Operating budget blues

I have been working on a summary of the long and contentious public hearings in Center City Philadelphia on the proposed fare hikes and NPT changes, but it’s ballooned into a 10,000+ word monster of a post on disability and paratransit and is still nowhere near done, and in the meantime I owe you all a more general treatment of the hearings, both city and suburban.

I attended all ten hearings on the operating budget, and have as good a picture of the zeitgeist of the hearing series as anyone other than SEPTA Hearing Examiner Joseph O’Malley.  The issues that generated the most concern were:

  • Pass limits: EVERYBODY HATES PASS LIMITS. HATES THEM HATES THEM HATES THEM.  I am serious as cancer about this. SEPTA needs to fix this broken proposal before even considering moving on this budget.  This is the sort of unhappiness that can make the entire careers of politicians running on platforms of repeal and retribution.  There are too many people who can bump up against a dumb cap of 50 unlinked rides per week, or 200 unlinked rides per month, purely through legitimate use.  SEPTA’s analysis may show that it only affects about 1% of current weekly pass users, but this is hardly reassuring: SEPTA should have chosen a limit that only affected 0.1%, or even 0.01%.  In the words of several speakers, anyone with a four vehicle ride to work has a hard enough life already; there is no justice in any system that risks revoking their unlimited pass on the 27th of the month through no fault of their own.  The angriest voices at Philadelphia saw the pass limit proposal as a deliberate money grab by SEPTA, victimizing the poorest and weakest riders; no such assumption of bad faith is necessary.  Rather, only an assumption of myopia is required.  The failure of SEPTA’s planners to imagine the lives of people very different from themselves is hardly inexplicable, but it is a shortcoming, as is the inability to see the heaviest users of the system as assets and loyal customers, rather than as costly burdens and potential cheats.
  • Seniors: Currently, senior citizens ride free on the transit division by showing a Medicare card or a state-issued (non-photo) ID. PennDOT, SEPTA, and other Pennsylvania transit agencies have been working to transition to a system where seniors swipe their drivers licenses or state-issued non-driver ID card in a card reader on the farebox or turnstile, which will be able to read the age of the rider from the magstripe on the back. This concerned many speakers, who expressed reluctance to have their official state IDs out in an everyday transaction, where they can be dropped accidentally or stolen. Nor was the issue of people without state-issued ID addressed, despite the statistics cited during the push to require photo IDs to vote that caused much controversy last year. SEPTA’s representatives at the hearings did not do a good job assuaging those fears, nor did they communicate clearly that SEPTA will be offering a photo-ID version of its own Smart Media card as an alternative. Ultimately, this is part of SEPTA’s ongoing problems with outreach and media relations.
  • Center City RRD faregates: Nobody expressed any enthusiasm for the Regional Rail proposed NPT fare collection system; reactions ranged from reserved trepidation to outright skepticism to anger to mockery. SEPTA is on notice that if the system creates circulation problems in any of the five Center City stations, or if the rate of fare evasion goes up or remains flat, then there is going to be a chorus of voices demanding answers.
  • The basics of NPT: OK, some people you just can’t teach. But the overlap between the set of people who could find out when these hearings were and could show up to ask questions, and the set of people who had no idea what NPT was, what it will mean for riders, and when it’s scheduled to go into effect, is way too high for comfort. Again, SEPTA needs to do a better job communicating with its own customers.
  • Disabled riders: As I said, this deserved a magnum opus all its own, but be assured that it’s a mess, inside of a problem, wrapped in a quandary.
  • Transfers: A 90-minute time limit between boardings is unreasonable in the suburbs, where a lot of bus rides are long, connecting routes run infrequently, and 69th St routes are pay-as-you-leave westbound. SEPTA did not have a satisfactory answer to this concern. And the $1 transfer fare is still $1 too high.
  • Via Center City RRD fares: OK, the main person banging this drum was me, but I did get backup at the Philadelphia hearing, so I’m rolling with it. The flattening of Via CCP ticket fares may only adversely affect 0.1% of Regional Rail ridership, but that still translates as 125-130 riders per day. And that’s after decades of SEPTA trying to discourage short-haul Regional Rail trips; if they reversed course and actually made themselves attractive, that number might rise significantly. Instead, SEPTA has decreed that a handful of lines of software code are not worth creating for those 125 Regional Rail riders, while actual stations with only 51 riders a day, which are far more costly as they require actual work and maintenance, are clearly worth maintaining. This is madness.
  • Intermediate RRD riders: I suppose the good news is that SEPTA finally has a semblance of a plan for how to collect Intermediate fares. The bad news is that it’s a series of kludges involving conductors making inspection sweeps and platform lifts, which has a high potential for causing delays while not actually plugging the leak in the fare-collection system. We should be keeping a close on on this as well; I’ll be following up with my own network of informant to see how this works out.
  • Delaware: There were several questioners, most notably a long interrogation at the West Chester evening session, who had many questions about Intermediate rides, honoring of passes on DART, post-NPT sales locations, and just generally why neither SEPTA nor DART notifies riders or holds hearings on such issues of major importance. SEPTA didn’t even seem to have a desire to blame DART for lack of hearings, which it could easily have made the case for without even seeming to be unfairly attacking its partner agency. But let the record show that, in three years, I’ll gladly trade the second hearing in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties for just one in New Castle County and maybe one in Mercer County. Sometimes, responsibility really is just showing up in person to point fingers at the other guy.

