SEPTA’s plan to restructure fares includes partial elimination of its contested transfer fee and a hike for Travel Wallet riders come July.
In changes announced Wednesday, riders using the SEPTA Key, the authority’s smart fare card, would pay $2.50 for a single ride, up from the now-discounted $2. Cash rides and Quick Trips would remain $2.50. The first transfer would be free for Key users — though not for cash riders — to make travel more efficient and cost-effective for low-income riders.
Kids ages 5 to 11 would ride for $1 across SEPTA under the proposal, a change from a full $2.50 cash fare on transit and half the regular fare on Regional Rail. A new three-day “Convenience Pass” designed for shift workers and commuters with flexible work schedules is in the plan. Regional Rail riders would see increases in the cost of monthly and weekly passes.
The restructuring is an effort to address affordability and equity concerns, SEPTA general manager Leslie Richards said.
“We all see it as the future of SEPTA and the future of transit," Richards said. “We have a very special moment here to help provide opportunities for every single rider.”
The proposal is meant to give options, whether it’s the new pass that would be valid for 72 hours after initial use, or continue with pay-per-ride feature in the Key’s Travel Wallet function, said Rich Burnfield, SEPTA’s treasurer and deputy general manager.
Richards stressed that riders would need a Key card to take advantage of the benefits of the restructuring. Now, 1.5 million cards are in circulation, with around four million taps from riders a week. SEPTA sees about a million daily riders across transit and Regional Rail.
The free first transfer won’t extend to cash riders, but Richards said the authority “worked very hard” to freeze cash costs at the $2.50 base fare. Around 13 percent of transit riders use cash, according to a SEPTA-commissioned report from Econsult Solutions Inc. that looked at the proposal’s equity impacts.
“Anyone who wants to help us find a solution to move our current cash riders over to Key so that they can take advantage, we are open to it," Richards said.
SEPTA will take comments from the public on the proposal in 10 meetings — two in each county — scheduled from April 20 until April 27. SEPTA’s board will vote on the proposal in May, and if approved, changes would take effect July 1.
Econsult’s study, which calls the restructuring “significantly progressive,” also found that under the changes, lower-income residents would spend a smaller share of their income on fares over the next three years than they did over the last three years.
The restructuring is likely to change riders’ behavior, said Ethan Conner-Ross, vice president and associate principal at Econsult Solutions. For example, a free transfer could incentivize riders to take a bus and the Market-Frankford Line, rather than a direct route on the MFL that requires a long walk. SEPTA’s revamp of its bus network is expected to increase transfers.
“There are a lot of potential long-term benefits this could unlock that are above and beyond this kind of direct cost that we have reflected here,” Conner-Ross said.
Calls to end SEPTA’s $1 transfer fee aren’t new, but they have been louder lately as SEPTA readied its proposal. The request came up from advocates and City Council members at SEPTA’s February board meeting and last week at the launch of the region’s new transit advocacy coalition, Transit Forward Philadelphia. It’s a position the city also supported in a strategic transportation plan released in 2018.
A disparity highlighted in a Pew Charitable Trusts study released last year that said SEPTA’s fares ranks among the most expensive in U.S. cities. The $2.50 base costs may be comparatively cheap, but transfers add up for poorer riders who may not own a car and rely on multiple routes.
Councilmembers Helen Gym and Jamie Gauthier have both positioned themselves as transportation advocates, calling for the elimination of transfer fees. Both painted SEPTA’s decision to propose a free transfer as a positive step forward.
“That being said, there’s still more that can be done to make our transit system equitable,” Gauthier said in a statement. “Most glaringly, the new policy fails to address the fact that riders using cash for their trip must pay an additional full fare if they wish to take more than one route.”
Gym called for free rides for children ages 11 and under, and said she will be in discussion to see “what it will take to make that a reality.”
SEPTA expects to generate $16 million in new annual revenue from the proposed changes, less than the about $25 million it would see from a typical fare increase.
“We have to tighten our belts a little bit to make sure that we have all the efficiencies that can get out of our system," said Tom McFadden, SEPTA’s chief financial officer, “and so that we can continue to maintain service and perhaps even increase service going forward, which is really what our goal is.”
SEPTA last saw a fare increase in 2017 and has a schedule of increasing costs every three years. The agency has a $1.49 billion operating budget for fiscal year 2020 and is expected to unveil an operating proposal for the coming year later this month. The transfer fee brings in at least $14 million annually, about 3% of passenger revenue.
“The benefits are accruing in both time and money," said Erik Johanson, director of business innovation at SEPTA, "and so I think it’s important to note that this is a game-changer for our customers.”
The plan was well-received by transit advocates, including 5th Square, an urbanist political action committee that has led a years-long campaign to end transfer fees. The group, which applauded Richards at Wednesday’s news conference, called the changes “a huge step forward." It noted it would continue to advocate for two or more free transfers moving forward.
Tomika Anglin, Councilmember Kendra Brooks’ chief of staff and a member of SEPTA’s Citizen Advisory Committee, noted the Travel Wallet base increase, coupled with the children’s fare reduction and free first transfer, is “a good balance.”
“This might be a way that SEPTA’s trying to push people obviously to use the Travel Wallet," said Yasha Zarrinkelk, Transit Forward Philadelphia’s organizer, "but there are people who just might not feel comfortable using a card, or don’t have access to a bank account, or are just used to using cash.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.