FY2014 and NPT: City and Suburban Transit Divisional tariffs

The transit side of SEPTA’s July 1 fare hike is, mercifully, easier to write about than the railroad side. One almost sees why SEPTA has such a mania for oversimplifying its fare structure. But such is the lot of the (alleged) transit professional: while Your Humble Blogger gets to complain about typing volume, the accountants and lawyers writing up the new tariff drafts are being paid to create the best fare structure for SEPTA and its riders, not their own convenience. But despite the simplicity of the task before it, SEPTA still managed to get some things in its new transit fares profoundly wrong.

Before launching into those, a brief moment for what SEPTA got right. On July 1, gender identification stickers on passes go the way of phrenology and the Divine Right of Kings. May there be much rejoicing. The size of the overall fare increase, which hovers around 10% depending on the type of fare medium, is a touch higher than the last three years of inflation, but comes after two consecutive fare hikes in 2007 and 2010 where the burden fell much more heavily on the railroad side. (Not that such was SEPTA’s intention back then; it attempted to eliminate the discounted transfer fare in 2007, and was only stopped by legislative action in Harrisburg and a lawsuit by the Street Administration.) The new token rate of $1.80 is a reasonable base rate, and compares favorably to our peer cities across the nation. Similarly, the $92 Monthly Transpass, while barely break-even against two tokens per workday, provides value to anyone who transfers regularly.

The cash rate, going up from $2, to $2.25 on July 1, and to $2.50 upon adoption of NPT, remains an uncomfortable reminder of how poverty in America is its own taxation. The cash fare, unkindly referred to as the “sucker fare” by SEPTA cognoscenti, provides a strong financial incentive to riders to prepay their fares and save SEPTA the costs of handling cash at the farebox, but often the poorest riders do not have the ready cash to invest in a pack of tokens, or live in neighborhoods far away from SEPTA offices where it is not obvious where to buy tokens, even when local retailers carry them. This is a highly regressive burden on those least able to bear it, but ultimately SEPTA is not properly funded to carry out its primary mission of transportation access, and cannot also take on avoidable costs for a secondary social justice mission, no matter how well-justified. Hopefully, the NPT goal of offering farecard services in a wide variety of retail locations (Wawa has been mentioned as a retail partner exemplar) will ameliorate this to some extent. However, cash-paying riders lose their transfer privileges entirely with the death of the paper transfer, sending the price of a two seat ride for them fro $3 to $5. The $5 cost of a SEPTA NPT Smart Media Card can be recouped in a day and a half of riding; it may fall to social services to make sure that the cards are in the hands of those who need them most.

Now the really bad news. The transfer fare for NPT users sits, obstinately, at $1. As I have said, this is about $1 too high. There is no provision for a RRD/transit transfer fare. SEPTA promised a review of transfer policy with NPT, and what we have here is a nothingburger rent-seeking leftover from the Faye Moore era. If there is one area where I am having my hopes for improvement seriously dashed, it is here. Discouraging riders from changing from buses to rail, to the advantage of both SEPTA and the riders, is still utter insanity; swapping out paper slips for plastic cards does not change this.

Just to add insult to injury, the rarely-enforced time limit for transfers is being shortened from 120 minutes to 90, just as consistent enforcement is being built into NPT’s software. This wouldn’t pose such a problem, except that there are several transit routes operated by SEPTA, mostly in the suburbs, that have scheduled run times near 90 minutes. Other transit routes have much more reasonable runtimes, but connect to suburban transit routes that run on 60 minute headways. Throw one traffic jam or other unexpected delay in, and the rider is getting dinged another full fare. The 120 minute transfer limit was not broken, and didn’t need fixing.

As I mentioned on Sunday, the replacement for the gender identification stickers’ (dubious) anti-fraud role, is to put a cap on “unlimited” passes. Weekly pass holders will be permitted 50 vehicle boardings, while monthly passes will be good for 200 boards. While this should be adequate for most users, it is not hard to construct a transit-division commute that approaches that rate of system entries legitimately. I am fine with a usage cap in principle, but it should be higher or smarter so as not to lock out any legitimate usage.

Saving worst for last, the premium fares for the Norristown High Speed Line (NHSL), and the 123, 124, 125, and 150 Express Buses, seem to have been pulled out of a hat at SEPTA Headquarters, or perhaps a darker realm.

While the charging of higher fares for buses that use the Blue Route, Schuylkill Expressway, and PA Turnpike is an established practice, the NHSL has been treated like an ordinary transit route by SEPTA and its riders for decades. While it is true that the fare to ride the entire line is low, that is SEPTA’s doing; it chose to remove a fare zone boundary at Gulph Mills many moons ago. And it’s hardly fair to call it premium service in the same way Regional Rail is. Yes, it whisks riders along dedicated rail ROW and rolls past unnecessary stops at 50 mph, but it forces Philadelphia-bound riders to change to the El at 69th Street, and does not serve the centers of any of the Main Line communities it serves. As usual, the overflattening of the fare imposes the most burden on short-distance riders, a $0.50-0.75 extra fare hike on top of the already rising fares. It’s a slap in the face to riders who will be confronted with a Bridgeport High Speed Line by the time this fare hike goes into effect. SEPTA should stop trying to rent-seek on the Main Line; not all Main Liners are wealthy, and anyone who has ever ridden the NHSL would know that.

The Express Buses look less egregious than what is being done to the NHSL, but the devil is in the details. The 123, 124, and 125 each serve the King of Prussia Mall complex. The 123 runs from 69th St, running local along West Chester Pike before running express up the Blue Route and the Schuylkill. The 124 and 125 run express from Center City to Gulph Mills NHSL station (with a brief stopover at Wissahickon TC), then run local to King of Prussia, Valley Forge, and Chesterbrook. Under the current regime, extra zones are charged for the express zones, but local travel (West Chester Pike-69th St, Gulph Mills-KoP-[Valley Forge, Chesterbrook]) is an ordinary ride on an ordinary bus, and charged accordingly. As of July 1, each of these bus routes will be a flat $3.75 (or token + $1.50) to board at any point on the route, regardless of distance traveled. I am unsure which of the two possible explanations is worse: that SEPTA’s NPT fareboxes are incapable of keeping track of the dual fares, even just switching over at the points where all further boarding is local (Gulph Mills westbound, I-476/West Chester Pike eastbound); or that SEPTA is simply too lazy to write the software to handle it. On the eve of a $100 million NPT rollout, either is unacceptable. SEPTA needs to not gut its own ridership in the King of Prussia area, which is already weak, just as the King of Prussia NHSL extension is getting back on track.

Once again, I close with a reminder that SEPTA will be soliciting public comment at hearings in April. If you find any of these bad decisions as headslappingly stupid as I do, you should go and make your voice heard.

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