As you can see, the recurring theme is the failure of SEPTA to communicate beyond the walls of its own headquarters at 1234 Market St. This is a continuing problem, and while there are some signs of getting better, there is still a lot of work to be done. Talk may be cheap, but talking is valuable. And cheap-but-valuable needs to be SEPTA’s stock-in-trade if it is to continue to be a first-class transit agency.

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  1. How will they collect the Via-CC fares, anyway? If only the CC stations have turnstiles then how do you collect from someone who never passes through a turnstile?

    1. That’s an excellent question.

      The official answer is that conductors will have handheld devices and will do semi-random sweeps on board to make sure everyone has a valid pass or card. (All Trenton and West Trenton trains will be swept, in both directions, between Trenton and Levittown or West Trenton and Yardley, to properly account for the NJ Zone.) Conductors will also be able to use these devices for collecting on-board cash fares.

      The unofficial answer is that SEPTA has no idea how quickly conductors are going to be able to check fare instruments, (in fairness, neither do I,) and that there is an enormous potential for fare evasion, or fares lost through simply being uncollectable.

      1. It sounds like the fare instrument checks should be at least as fast as the current system, if not faster. Assuming remotely competent hardware and software design, this shouldn’t be any worse than what we currently have. (High praise, I know…)

        1. Nobody’s sure of that, and there are reasons to be skeptical. In the current system, conductors are constantly sweeping the train, but for the most part, they can quickly check or re-check everyone in very little time. It only takes a fraction of a second to look at a valid pass or a previously punched ticket. Most conductors can walk at normal speed and take in entire rows of five. It’s only when they have to punch out a cash fare receipt, or walk a car congested with standees, that things slow way down. But with NPT, a visual inspection isn’t enough; an empty Smart Media card looks identical to one loaded with an Anywhere Trailpass. While the process of collecting ticket fares speeds up with NPT, the process of checking/rechecking a pass slows to a relative crawl. Maybe SEPTA is planning on using a lot more blue seat checks as a routine procedure, but that only fixes the rechecking step. And while a slim majority of all Regional Rail riders use passes, that share goes up on the peak hour trains, which is where conductor time is already at a premium.

          What NPT threatens to do is to create most of the disadvantages of a proof-of-payment system with none of the labor cost advantages.

          1. Hmm. And we’re not going to be required to constantly display passes or tickets (smart media will presumably be too thick/rigid to fit in the holders on the trains), so there will be added time for people to dig out their passes when/if sweeps are made. Is that picture correct?

              1. At least one former Trailpass user liked using the pass as a bookmark and keeping it visibly sticking out of a book while on board. I’m guessing this is another way of life which will pass with the coming of Smart Media. Alas, “progress”!

  2. I love passes. LOVE THEM LOVE THEM LOVE THEM. And there SHOULD be limits on passes. People like you mike, people with no job or anything to do but get in trouble and be suspicious would take advantage of no limits. There needs to be limits on passes. Period. SEPTA is a business. There’s limits on gift cards, limits to how much you can carry in your pocket, limits to everything else.

    1. How now? Never mind my own employment status (self-employed, thank you), but how on earth does it follow that ‘people like me’ are going to take advantage of the unlimited nature of passes? There’s already a natural limit to passes; there are only 31 days maximum in a month, and at most only 46 rush hours when space aboard is scarce. Beyond those times, SEPTA’s marginal cost per passenger is nearly zero. Usage patterns of an unlimited pass should follow a power law decay curve, bounded by the economics of paying for single rides on the bottom end, and the heaviest users who are restricted by the number of hours in a day. If the 200,000 commuters who use their passes 10 times a week and no more aren’t paying for the 100 superusers who use their passes 10 times a day, then something is very broken.

      SEPTA is quite notably not a business. It is a government agency for the public benefit. There are critical differences. I don’t think this is one, but it still weakens your argument.

      As for limits to everything, including how much I can carry in my pocket, I carried my $140K WSOP tournament cash in my pocket on my way out the door of the Rio. Wouldn’t have fit as bills, true, but chips fit just fine. Lateral thinking solves problems and gets things done, my friend.

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