The low-down on SEPTA’s fare hikes

March 24, 2010

By Anthony Campisi
For PlanPhilly

Although SEPTA’s six percent fare hike was widely expected, policy changes embedded in this year’s fare proposal have drawn the ire of transit advocates.

The Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers has criticized the proposed elimination of mid-day off-peak fares and the consolidation of regional rail zones for riders without weekly or monthly passes.

And both the DVARP and the leadership of the Citizen Advisory Committee are concerned about the 25 cent hike proposed for transfers, bringing the cost up to $1.

In the face of that criticism, SEPTA officials sat down with PlanPhilly to discuss the reasoning behind the changes.

Richard Burnfield, SEPTA’s CFO and treasurer, said the agency’s primary aim was to simplify the existing fare structure — not to raise additional revenue. He argued that eliminating the weekday off-peak fare will reduce confusion among riders who board peak trains with off-peak tickets.

Burnfield said the most common type of on-board fare that conductors sell is an upgrade from off-peak to peak fare. This, he said, takes conductors’ time away from collecting fares from other customers and angers riders who don’t understand why they have to pay on-board after purchasing a ticket at a station.

And although older rail lines like the Long Island Railroad and Metro-North have weekday off-peak fares, New Jersey Transit is preparing to eliminate them and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and MetraRail in Chicago don’t sell them — meaning that the proposal isn’t as radical as it looks, he argued.

Dennis Hiller, head of marketing and sales for SEPTA, said the change was expected to bring in about $1 million in extra revenue annually.

Burnfield said that fare simplification was also the reason behind merging zones four and five for single ticket sales. In other words, riders will be able to pay the same amount when traveling to or from zones three through five. Hiller said the authority didn’t have information on how much additional revenue that change was expected to bring in.

On the transit side, Burnfield and Hiller were direct in saying that the move to raise transfer prices was an attempt to get riders to move to passes — which are easier for SEPTA to handle. The 25 cent hike, which is projected to generate $3.4 million in revenue annually, will make buying a weekly or monthly pass more attractive to riders.

While 66 percent of regional rail riders use passes, only 42 percent do that on the transit side, and SEPTA hopes the transfer hike will increase that number. “We’d love people to move into passes,” Hiller said, noting that it will now be an incentive for riders who take seven and a half weekly rides with a transfer to buy passes instead.

These explanations will probably do little to placate critics.

DVARP says that fare policy changes should be put off until SEPTA installs the smart card system, which will reduce the use of paper fares and, it argues, eliminate much of the hassle SEPTA wants to address in these changes. It also wants detailed projections about how ridership patterns might change as a result of the new fare policies — data that SEPTA doesn’t have, according to Burnfield and Hiller.

The group is afraid that the fare changes could lead to unintended consequences. At the press conference laying out these changes, DVARP spokesman Andy Sharpe said that collapsing fares for single-ticket riders could prompt them to drive to other stations because price barriers will be eliminated. And Matt Mitchell, a transit advocate also at DVARP, expressed concern that eliminating weekday off-peak fares will lead to train crowding during rush hours. (Burnfield, for his part, said that the new Silverliner V cars will increase the system’s capacity enough to deal with any extra riders.)

Both the DVARP and the CAC are opposed to the 25 cent hike in the transfer price. Bob Clearfield, a CAC vice chairman, said at the press conference that the group was concerned that the increase was a move toward eliminating the transfer and that SEPTA lost a court battle with the city over plans to do just that back in 2007. Mitchell said that the raise in price also called into question SEPTA’s previously announced plan to make transfers free when the smart card is rolled out.

When asked about that, Burnfield said that transfers wouldn’t necessarily be free after the smart card was rolled out.

Mitchell is also concerned that token use is being discouraged because the price of tokens is being raised 10 cents to $1.55. He wants SEPTA to consider raising the base fare so that it increases along with other fare instruments.

That’s not in the cards anytime soon. Burnfield said he would face complaints in the face of such a fare hike. The $2 cash fare is a “clean fare to collect,” he said, and if he were to raise it, riders would complain about having to carry change with them. A 25 cent hike — which would let riders pay with a quarter, instead of having to fumble around for dimes or nickels — would also be criticized for being too high, he said.

The battle between SEPTA officials and transit advocates will begin at hearings the authority will hold on the fare increases. SEPTA has added an extra hearing in each of the suburban counties — so each county will now have two public hearings. The new schedule of hearings can be found here (http://www.septa.org/notice/index.html).

Previous SEPTA budget coverage

Contact the reporter at campisi.anthony@gmail.com

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