SEPTA held a pair of public hearings at its headquarters Monday to solicit feedback on proposed fare changes, which would mark modest price increases that nonetheless could have major impacts on lower income riders.
Around 30 residents gave their two cents on proposed fare hikes, ranging from 20 cents for tokens to $14 for a monthly all-zones TrailPass.
Compared to some of the heated, lengthy hearings of the past, Monday's were tame affairs. In previous years, SEPTA held marathon sessions lasting long into the night as hundreds of incensed riders waited not-so-patiently at the Convention Center to offer vituperative testimony on proposed fare hikes.
Today, SEPTA was only accused of being “racist, sexist and classist” once, by Cornelius Moody, who ended his remarks with “also, free Mumia.”
While no one else’s comments were quite as inflammatory, almost all offered heated criticism of SEPTA’s proposed fare policies, which are called “operating tariffs” in transit argot.
“We want riders, the SEPTA Board, our region’s elected officials, and the public to know that the tariffs being proposed today show that SEPTA is failing to deliver on many of the promises it made when it asked us to support and pay for the New Payment Technology program [SEPTA Key],” said Matt Mitchell, a director of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers (DVARP).
Mitchell excoriated SEPTA over SEPTA Key’s implementation, saying that there were “scores of unanswered questions” when SEPTA’s Board signed off on creating a new fare system from scratch, and that “many of those questions still remain unanswered.”
Among them, Mitchell said, are promised system features like the ability to tap one’s own near-field communications-equipped credit cards or smart phones to hop on a bus or train (instead of a SEPTA Key card), and the ability for the system to handle surcharges. Mitchell pointed to the recent decision by SEPTA to drop surcharges from Routes 124, 125, 150 and the Norristown High-Speed Line as proof of a technological failing — before SEPTA Key, riders travelling farther down those routes would pay a surcharge. If those riders used a weekly or monthly transit pass, they would pay the added fee in cash. SEPTA dropped that surcharge, saying it simplified fares, but Mitchell believes it indicates a problem with SEPTA Key’s backend system. If SEPTA Key’s servers couldn’t figure out a simple surcharge, Mitchell worries that will mean even more headaches as the new fare system rolls out on Regional Rail.
Mitchell also pointed to SEPTA’s quiet proposal in the new tariffs to eliminate the $1 senior citizen fare on Regional Rail, once it activates SEPTA Key on those lines, as further evidence of problems with the technology. “This… is the dog that didn’t bark,” said Mitchell. “If SEPTA was making senior travel free for the sake of making senior travel free, they wouldn’t have to wait for the [SEPTA Key] turnstiles, they’d offer free rides starting in July; and they’d be shouting the news to the press and the public instead of hiding it in the details of a tariff where only DVARP would find it.”
SEPTA officials spoke with PlanPhilly prior to Mitchell’s remarks and declined to respond directly to them afterwards. In earlier comments, SEPTA’s deputy general manager, Rich Burnfield, said the authority understood the riding public was frustrated and was continuing to work out the kinks in SEPTA Key. Burnfield said that SEPTA would soon make changes to the SEPTA Key kiosks at stations and bus loops. Many riders have found using the kiosks to be counterintuitive and confusing.
Burnfield also defended two of SEPTA’s less popular proposals. At the mid-afternoon hearing, SEPTA officials heard many low- and fixed-income riders explain how seemingly small fare increases could have big impacts on their lives.
“Single parents who need to drop off their children at daycare, who are 100 percent dependent on SEPTA for not only work and school but for shopping, for entertainment, for all of their city living needs — it’s a tossup between what type of food we may have that week... to am I going to be able to do the things necessary to live in the city,” said Tomika Anglin of Point Breeze.
Anglin was particularly upset to hear that SEPTA limits the number of trips a person could take using a weekly (56) or monthly (240) pass using SEPTA Key. While she doesn’t rely on SEPTA quite as heavily today, now that her children are older, there was a time “not too long ago” where Anglin said she would easily make eight or more trips a day. The fact that this cap impacts less than one percent of riders didn’t mollify Anglin.
“It’s interesting, people always quote things like ‘oh, it’s only 1 percent of the ridership.’ But it’s 100 percent if it's you,” she said. “And it’s frustrating to hear numbers like that because it makes you feel diminished as though the impact on you isn't necessarily as important because it doesn't happen to that many people.”
