It’s happening quietly and largely behind the scenes, but a tug-of-war may be brewing between Philadelphia and SEPTA over the policy of charging passengers to transfer from one public transit ride to another.
Ending the $1 fee for travelers moving between different modes of SEPTA’s system, from bus to subway, for example, is viewed by the city as an essential step to reverse a four-year trend of decreased public transportation ridership in Philadelphia amid growing traffic congestion.
"We’ve been very clear we would like to eliminate the transfers,” Mike Carroll, deputy managing director of the city’s transportation office and one of Philadelphia’s representatives to SEPTA’s board, said during June’s board meeting.
SEPTA, though, is being noncommittal on whether it will surrender a fee that brings in at least $14 million a year, about 3 percent of passenger revenue.
“We have made a commitment to look at it in a very comprehensive manner over time,” said Rich Burnfield, SEPTA’s deputy general manager and treasurer. “We have to be very careful we don’t end up with unintended consequences."
SEPTA officials want to gather more data on ridership trends before deciding whether to do away with transfer fees. A few bus lines, those which at one time were considered one route but have since been divided, do offer free transfers, SEPTA noted.
The decision on transfer fees won’t come until spring 2020, when SEPTA will consider raising base fares. SEPTA’s last fare increase was in 2017. City officials, though, have already begun lobbying Pasquale M. “Pat” Deon, SEPTA’s board chairman, to get rid of the transfer fees.
“He doesn’t want to jump in saying ‘Yes, yes, yes,’" Carroll said, "and we don’t want to just hear ‘No, no, no.’”
Transit reports, including SEPTA’s bus network analysis and Philadelphia’s seven-year transportation plan, cite a number of reasons transfer fees depress ridership. Public transit works best as an interlinked network, with one route connecting to another to give riders access to virtually the entire city. Making it more expensive to hop among lines discourages people from using transit to its full potential.
“Most of the area that a person can reach in an hour is reachable via a transfer,” wrote Jarrett Walker, a nationally recognized transit expert who conducted SEPTA’s system review. “It makes no sense to charge people more for behavior that is so beneficial for both SEPTA and the customer.”
In a 2010 blog post, Walker likened a transfer charge to an airline asking customers to pay more for a trip that includes a layover.
In Philadelphia, riders who hold weekly and monthly passes essentially don’t pay the additional fee.
“Riders shouldn’t be penalized because their trip happens to involve a transfer,” said Ben Fried, spokesperson for TransitCenter, a New York City-based philanthropy focused on transit issues. “In cities that have weekly or monthly passes, the transfer fee is especially regressive, because riders who can’t afford the up-front cost of a bulk pass are more likely to pay it.”
About 21 percent of city transit riders pay per trip with a Key card or the now rarely used tokens, according to SEPTA’s most recent revenue report. Passes are used to pay for 38 percent of trips.
Thirty-three percent of SEPTA’s riders are from households earning less than $25,000 a year, according to the transit agency, and for them, the up-front costs of a Transpass —$25.50 for a weekly pass and $96 for a monthly one — can be too expensive. The disadvantage to the poor is exacerbated by SEPTA’s offering the $1 transfer fee only to people who hold Key cards. Since paper transfers were eliminated last year, anyone without a Key card must pay full price, $2.50, to take a second leg of a transit trip.
“It absolutely flies in the face of equity,” said City Councilwoman Helen Gym. “It’s going to hit low-income riders who struggle and want access.”
It discourages riders like Rossana Jaffe, 46. It’s a 15-minute walk from her home to the Frankford Transportation Center. A bus would take just five minutes, she said, but she won’t take one because of the transfer fee.
If she’s going to Center City with her husband and four children, she said, transfer fees make the short bus trip an extra $6 each way.
“We’re sometimes walking in the rain. We’re walking in the cold," she said. “Because $6, nope, we’re not doing that.”
Providing better transit access is seen by city officials as the best weapon against street congestion, since it could get people out of private vehicles and improve job access. Those advocating for eliminating transfer fees argue the change will attract enough new riders to make up for the money lost without the transfer fees. SEPTA’s ridership would increase by about 11 percent, a 2012 Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission report found, without transfer charges.
SEPTA, which has lost millions of passenger trips a year recently, is concerned the ridership bump may not happen. SEPTA has said previously that eliminating transfer fees could be accompanied by a fare increase, though in a recent interview Burnfield would not commit to a fare increase next year.
So far, city officials have described transfer fees as under negotiation. As a decision nears, others may be forceful in pushing for change. The city contributes $89.6 million to SEPTA’s $1.5 billion operating budget, noted Lance Haver, policy director of Pennsylvania Save Our Safety Net Coalition. The group, which advocates for government social services, wants the city to take a more aggressive approach to ending transfer fees.
“All the city had to do was veto the budget,” he said. “The city has this tremendous leverage over SEPTA.”
Gym, who has been Council’s most outspoken critic of SEPTA, wouldn’t commit to threatening SEPTA’s funding, but said she wanted to see city government play a stronger oversight role on transit.
“As the public continues to see extreme congestion in and around the city and also a dearth of public transit options in other parts of the city,” Gym said, “we’re going to need to pay a lot more attention to the direction and vision around public transit in our city.”