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.

The Norristown Hearings via Twitter

It’s true. (Note to SEPTA management: don’t get any stupid ideas. Pass limits are still dumb.)

Everybody has a bad day, but this was cringeworthy.

RIP Schuylkill Valley Metro, the gold plated hybrid to Far Far Away.

Ed note: This was correct in terms of time saved, but…

I stutter when speaking in public. Always have. My delivery was bad even by my own standards. Should have waited for West Chester.

Via Center City ticketed passengers are only 0.4% of RRD ridership. 75% of those are hitting the max fare, i.e. will be getting a fare cut. I wasn’t fast enough on my feet to point out that the remaining 0.1% of RRD ridership is 125 rides a day, and that if SEPTA considered closing a station with that ridership they’d be rightl pilloried. Stations cost money; this isn’t even a station we’re asking for. It’s a line of ink on a page, and five lines of code in the fare system to match.

Even though I was disagreeing mightily with Daniel Casey, he gets massive points in my book for having actual statistics at hand, and weaving them into his argument. I would still like a pass limit cap that covers at least three nines of present usage.

It turned out to be a laugh line, but it’s true. A fraudster isn’t going to care if the cap is 50, 60, or 75 rides a week, but SEPTA’s most loyal (legitimate) users are going to care a great deal.

The Media Hearings via Twitter

This was from the initial SEPTA presentation.

We would find out the identity of one at 6:00.

I think my later take on this point is better, but.

I should not say he lied, especially as Mr. McGee was under oath at the time. I apologize and retract the accusation. But he was really reckless and irresponsible in his initial answers here.

There was no indication that there was any plan in place to deal with this situation, except a vague reference to easing the time limit on weekends. That may be part of a solution, but the problem persists.

Mr. Diehl is a member of Tri-State Transit Center, a local advocacy group.

Yup, BLET needs a contract.

They and I both mean, of course, that transfers should be cheaper, and preferably free. As they stand (at $1), they are inefficient and inequitable.

This last one failed to post, thinks to the terrible wifi. But it’s right; see you tomorrow!

Hearing season leads off with doubleheaders in Media, Norristown

SEPTA’s long hearing season is starting off today and tomorrow with budget and NPT implementation hearings being held in Delaware and Montgomery Counties, today (Monday) and tomorrow (Tuesday), respectively.  Today’s hearings will be held at the Delaware County Courthouse in Media at 2:00p and 6:00p.

SEPTA is breaking with tradition in holding two hearings apiece in the four suburban county seats; usually they only have one each, which is their minimum statutory requirement, but this year’s proposals are looking complex enough that the extra time for public comment is warranted.

As I write this, I am on a train to Media to cover the first hearing. It is my intention to attend and cover as many hearings as scheduling and stamina permit.  Watch this space and my Twitter feed

Midday service changes on Doylestown, Norristown Lines

Almost missed this entirely, but there were Regional Rail schedule adjustments that went into effect Sunday.  They come in two primary groups, both affecting only weekday middays.  

  • The first, to accommodate wire work, is the bustitution of the Doylestown Line east of Colmar.  Buses will leave Doylestown inbound 12 minutes before the train schedules, and will leave Colmar outbound 5 minutes after the arrival of the connecting train.  SEPTA has posted a bustitution schedule. (PDF)
  • The other is minor schedule adjustments on the Manayunk/Norristown Line, and the breaking up of through trains to the Wilmington/Newark Line into two halves at Center City, again to accommodate work schedules.  The Wilmington/Newark Line schedule has been reprinted, but no actual train times have been affected there, just the run-through origins (and, thus, the train numbers).  That is a tell that SEPTA expects on-time performance on the Manayunk/Norristown Line to degrade during these weekday middays, beyond the point where they’re willing to risk missing schedule slots on Amtrak’s NEC.  Bad news for Manayunk/Norristown riders, but that’s construction season for you.

