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Proposed SEPTA changes, fare hikes criticized

A standing-room-only crowd packed SEPTA's boardroom Wednesday to criticize plans for a new electronic fare-collection system and proposed fare hikes.

A standing-room-only crowd packed SEPTA's boardroom Wednesday to criticize plans for a new electronic fare-collection system and proposed fare hikes.

Especially unpopular were planned tranfer charges, senior-citizen identification requirements, turnstiles for Regional Rail stations, trip limits on weekly and monthly passes, cost increases for paratransit services, and the elimination of bus and subway passes on weekday trains to the airport.

The Nutter administration, which has two seats on the 15-member SEPTA board, said it "has a number of serious concerns with how the [new payment technology] fare policies will impact city riders in comparison to other users and a concern that SEPTA is opting for policies that will make it more difficult, not simpler, for occasional riders to use the system."

Andrew Stober, chief of staff to deputy mayor (and SEPTA board member) Rina Cutler, urged SEPTA to change its plan for costly transfers and to continue to accept bus and subway Transpasses on the airport rail line to permit airport employees to take the train to work.

And Stober decried SEPTA's proposal to charge a full $2.50 cash fare plus a 50-cent fee for riders who use a "smart" credit card that is not registered with SEPTA.

That plan, he said, "fundamentally undermines the promise of [new payment technology] to make the SEPTA system easier to use for occasional riders and tourists, particularly those riding buses and trolleys."

The city's board members have the power to veto the SEPTA plan at next month's board meeting, but that veto could be overridden at the following monthly meeting by a three-fourths majority of the suburban-dominated board.

Lance Haver, director of the Mayor's Office of Consumer Affairs, urged that the fare hikes be rejected and that riders get a six-month grace period to use either the old or new fare-payment systems during the change-over.

About 120 people showed up for the first of two hearings Wednesday at SEPTA headquarters. It was the third day of public hearings; sessions also will be held Friday in West Chester and Monday in Doylestown.

A hearing officer, transportation attorney Joseph M. O'Malley, is conducting the sessions and will make nonbinding recommendations to the SEPTA board before it votes next month on the fare increases.

The proposed fare increase, to take effect July 1, would hike the cost of a cash bus, subway, or trolley fare to $2.25. The fare has been $2 since 2000, although most riders pay less because they use passes or tokens.

(The cash fare would rise again, to $2.50, when the new "smart card" system is fully in place next year.)

The cost of a weekly bus and subway pass would go up 11 percent on July 1, to $24.50 from the current $22. The cost of a monthly transit pass would also go up 11 percent, to $92 from the current $83.

The cost of a monthly Zone 3 rail pass would go from $155 to $163, a 5 percent increase; the cost of a Zone 4 pass would go from $176 to $191, up 9 percent.

A token would cost $1.80 on July 1, up 16 percent from the current $1.55, but tokens would be eliminated when the smart-card system is fully installed on the bus, subway, and trolley lines in 2014.

Transfers will then be unavailable for riders who do not use smart cards, so those riders will have to pay full fare for each leg of a trip.

For senior citizens, free bus and subway rides and $1 train rides would only be available with the presentation of a state-issued photo identification card, such as a driver's license.

With the new fare system, riders will tap a card on an electronic reader that will automatically deduct the fare. They will be able to use any "contactless" bank card or SEPTA's own chip-equipped card. Some MasterCard and Visa cards are already contactless, with a miniature computer chip and antenna inside, and millions more are being issued each year.

To collect rail fares, SEPTA plans to install subway-style gates in Center City stations and electronic card-readers in outlying stations.

Rail passengers roundly criticized the notion of gates and turnstiles at Wednesday's hearing.

"This turnstile thing is insane," said Alexa Obolensky, of Germantown, urging SEPTA to try a European-style honor system instead, with conductors making spot-checks to assure that fares are paid.

Willie Pollins, of Claymont, Del., said gates in Center City stations won't work well with rush-hour crowds that pour onto platforms to catch their trains.

"At rush hour, people will knock you down the steps to get to their trains," he said. "Turnstiles are crazy for Regional Rail."

The Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers called on SEPTA not to change rail zones and to withdraw the proposed fare changes linked to the new smart-card system.

That system and the new fares "have too many serious flaws, particularly for commuter rail fare collection, too many unanswered questions, and too many discrepancies to be ready for formal approval now," the passengers' group said.