As SEPTA prepares new fare structure, new group pressures for free transfers

Transit Forward Philadelphia organizer Yasha Zarrinkelk (left) hosted a panel discussion with SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards, (second from left) Chris Puchalsky, director of policy and strategic initiatives for Philadelphia’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability, (second from right) and City Councilmember Helen Gym at Azavea. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Transit Forward Philadelphia organizer Yasha Zarrinkelk (left) hosted a panel discussion with SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards, (second from left) Chris Puchalsky, director of policy and strategic initiatives for Philadelphia’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability, (second from right) and City Councilmember Helen Gym at Azavea. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

SEPTA riders can expect a new fare proposal next week. The cash-strapped transit authority is on schedule for a fare increase, but General Manager Leslie Richards says they’re proposing a complete restructuring. She was tight-lipped about the exact date and details of the plan, however.

“We really tried to look at everything and saw what we could restructure,” said Richards, who has been GM for two months.

Richards announced the coming proposal during a panel discussion hosted by Transit Forward Philadelphia, a new coalition of people and organizations looking to improve transit. Richards  was joined by City Councilmember Helen Gym, and Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability official Chris Puchalsky.

SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards speaks on a panel at the launch of Transit Forward Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Richards reminded those in attendance nothing was set in stone, and encouraged them to participate in the mandatory public hearings about the proposal scheduled to take place throughout the region in April.

“I felt very strongly we should get out to the public before that last second,” she said. “Where you have to do it because we want to start the conversation as early as possible.”

SEPTA has faced more scrutiny in recent years over its fare system, namely the $1 transfer fee. SEPTA Key card users pay the extra charge to transfer between service lines except at 30th, 15th and 13th Street stations. The issue is exacerbated by the fact cash users have to pay another full fare, $2.50, to connect between different lines.

Last week, City Council Member Jamie Gauthier called the fees “regressive, plain and simple” at the authority’s monthly board meeting. A number of transit advocates echoed the sentiment after.

Richards, who has gained a reputation as someone committed to equity and fairness, maintains that eliminating transfer fees is tough for the authority. The additional charge impacts low-income riders the most, according to a recent Pew study. But SEPTA officials estimate the alleged burden brings in about $14 million per year, about 3% of SEPTA’s revenue.

“There are some things we can fix,” said Richards. “There are some things that we just don’t have the solutions.”

The event signified the launch of Transit Forward. The group includes the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, 5th Square, Clean Air Council, and 32BJ SEIU.

“We’re interested in working with SEPTA and the city to make changes, but also holding them accountable to make sure the things they’re doing are going to be benefiting those who kind of are historically left out of those conversations.” said Yasha Zarrinkelk, lead organizer of Transit Forward, who also moderated the panel.

Zarrinkelk says Transit Forward’s immediate focus is on the push for free transfers and SEPTA’s bus service, in addition to growing their coalition throughout the city.

Yasha Zarrinkelk is an organizer for Transit Forward Philadelphia, a new transit advocacy group. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Councilmember Gym, an outspoken transit equity advocate, says Transit Forward can be an important ally in helping the city meet its equity goals. Ideas such as fare-capping, free rides for children, and income-based fares are more of a possibility.

“We have a chance to do really big things that we’ve been talking about for a long time,” she said. “All these things make sense for us right now as a city.”

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