Why isn’t PATCO free?

According to the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, South Jersey drivers are moving away from their cars, at least when crossing the Delaware. Car traffic on the Delaware River Port Authority’s four bridges was down 1.76% in 2012, and PATCO ridership was up 1.6%, in the first full year after a 10% PATCO fare hike and a 25% bridge toll hike (from $4 to $5 round-trip for ordinary cars). So far, so standard Economics 101. But DRPA is missing a bigger opportunity to mode-shift people out of their cars: it can increase the cross-subsidy of PATCO to 100%, and reap the environmental, congestion, and pro-urban benefits of zero-fare transit. And it can do it for only one more dollar in tolls.

PATCO's unnecessary fare system, the FREEDOM card
Governors Christie and Corbett: TEAR DOWN THIS GATE

According to DRPA’s own 2011 Annual Report, PATCO fares in that calendar year generated $24,004,000, while bridge tolls brought in $267,685,000. That order of magnitude difference means that the extra 9.76% revenue generated by half a year of increased tolls is more than PATCO brought in all year. Thus, it stands to reason that another toll hike of approximately the same absolute magnitude (i.e. $5 to $6 for passenger cars) could offset the removal of PATCO fares altogether, in a budget-neutral or budget-positive way for DRPA.

There are two primary risks in this approach. One is that making PATCO free might make it a runaway success, causing unsafe crowding conditions at rush hour. That is a serious concern, but it is the kind of problem we should be glad to have. There are other methods of constricting PATCO demand, mostly through appropriate pricing of PATCO’s vast parking facilities in South Jersey. The NJT Atlantic City Line, which reaches peak load at Lindenwold, is woefully underutilized across the Delaware, and bringing NJT’s $5 Lindenwold-Philadelphia fare down into line with PATCO’s current $3 Lindenwold-Philadelphia fare ought to be a DRPA priority in any event. Crowding relief may be the impetus to implement the plans to build an NJT platform at Woodcrest PATCO Station. If crowding is still an issue, NJT Bus Ops can probably be convinced to run extra service to Philadelphia at peak hours, in exchange for the cost savings of truncating to Walter Rand TC in the off hours.

The other is the obvious political problem of selling it to already-unhappy toll paying drivers. My initial uncharitable instinct is to tell them to go pound sand, that their North Jersey brethren are paying $13 to the PANYNJ to cross the Hudson, they can suck up $6. But of course, DRPA can’t quite do that. It can point out that it is now providing a free alternative, but it is also competing against the (ludicrously low $2) Tacony-Palmyra bridge, and might actually lose a fair bit of money as drivers switch modes or switch routes. Again, my first instinct is to declare victory, but in the eyes of people for whom the control of these four bridges is and has been considered a licence to print money (and then disperse it corruptly to pet projects), this is a fate to be avoided. Fortunately for them, there are alternatives. Most pertinently, giving off-peak EZ-Pass drivers a discount from the full rate, which is just good policy, and differentiating toll structures for the strongly-demanded Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman Bridges into Center City Philadelphia, while providing slightly lower rates on the off-axis relief routes over the Betsy Ross and Commodore Barry Bridges, which again is just good policy. On the other side of the political issue, side, there might be worries out of Collingswood and Haddonfield of Camden’s, er, “undesirables” spilling out from a free PATCO. In this case, my reaction to tell people to go pound sand will be unrestrained: criminals do not ride transit, they drive. Working people take transit, and I refuse in all cases to have good transportation policy held hostage to racism or classism. Fortunately, the on-line communities mostly understand and support the extent to which their own prosperity is linked to the existence and convenience of PATCO.

Taking out the fares and throwing open the gates on PATCO would save payment processing and maintenance costs for DRPA; the 2007 introduction of the FREEDOM card was a step forward from the late 1960s-era magnetic ticketing system, but has not provided the benefits PATCO envisioned. Nor have SEPTA or NJT expressed any interest in adopting the system; on the contrary, PATCO has been making noises about scrapping the FREEDOM card after only 7-8 years in service, and adopting SEPTA’s open (and as-yet unbranded) NPT system, after it rolls out this year. That’s a stunning testimony on PATCO’s evaluation of the success of its own system. DRPA won’t go broke on PATCO’s credit card fees, but they do add up. And the personnel required to collect cash out of fare vending machines, fix broken faregates, and otherwise administer fare collection, all cost DRPA money. And reducing total DRPA expenditures should be considered a major budgetary win, on both sides of the Delaware.

