Philadelphia’s regional transit agency, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, held two hearings on Wednesday about its operating budget for the next fiscal year, specifically focusing on July 1 fare increases and the implementation of new payment technologies, which are expected to phase out tokens, paper transfers and other current payment options beginning later this year.
Held in SEPTA’s Market Street headquarters, the 11am hearing was so packed with concerned riders that one woman left in a claustrophobic panic. The later meeting had a few empty seats, but the participants bristled with energy. Each session lasted about three hours. Wheelchairs lined both sides of the room during the hearings, as SEPTA riders with disabilities showed up in force to ensure their voices were heard. A sign language translator acted in the front of the room, while a countdown clock in the corner ticked down every speaker’s five minutes at the podium.
“I’m just trying to take care of my budget, which is much smaller than yours,” said Caroline Hopkins, a regular SEPTA rider, at the second hearing. “I’m on a fixed income, I have a lot of medical bills, I have to ride this thing and I just want some answers.”
Many speakers simply asked for clarification on the new payment system. Oft-repeated concerns at both hearings centered on coming changes to senior ID requirements — SEPTA will no longer issue its own cards but rely on state IDs — as well as the possibility of congestion upon the installation of turnstiles at regional rail hubs in Center City, and proposed trip limits on weekly (50 rides) and monthly passes (200 rides).
This last issue was a particular sticking point, prompting impassioned responses every time it was mentioned. “Why call it a monthly or weekly card if it isn’t necessarily going to last that long?” one man asked.
“Installing a limited number of rides no longer makes it a viable alternative to a car,” said Jeff Kessler, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania who attended high school in Center City and regularly rides regional rail. “They don’t limit rides in New York City, or in Washington, D.C., or in San Francisco, or in Boston.” The decision to install ride limits was not explained during my time at either hearing, despite the fact that more objections were raised to this than to almost any other issue.
Trip limits won’t go into effect until the new payment technology (NPT) is fully implemented, sometime in 2014.
Many of those who testified were seniors or people with disabilities on a fixed income. Although general price increases were largely accepted as inevitable, the 50-cent increase in the per ride cost of SEPTA’s CCT Connect Service — which provides destination-to-destination service for elderly and disabled riders who cannot utilize SEPTA’s other transit options. The service already costs $4 each way and the 50-cent increase would be hard to bear for those who live on a fixed income.
“Shared ride is already difficult for senior citizens to afford,” an advocate read from a letter by a “Mrs. R,” who takes CCT between three and four times a week: To the doctor, the grocery store, “and, of course, to church… but I live on a limited income, that I spend on food and prescriptions. [Raising the fares] would limit my trips and my independence.”
Speakers also protested the replacement of SEPTA’s Senior Citizen Transit ID cards, but John McGee, SEPTA’s chief officer of new payment technology, explained, “Every day we deny rides to seniors who don’t understand they need a special ID.” Under the new system, senior citizens will be able to show a state ID to obtain a free or reduced ride.
During the early hearing, it was argued that SEPTA should take a lesson from transit systems across Europe, which often reject turnstiles and rely on an honor system for payment, with exorbitant fees for free riders caught in occasional sweeps. But SEPTA administrators shot down the argument, noting that Los Angeles used to do the same thing but installed turnstiles because they projected fare losses of 20 percent. When the honor system was discarded, it was found that the amount collected in fares increased by 40 percent, implying that their losses had in fact been double the official estimate.
Both Andrew Stober, chief of staff for the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utility, and Lance Haver, Philadelphia’s director of consumer affairs, raised concerns about excessive transfer costs. Haver, who refers to himself as a “SEPTA rider and critic for 35 years,” also feared that “unregistered” SEPTA smart cards, which should start appearing in the fall, would be charged the full cash fare — $2.25 instead of $1.80 — and a 50-cent fee. This will hit tourists hard, but it will probably also have a devastating impact on other “occasional riders,” which advocates say includes those who do not have regular access to a computer or a bank account.
“The way in which SEPTA envisions riders paying for NPT may well be impossible for many Philadelphia citizens,’ Haver’s testimony reads. “14 percent of us are unbanked and without access to credit or debit cards… the estimate is that over 40 percent of us don’t have continual access to the Internet. The penalty for riders who cannot buy cards or have a credit card or smart phone to use is not just the difference between the cash fare and token price, 70 cents a ride, but because transfers will no longer be available riders will be forced to pay 79 percent more a ride than someone who has the ability to use NPT.”
Stober presented the city’s official reaction, noting that the mayor’s office is supportive of the small, regularized fare increases and has found the increase in base cash fare and token costs acceptable. (He also noted that riders who reverse commute from the North Philadelphia and North Broad regional rail stations will incur savings.) But the city has deep reservations about other aspects of the NPT implementation.
“The most substantial concern is that SEPTA will continue to be out of step with peer systems in charging $1 for transfers,” Stober said. “While the city is willing to accept the elimination of the paper transfer and allowing for transfer to be made with NPT, we would like SEPTA to consider other transfer structuring such as either a free time-limited transfer or providing customers with a lowest fare guarantee. A lowest fare guarantee would ensure that a customer never pays more over the course of a day, week or month than the applicable pass fee.”
Stober also argued that more options needed to be granted riders who may not have consistent access to the Internet, or intercity and regional rail stops, where they can reload their smart cards. “In both Washington, D.C. and Boston, two comparable systems, fare boxes on buses and trolleys can be used to top up cards,” Stober noted. “We have seen no evidence of major boarding delays on either system. As a significant portion of the riding public takes only buses, we believe these passengers should be able to reload a card as easily as those on other SEPTA modes.”
If the city’s concerns are great enough, it can veto SEPTA’s whole plan. But if Philly representatives don’t gain the support of some county officials, a three-quarter vote from the board can override their resistance.
Audience members pressed SEPTA representatives about state financing. The officials stayed mum except to note that they would be working with the administration of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett on more transit funding to fill a projected $38 million hole in this year’s operating budget. “I’m not thrilled about paying higher fares, but I realize money doesn’t grow on trees,” said one speaker, whose name I missed. “Especially when the orchard is being watered by Mr. Corbett.”
Longtime “friend of SEPTA” John Wilson queried the officials about the potential effects of Corbett’s lottery privatization scheme, which looks likely to shrink the pot of money going to public coffers. The lottery currently pays for, among other senior programs, free and reduced transit rides. Again, the SEPTA administrators remained silent. If the lottery is privatized, Wilson asked, “Will you be coming back to us asking for more money?”
One of the only universally praised decisions in the new operating budget is the elimination of the gender stickers on SEPTA passes, which have long been protested as unnecessary and discriminatory against transgender riders. “I know we’ve mostly been a pain in your pass,” said Nico Amador of the Philadelphia Riders Against Gender Exclusion campaign, who recounted tales of trans riders who were insulted and denied rides because of the gender stickers. “This may seem like a small thing, but isn’t.”
The gender stickers will be eliminated on July 1, when the fare hikes are implemented. SEPTA will start rolling out NPT systems in the fall of this year, for inner-city transportation routes, and extending into mid-2014 for the regional rail system.
Jake Blumgart is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia.Follow @jblumgart