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SEPTA’s fare restructuring can help replace flawed in-person hearings with fair public input | Opinion

If SEPTA does this right, other public agencies can learn from its improved communications.

A passenger wears a mask on a SEPTA Market-Frankford Line train going westbound on Friday, March 27, 2020. SEPTA has postponed its fare restructuring process due to the coronavirus.
A passenger wears a mask on a SEPTA Market-Frankford Line train going westbound on Friday, March 27, 2020. SEPTA has postponed its fare restructuring process due to the coronavirus.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

The coronavirus crisis presents SEPTA and other public agencies with the chance to reform how it performs engagement with the public for the better. By expanding engagement to electronic polling, phone, and mail surveys, SEPTA could provide a modern model that better captures public sentiment.

Last week, SEPTA had to scrap its plans to hold traditional public hearings on their fare restructuring plan — which would reduce fares for children, provide one free transfer, and offer a three-day convenience pass — because of social distancing. Instead, they initially proposed holding four virtual hearings. Now those are postponed as well, for “at least 30 days.”

Some are advocating for delaying any decision until this crisis passes, waiting for the day when we can resume traditional public hearings. But public hearings are already inadequate. Previous SEPTA fare hearings, for example, have seen dismal turnout of only the impassioned few who can turn out to these weekday meetings. We need to dismantle the assumption that such hearings are more democratic.

In-person meetings, by their very nature, limit participation to those who have the luxury of time and physical mobility to attend them. People have busy lives and can’t always dedicate the hours to participate. They have families to feed and children to raise. Many have nontraditional work hours, and some have disabilities that prevent them from coming.

Researchers from Boston University’s Housing Politics Lab recently published a book that exposes the inherent flaws with the model of community meetings. They found that neighborhood meeting participants are demographically unrepresentative of their broader communities. Compared with the average resident, attendees are more likely to be white, older, and homeowners. As a result, such meetings exacerbate existing political inequalities.

It’s not good enough to simply shift traditional meetings online. We would be falling into the same trap as the older model, leaving many voices behind given the digital divide between those with stable internet access and those without.

It is critical that SEPTA hear from a proportional sample of riders — from all demographics, not just from higher-income riders. This will require work.

The agency needs to prioritize who their customers and potential customers are, and make efforts to reach them directly for input. Public processes cannot rely on any one method, but instead must be well-rounded, allowing the public multiple options for input.

A concerted public outreach effort through multiple channels — including focus groups, electronic polling, phone and mail surveys — would ensure more voices are heard, and more people are able to submit feedback on their own time.

These hearings should become a forum for active two-way dialogue between senior management and the riding public, rather than a stage-managed video presentation.

SEPTA needs to engage with feedback and explain how input is being incorporated into revised tariffs and budgets. Learning and adopting best practices from peer agencies would help greatly in this effort.

While SEPTA’s proposed fare plan isn’t perfect — my political action committee, 5th Square, is advocating to make it better — it’s an improvement to the status quo, and needs to be deliberated and ratified sooner than later. Given the agency’s dire financial outlook due to the coronavirus crisis, the longer the delay, the worse the deal will be for our region’s riders.

» READ MORE: How the coronavirus is impacting the Philly region

SEPTA’s fare restructuring plan promises to shift the system to be more affordable, equitable, and efficient. Its proposal to reduce fares for children, provide one free transfer, and offer a three-day convenience pass would be beneficial for many in our region, especially at this time with unemployment rates soaring.

The plan begins to mitigate one of the system’s biggest inequities: the transfer penalty. Heeding the calls of the Mayor’s Office, many in Philadelphia City Council, and activists like us at 5th Square, it would reduce costs for riders in poverty, riders with lengthy commutes, and children and minority residents.

This is a breath of fresh air from an agency with a history of across-the-board fare hikes with little consideration for fairness. The fare restructuring will also be critical to restoring ridership after the coronavirus crisis while providing much-needed relief to its most financially burdened riders. This cannot happen soon enough.

Now is the time to get this done.

We can’t let this crisis get the better of us as a society and freeze all actions that require public input. Elections must go on, dangerous roads still need redesign, housing still needs permitting, and transit fare plans still need approval.

We at 5th Square are excited by this prospect of broadening engagement to those who cannot make public meetings — and urge all of our municipal agencies to follow suit.

As this crisis changes every element of our daily life, this push to truly democratize the public process can be a positive one.

Dena Ferrara Driscoll is the chair of 5th Square, a statewide PAC focused on issues around land use, mobility, and the built environment. She lives in South Philadelphia with her family. @bikemamadelphia