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.
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.