In addition to increasing the cost of single-ride trips using tokens or SEPTA Key’s travel wallet to $2, cash fares to $2.50 and a range of increases on Regional Rail, SEPTA proposes to increase fees on the infirm and elderly. Riders with a verified disability qualify for discounted fares on buses, trolleys and the subways. SEPTA now proposes to increase that discounted fare from $1 to $1.25. The authority also proposes an increase in the paratransit/CCT fees to $4.25, from $4.
Paratransit trips are heavily subsidized through revenues from the Pennsylvania Lottery, which supplies $22.70 per trip. The rest is borne by riders, who often find more support from groups like the Philadelphia Corporation of Aging (PCA). PCA Vice President Louis Colbert testified against the CCT rate hike, saying it would cut down on the number of rides they sponsor by approximately 30,000 a year (from 420,000 a year). Colbert also complained about SEPTA’s decision to change its policy on group paratransit rides, which only cost $3.70 per passenger. Before, SEPTA only required that all group riders share a destination. But, starting in 2015, SEPTA required that passengers share destination and departure points. Burnfield defended the move, saying that the paratransit buses had to travel too far afield, ultimately causing delays.
Many disabled riders live on a fixed income, noted Lance Haver, director of civic engagement for Philadelphia City Council’s office of the president, which means stretching little more than $700 a month in social security to cover all their needs. A quarter more per trip, or an additional five dollars a month for a TransPass, can be too big a financial hurdle to clear, Haver argued.
Haver also lambasted SEPTA for requiring a minimum reload of $10 on SEPTA Key, calling it a barrier to adoption and use by lower income Philadelphians. SEPTA officials said they were considering changes to the minimum in the coming months.
At SEPTA’s evening hearing, around a dozen residents affiliated with 5th Square, an urbanist political action committee, held signs calling on SEPTA to end transfer fees. Describing the fee as “a relic of an earlier time,” and citing a study from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission that suggested it would increase ridership 4 percent immediately and 11 percent over time, 5th Square co-founder Michael Noda argued for its immediate demise.
“The transfer penalty introduces a needless inequity into the SEPTA fare structure, that discourages casual ridership, and distorts ridership patterns,” said Noda. “It is an unjust transfer of wealth away from struggling outer city neighborhoods and inner suburbs, to the prospering neighborhoods of the central core. This bit of social engineering may have been appropriate in the Philadelphia of 1970, but it has no place in the Philadelphia of 2017”
As before, SEPTA’s Burnfield pumped the brakes, saying SEPTA wanted to review data from the Key before making any significant changes to the transfer fee.
SEPTA last raised fares in 2013. The authority usually looks to increase fares every three years, but postponed last year’s increase while it implemented SEPTA Key on city transit. Burnfield hinted that the authority would be open to reconsidering fares in two years. That would put SEPTA back on its previous three-year cycle and, more importantly, provide an earlier opportunity to consider fares in light of the ridership data collected with SEPTA Key.
At the earlier hearing, Regional Rail rider Judith Brewer asked why, as a city resident, she’s in Zone 2, which will see the Monthly TrailPass cost increase $9 to $144 a month while Zone 1 riders will only see an increase of $4 to $105 per month.
SEPTA’s Daniel Casey explained that SEPTA determines its zones using concentric circles emanating out from City Hall – everything within 6 miles as the bird flies from City Hall is Zone 1, then 11 miles out marks Zone 2. “Well, as a daily rider I can tell you, Zone 2 is paying for Zone 1. You have more people in Zone 2 than Zone 1 that currently ride.”
“That’s true,” Casey said in response. “Zone 1 has so much competition for transit and price is cheaper for transit with better frequency.”
“Ehhhh,” Brewer replied, drawing laughs from the lively crowd.
The roughly thirty residents spoke at the two meetings Monday, coincidentally close to the same number that spoke at hearings last week in Bucks, Chester and Delaware Counties. A final pair of hearings will take place Tuesday in Montgomery County.
Following those hearings, Hearing Examiner Joseph O’Malley will present a report with his recommendations to SEPTA’s Board. In 2013, O’Malley recommended against increasing the discounted fare for the disabled. The board accepted that recommendation. SEPTA officials now cite that as evidence that a fare hike is due.