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Councilmember Gauthier, transit advocates call on SEPTA to end transfer fees

“The current policy is regressive, plain and simple,” Councilmember Jamie Gauthier told SEPTA board members Thursday.

Jacob Long, 25, of Center City, Philadelphia Transit Riders Union, holds a sign to show support and the need to end the one dollar transfer fee when using SEPTA transportation during the SEPTA board meeting on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020.
Jacob Long, 25, of Center City, Philadelphia Transit Riders Union, holds a sign to show support and the need to end the one dollar transfer fee when using SEPTA transportation during the SEPTA board meeting on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Scores of transit advocates made their case Thursday before SEPTA’s governing body for changes in its fare structure, saying riders not taking a direct route shouldn’t be expected to fork up more money to transfer.

Representatives of 5th Square, an urbanist political action committee, and the Philly Transit Riders Union, some holding signs reading “One City/One Fare,” told the board that transfer fees are an unfair burden.

Their comments, in a packed boardroom at SEPTA headquarters in Center City, came in advance of a planned formal vote on a fare package that will address the future of transfers. Transfers cost $1 with a SEPTA Key, the smart fare system, but riders paying cash face the full $2.50 fare for each bus after the elimination of paper transfers in 2018.

The advocates were joined by City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who also spoke in favor of free fares for children under 12. Gauthier, an urban planner, positioned herself as a transportation advocate ahead of her upset victory over Councilmember Jannie L. Blackwell in last May’s Democratic primary.

“The current policy is regressive, plain and simple,” Gauthier said.

SEPTA General Manager Leslie S. Richards did not take a position on the issue, but told speakers that their concerns were being heard.

Board Chairman Pasquale T. “Pat” Deon Sr. shared a similar sentiment after the meeting, noting that “everything they stated today is already in our orbit and our mindset at the board.”

“We are doing our best to understand, and we do understand the very good points that have been made today,” Richards told those in the room. "And we’re trying to figure out how that can work in our system, again, with providing the same quality of service we have today.”

SEPTA has said a fare proposal will be released in March, with hearings to follow in late April. An independent hearing examiner will make recommendations before the board’s vote in May, with any changes to begin in July. SEPTA last saw a fare increase in 2017 and has a schedule of increasing costs every three years.

Transferring from the Broad Street Line to to the Market-Frankford Line or the trolleys is made easier by free interchanges at the 15th Street/City Hall, 13th Street, and 30th Street stations. But it’s different for commuters by bus — a system undergoing a redesign while seeing falling ridership.

Nat Lownes, who spoke on behalf of the Transit Riders Union, described SEPTA’s relationship with cash riders as “hostile."

“SEPTA has, I think, taken this hostility toward cash riders to a whole other level in 2018, when cash transfers were eliminated,” Lownes said.

The transfer issue has divided the city and SEPTA. City officials have envisioned an end to transfer fees, but the authority has taken a cautious approach. The fee brings in at least $14 million annually, about 3% of passenger revenue.

While the $2.50 cash fare looks cheap next to those in other big U.S. cities, the transfers aren’t fair for poorer riders, who may not own a car and who rely on the service — using multiple routes — to get to work, according to a Pew study released last year. The study called West and North Philadelphia and the Kensington Avenue corridor some of the most affected areas.

» READ MORE: For Philly’s poor commuters, SEPTA fare ranks among most expensive in U.S. cities

Alison Macrina of the Transit Riders Union used her time Thursday to discuss the Pew report. “What we’re talking about really is ... the most expensive trips, in the poorest parts of the city, impacting the most marginalized people,” Macrina said. “The transfer fee and the cash penalty fee — these are poor taxes.”

Mike Carroll, the city’s deputy managing director for the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability, and who represents Philadelphia on the board, touched on Mayor Jim Kenney’s support for a transfer elimination, outlined in the city’s Connect plan.

“We’re gratified that this is something" that’s on the public’s mind, he told the attendees. “We’re also, though, very gratified it is something that SEPTA is taking seriously and looking at, and hopefully we’ll be able to make some progress as we look at how we restructure fares overall.”

SEPTA’s 15-member board is made up of two representatives from each of the Pennsylvania counties served by SEPTA, with five-year terms, plus four appointees by the legislature and a pick from the governor. During Thursday’s meeting, the board reelected Deon as board chairman and elected Montgomery County Commissioner Kenneth Lawrence Jr. as vice chairman.

In a statement after the meeting, 5th Square called Thursday’s showing and officials’ response as “a promising step forward," while an online petition from the group circulated since 2017 had gained more than 1,500 signatures as of Thursday evening.

Gauthier said she had a similar reaction. “I’m glad to know that they were already thinking this way," she said, "but I think this strong show of support for eliminating the transfer fee and for other measures that would result in fair fares will push SEPTA even further and make it a reality.”