SEPTA to do away with paper transfers, charge full cash fare

As SEPTA moves toward New Payment Technology (NPT) and transitions from tokens to “smart media,” the authority will do away with another outdated payment form – the paper transfer. 

At the moment, transit division passengers can purchase paper transfers for $1. Pending approval of the proposed fare changes, SEPTA will do away with the paper transfer as of July 1, 2014. At that time riders using smart media will pay the current $1 transfer fare. Riders paying with cash though will not be able to purchase a transfer and will have to pay the full cash fare for each leg of the trip. 

This transfer policy change, along with the proposed fare hikes, means that a rider who needs to make a transfer could pay up to $5 for a two-seat ride. 

If the proposed tariff and fare increase plans are approved, passengers paying with smart media on transit division routes – subways, buses and trolleys – will pay $1.80 for their first ride and $1 for the second leg of their journey, a $2.80 total for a two-seat ride. Passengers paying with cash will pay the full cash fare of $2.50 for each leg of the ride, a $5 total for that same two-seat ride.  

Cost incentives for smart media

Part of the reason passengers paying with cash will be charged the full fare for each leg of their trip is that SEPTA wants to incentivize paying with smart media – SEPTA issued cards or compatible devices like NFC chip-equipped cell phones and bank or identification cards – and to get fewer passengers to pay with cash.

“Right now about 10-12% of customers use cash, and I’m hoping that with smart media and the pricing incentives that we’re putting into the proposal that that would come down even further,” said Richard Burnfield, SEPTA chief financial officer.

Burnfield hopes to see that percentage drop into the single digits.

At the moment, paper transfers generate about $14 million in revenue for SEPTA, Burnfield said. He does not think SEPTA will make additional revenue by doing away with the paper transfers and instead charging the full cash fare for each leg of multi-seat trips.

Equity and accessibility

Matthew Mitchell, president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers (DVARP), said SEPTA’s transfer system is inequitable because passengers living in some areas have no choice but to use transfers while passengers in other areas are better served by SEPTA routes and thus do not need to transfer. DVARP would like to see SEPTA offer free transfers, something Mitchell said the system did decades ago. 

“We shouldn’t be punishing riders who don’t have a direct route because of SEPTA’s shortcomings,” he said. 

When asked if this pricing structure will have a greater impact on riders who are not as well served by direct SEPTA routes or who need to transfer frequently, say for work, Burnfield said that of the 10-12% of transit riders who pay with cash, only about one-in-six of those riders use a paper transfer at the moment. In theory those would be the only passengers paying $5 for a two-seat ride. SEPTA hopes those passengers will choose to use smart media. 

“We’re trying to make it as easy as possible to use smart media and try to build in those pricing incentives to encourage our customers to use smart media,” he said. 

Dennis Hiller, chief officer of ridership, revenue, advertising and sales at SEPTA, said one way SEPTA will make it easy to use smart media is by increasing accessibility to NPT fare options.

“Today we have over approximately 400 locations that people can go to buy product,” Hiller said. “…Tomorrow with NPT we’re going to have over 1,200 outlets where people will be able to buy or add product to their card.”

That increase in sale outlets will come, in large part, from SEPTA selling smart cards at more convenience and retail stores – places you might now see racks of gift cards.

As far as tourists who could potentially be impacted by the proposed transfer policy changes, Burnfield said, “With tourists the thing that we really encourage for them is the Independence Pass.”

Registered vs. unregistered smart media

Mitchell is afraid this transfer policy is not as inclusive or “open” as SEPTA has said its NPT, open payment system will be. 

According to Burnfield and Hiller any smart media, including SEPTA-issued chip-based and magnetic stripe cards, NFC chip-equipped cell phones and credit, debit or ID cards, will be eligible for the $1 transfer.

But there is a discrepancy. 

“That’s not what the tariff says,” Mitchell said. “…The tariff says you must register the card or device with SEPTA to get the reduced transfer fare.”

The proposed tariff posted on SEPTA’s website does indicate that the cash transfer fee and the “unregistered media transfer fee” will be $2.50. It indicates that only the “SEPTA media transfer fee” will be $1. 

“All we can go by is the tariff proposal that has been put forth to the public,” Mitchell said. “Anything else is unofficial until a revised tariff is put up for public review.”

Benefits to registered SEPTA media

Whether or not only registered SEPTA media will receive the $1 transfer fare or not, Burnfield and Hiller said there are multiple benefits to passengers registering their SEPTA-issued smart media cards. 

For starters, if the card is lost or stolen, SEPTA will be able to issue a new card with a balance equal to what was left on the card. Riders will be able to add value or purchase weekly and monthly passes to their registered cards remotely and will not have to stand in line to purchase passes as they do now. In addition, a passenger will be able to review his or her card’s balance and transaction statements online.

“There’s certainly a lot of convenience or protection if you choose to register your card,” Burnfield said.

Despite what some might assume, registering a smart media card will not require much personal or any financial information. 

“We just basically need basic information such as your name, your address, or if we don’t have that available, then an email address – something we can communicate to you with,” Hiller said. 

Overall, Burnfield said, “We’re hoping this makes it easier to ride SEPTA and easier to ride SEPTA means that you ride it more frequently.”

Beginning April 15, SEPTA will hold 10 public hearings throughout its five Southeastern Pennsylvania counties to solicit public feedback on the proposed tariff changes and fare increases. 

“We’re anxious to get comments and feed back from the public on this fare proposal,” Burnfield said. 

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