SEPTA is further delaying fare hikes for riders until July 1, a move approved by its board Thursday both to provide financial relief to passengers during the COVID-19 pandemic and to incentivize travel on the system that faces depressed ridership for the foreseeable future.
The authority, which has a schedule of increasing costs every three years, proposed a fare restructuring plan in March that boosted the SEPTA Key’s base fare from $2 to $2.50, and increased prices of monthly and weekly passes for Regional Rail and transit riders. It also made SEPTA Key riders’ first transfer free. Changes were to take effect July 1 last summer, the start of the authority’s fiscal year.
But as the COVID-19 pandemic wore on and unemployment and financial uncertainty rose, SEPTA postponed increases until at least January. Further tweaks to the plan allowed for children to ride for free across the system and gave SEPTA Key Travel Wallet users more time to take advantage of the free transfer.
With the new year approaching, SEPTA Board Chairman Pasquale T. “Pat” Deon Sr. said last month that he would ask members to push the timeline back during its December session. The recommendation was made “to support the region in its recovery and as an incentive to grow ridership” as COVID-19 cases rise, according to a staff summary of the fare deferral.
“This is really about not trying to add to the financial burdens that people are experiencing, so that’s the overwhelming driving factor,” SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch said. “We think it shows that we continue to be responsive to the needs of riders, to the needs of the region and what people are going through.”
The authority’s ridership has fallen steeply during the pandemic, and it’s unlikely figures will stabilize even as the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more widely available. Ridership on buses, trolleys, subways, and the Norristown High Speed Line is down about 65% from pre-pandemic levels, and down 85% on Regional Rail.
SEPTA estimates that it will lose $4 million by delaying fare increases for an entire fiscal year, should ridership levels stay similar to current figures through July, Busch said. The staff summary of the deferral noted “the financial impact of this change is expected to be limited in scale” while SEPTA “will continue to utilize CARES Act funding to offset passenger revenue shortfall throughout the remainder of fiscal year 2021.”
“When weighing the potential benefits of a little bit of increased revenue versus the impact that it might have on riders,” Busch said, “it was decided the best course of action would be to extend [the deferral] for another six months, and then we’ll reevaluate in the spring.”
SEPTA expected to generate $16 million in new annual revenue from the changes proposed in March, less than about $25 million it would see from a typical fare increase, the authority said at the time. The transfer fee had brought in at least $14 million annually, around 3% of passenger revenue.
The authority received $644 million in CARES Act funding. The federal relief will support the authority through the end of next year, SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards said last week. SEPTA is considering service cuts, layoffs, and fare increases without additional relief to stem COVID-19-related losses as well as long-term solutions to remedy funding challenges it faced before the pandemic.