will allow Norwalk to purchase additional buses when funding becomes available in order to complete the city’s transition to a 100% electric bus fleet, pursuant to the California Air Resources Board’s Innovative Clean Transit Regulation, Parker said.
That directive requires all transit agencies to transition to 100% zero emission buses by 2040, he added.
Funding for the buses will come from Los Angeles County Proposition A transportation funds, Parker said.