ETA: To directly answer the question posed by my title, i.e. “why isn’t PATCO free now?”, the answer, of course, is that DRPA’s leadership, at the agency level and the political level, is hostage to the windshield perspective mentality that dominates all discussion of transportation issues in this country. (Noted carborne menace Gov. Chris Christie is a notorious perpetrator of this, and he controls half of DRPA’s board.)
Until the idea that politicians and government agencies represent and serve people, and not the cars those people drive, comes back into fashion, PATCO will continue to charge revenue-maximizing fares, discouraging its own ridership, and leaving South Jersey locked in its autocentric spiral.

The Long and Short Of It

It’s almost treated as impolite to mention, but SEPTA’s Regional Rail system has a definite class structure to it. This is apart from, or perhaps parallel to, the actual class divides that separate the communities served, but I’m referring here to the differences created by the most fundamental attribute of the individual lines: length. Short lines and long lines are not in any sense equal. They operate differently, serving different purposes and different markets, and the determination to treat them as equals actually creates distortive effects to the detriment of the entire system.
Continue reading The Long and Short Of It

Winter Storm Nemo update

Local transit still looks in good shape, but here in South Philadelphia, there is a thin layer of ice on all exposed surfaces, so expect all modes of travel to be VERY SLOW this morning, until the salt trucks can get out to do their thing.  Also, exercise special care out there on platforms.

Amtrak is only running as far north as New York, but does not anticipate altering schedules on this side of Penn Station. With NYC area airports closed, New York O/D traffic might have been bridged to the open airports in Philadelphia and Baltimore with the equipment that isn’t running to Boston tonight, but of course there is no standard protocol between the airlines and Amtrak for such an operation.

UPDATE 7:10a: SEPTA is reporting a few scattered bus detours due to local road conditions. NJT has suspended North Jersey and Mercer County bus service.

Catching up, and the incoming storm

I’ve been out of town for the last three weeks, and it’s been quite busy in the Delaware Valley. To recap:

  • The big news is SEPTA holding the first public meetings for the newest incarnation of the King of Prussia Rail project. With the KoP Business Improvement District as co-sponsors and motivating forces, this latest version of the #1 item on the regional wishlist looks much more likely to succeed than its predecessors, if for no other reason than that this time, it’s being investigated as a standalone project on its own merits. The public presentation materials are online at http://kingofprussiarail.com/virtualmeeting.html; the current focus is on alignment alternatives between the existing Norristown High Speed Line and the Mall complex.
  • New SEPTA timetables are out, and the changeover to the new Regional Rail schedules will take place this Sunday, February 10th. The Transit Division will follow suit on the February 17th and 18th.
  • In the ongoing fights against petty corruption and car culture, nine current and former Philadelphia Traffic Court judges were indicted on charges related to ticket-fixing. With all but one of the active judges indicted and therefore automatically suspended without pay, the State Senate is considering legislation to abolish the court entirely, and fold responsibility into the Municipal Court docket. If the end of widespread ticket fixing improves the safety of our streets, we are very much in favor of these developments (in addition to corrupt city officials getting nailed to the wall, which is its own reward).
  • A gas leak at Fern Rock TC disrupted Broad Street Subway, bus, and Regional Rail service near the end of Wednesday morning’s rush hour. SEPTA’s ticktock and apology to disrupted riders was up on septa.org by the next morning, and is an exemplar of the genre. We applaud the clear communication with riders, which is, ah, traditionally lacking at SEPTA. May the trend continue.
  • An approaching winter storm today and tomorrow has yet to produce any SEPTA service disruptions, but NJT is cross-honoring bus, rail, and light rail fares today and tomorrow. Given that the Philadelphia area is only expected to get about 4-6 inches of snow, while New York gets 12″ and Boston gets 30″+, expect local transit to remain relatively undisrupted, especially compared to our neighbors to the northeast (best of luck to them!). Monitor SEPTA.org, RidePatco.org, NJTransit.com, and the Twitter feeds for service advisories. Be especially careful around slippery platform edges, consider leaving work early today if possible, to get out ahead of the storm’s arrival, and plan ahead in case you need to seek alternate transportation. Stay safe out there!