A trip to Upper Darby, a Fare Hike tragedy in three parts

Friday night I went to visit some friends in Upper Darby who I hadn’t seen in quite a while. It was a pleasant evening, with games and the entertainment of small children, but I was struck by how heavily the effect of SEPTA’s proposed fare changes would have fallen on this trip, so I present it here as an example for discussion.
Continue reading “A trip to Upper Darby, a Fare Hike tragedy in three parts”

May the odds be ever in your favor: Philadelphia’s Second Casino

Two nights ago, I went to an open house hosted by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, showcasing the six proposals for the second Philadelphia casino license. That license has been up for grabs since the collapse of the South Philadelphia Foxwoods proposal slated for the Delaware waterfront at Reed Street. Casinos in Pennsylvania, especially in Philadelphia neighborhoods, are a controversial subject, but one I have a personal and professional interest in. But since this is not my personal blog, things like which casino operator would be best for me, or the relative merits of legalized gambling regimes, are far off topic.  Fortunately, this process is providing ample grist for transportation nerds and urbanist advocates as well as professional gamblers.

First, a brief aside about who should care about casino transportation. There are, broadly speaking, three categories of people in a casino: workers, casual visitors, and frequent visitors. Casinos are traditionally designed around catering to the needs of the frequent visitors, and while I can attest to that bias being flattering on occasion, it’s not remotely optimal when it comes to transportation planning. Workers and casual visitors will make up the vast majority of the people who will arrive and leave on any given day, and the more prosocial the casino is designed to be, the more overwhelmingly true this will be. In response to this, the industry norm is to oversupply a casino with parking, and to treat parking as a loss leader. Needless to say, such an approach is potentially disastrous in a dense urban environment like Philadelphia. Context is not merely important; context is everything.
Continue reading “May the odds be ever in your favor: Philadelphia’s Second Casino”

FY2014 and NPT: The Monthly Pass Break-Evens

One measure of unlimited passes is: at what point do they become cheaper, per ride, than paying for rides individually? This ratio is one that calls for balance from any transit agency. Lower pass prices encourage the prepayment of fares, which is good for the agency financially, and increases discretionary ridership that drives mode shift to transit. But on the flip side the agency may be leaving revenue on the table if riders were willing to pay more, and also may increase cost liability if riders with unlimited passes make heavy use of their privileges. As SEPTA’s famously complicated (but also increasingly oversimplified) fare system comes up for a refresh, it’s worth running through some numbers and seeing where SEPTA is setting — and moving — that line for its riders.

I’m restricting myself to monthly passes in this post, and not running the weekly numbers, because monthly passes are far superior deals, except in the most extraordinary circumstances. And because after having made this batch of calculations, I already want to stab my eyes out.


  • All single rides are calculated at the token/smart media rate (transit) or at the advance purchase one way ticket rate (railroad) except where indicated otherwise.
  • Direction indicated is AM Peak.
  • Bold indicates a change of more than one (1) ride per month.

...............................Rides Pass req'd Rides Pass req'd
Broad/Ellsworth - City Hall... | 54 | Transpass | 52 | Transpass
Drexel Hill Jct - 34th/Market. | 33 | Transpass | 33 | Transpass
19th/Market - 54th/City Line.. | 45 | Zone 1... | 52 | Transpass
Matsonford - Bryn Mawr (NHSL). | 54 | Transpass | 44 | Zone 1
Bridgeport - 69th St.......... | 51 | X-County. | 44 | Zone 1
Gulph Mills - Valley Forge.... | 54 | Transpass | 41 | Zone 2
13th/Market - King of Prussia. | 51 | Zone 3... | 41 | Zone 2
East Falls - 30th Street...... | 23 | Zone 1... | 22 | Zone 1
Suburban Station - Sedgwick... | 21 | Zone 1... | 22 | Zone 1
University City - Airport..... | 14 | Transpass | 16 | Zone 1
Sedgwick - Suburban Station... | 29 | Zone 2... | 29 | Zone 2
Swarthmore - Market East...... | 29 | Zone 3... | 29 | Zone 3
Temple University - Wilmington | 25 | Zone 3... | 26 | Zone 3
Suburban Station - Trenton.... | 18 | Zone 3... | 19 | Zone 3
Neshaminy Falls - Market East. | 29 | Zone 4... | 29 | Zone 3
Wilmington - Temple University | 29 | Zone 4... | 30 | Anywhere
Ridley Park - Claymont........ | 24 | IM-1..... | 32 | X-County
Paoli - Overbrook............. | 28 | X-County. | 32 | X-County
Lansdale - Suburban Station... | 31 | Anywhere. | 30 | Anywhere
Trenton - Suburban Station.... | 22 | Anywhere. | 22 | Anywhere
Wayne Junction - Ardmore...... | 24 | Zone 2... | 16 | Zone 2
Manayunk - Trenton............ | 17 | Zone 3... | 19 | Zone 3
Colmar - Bala................. | 21 | Anywhere. | 22 | Anywhere

I think the first object lesson has to be that, if you don’t transfer and don’t incur a zone charge (or “premium route fare”), the Transpass is a terrible deal compared to tokens. The second is that the changes to Intermediate and Via Center City riders were clearly pulled from a hat in 1234 Market, because clearly no design or thought went into them.

I should acknowledge Ben Kabak’s 30-Day Metrocard Challenge as an inspiration for this post, which is much more one-dimensional than this, probably to his great relief. (I can’t find the relevant post, but after the most recent MTA fare hike on the first of this month, the break-even point on 30 Day Unlimited Metrocards inched back down to 48.)

Another weekend of bustitution on the Manayunk/Norristown Line

As much as I give SEPTA a hard time for its failings, I try to also point out where it does a good job. This goes doubly for the realm of customer service and communications, an area where SEPTA has historically done quite poorly, and where it still falls short on occasion.

In that spirit, let me point to this wonderfully-written and mercifully complete explanation of the medium scale-project, underway over recent weekends, to upgrade and maintain the Manayunk/Norristown Regional Rail Line. It gives a complete overview of what is happening and why, with enough technical detail to satisfy the knowledgeable, but not so much that it overwhelms the ordinary reader. Well done, SEPTA communications!

In brief, this project is adding a crossover between the two tracks near Miquon station, which will allow for partial service when the line is blocked by Schyulkill River flooding, which is a nearly-annual (and, as climate change grows worse, increasing) annoyance to Manayunk/Norristown riders. It will also allow for hourly service on the line during the remainder of this project and all future maintenance projects, much to the delight of riders, who are probably growing tired of these weekend shutdowns.

This weekend’s disruptions, detailed here by SEPTA, run as follows:

  • Train service will run from Center City to Ivy Ridge. Trains will be on normal schedules in both directions at Wissahickon, but inbound trains will leave Ivy Ridge 10 minutes ahead of schedule.
  • Shuttle buses will serve Elm Street, Main Street, Norristown TC, Conshohocken, and Spring Mill stations. Shuttle buses will connect at Wissahickon in both directions. Inbound bustituted service will depart about 32 minutes ahead of scheduled times.
  • Miquon station riders are SOL.
  • Norristown TC passengers will retain the option of taking the NHSL to Gulph Mills for the 124/125, or to 69th Street for the MFSE.
  • Special conditions will apply to the late night Saturday runs.

No word yet from SEPTA as to whether this weekend’s shutdown is the last, or if there is another weekend of pain in store before RIVER interlocking goes online.

The Pennsylvanian lives

Late breaking news tonight, that the Amtrak Pennsylvanian, which serves New York, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and intermediate points, will continue to run past October of this year.  That is when PRIIA ’08 mandates that all Amtrak routes shorter than 750 miles either receive state support, or be removed from the national network.  The only two routes that America’s Railroad had yet to find funding agreements for were the Pennsylvanian and the Hoosier State between Chicago and Indianapolis; all indications out of Indiana are that the state government is implacably hostile to any support of Amtrak, and that the Hoosier State will die.  

The Pennsylvanian is the only Amtrak train that serves the cities of western Pennsylvania between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, including Altoona and Johnstown, along the former main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

No details of the agreement are available, (only a laconic press release from Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman), but given that the state funding formula is fixed., we can only presume that the Governor and his Transportation Secretary have agreed to include a Pennsylvanian line item in the PennDOT budgeting process.  I’ll update here with the details as they become available.

In the first 24 hours, news venues are only saying that the Corbett administration is promising to include $3.8 million of the $5.7 million Amtrak was asking in the next budget, but are giving no details as to how this is adequate for Amtrak. I am going to continue to keep an eye on this, and hopefully further details will emerge.