Proposed SEPTA hikes draw fire

A SEPTA buse drives down Market Street in Center City, Philadelphia.

An across-the-board fare increase proposed for SEPTA drew a wave of criticism during public hearings Monday.

Speakers at morning and evening sessions at SEPTA's Market Street headquarters worried about the effect the fare increase would have on the poor and senior citizens and said city transit riders were bearing the brunt of the costs.

The urban activist group 5th Square asked for an end to $1 transfer fees and has gathered 1,193 signatures petitioning for the cause. And the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers (DVARP) lambasted SEPTA's smart card, SEPTA Key, saying that even as its rollout progresses, it is still failing to live up to its promise.

The fare increases affect all of SEPTA's modes and payment systems, with a 25-cent increase planned for a single ride on city transit. If approved, they would go into effect July 1. The period for information to be entered into the record about the fare increase ends Monday.

SEPTA, meanwhile, says the fare increase, which was supposed to happen last year but was delayed to make the Key card rollout easier, is necessary for the authority to fulfill its funding obligations. SEPTA is projecting a 1 percent ridership decline in the coming fiscal year, the third straight year with such a drop.

Lower gas prices and competition from ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft are playing a role in the drop, and SEPTA expects to build a campaign to boost ridership around the Key card, said Rich Burnfield, SEPTA's deputy general manager and treasurer.

But Key has its problems. Along with an unwieldy card-dispenser system and a confusing website, Matt Mitchell, of the DVARP, said there are signs that the system can't deliver everything SEPTA needs it to do.

He noted that SEPTA has quietly decided senior fares on Regional Rail will disappear when Key goes online for the railroad. SEPTA has eliminated existing surcharges as Key has been introduced to city transit, he said, and criticized a proposed tariff to increase the cost of transferring from PATCO to SEPTA while paying with the PATCO-issued Freedom card.

"Customers are now relying on the system as their primary means of fare payment," Mitchell said. "So 'we're working on it' is no longer an acceptable response when problems with fare policies are found."

Another speaker, Lance Haver, Philadelphia City Council's civic engagement officer, was concerned about the $10 minimum SEPTA requires to not just buy a Key card, but for every subsequent cash reload, saying it put the city's poor at a disadvantage. He also showed a chart that demonstrated the fare increase disproportionately affected city transit riders. A token would cost 10 cents more under the new system, an 11.1 percent increase, while a monthly pass for zone three would increase by 6.75 percent.

SEPTA officials argued that they raised fares in a way that was roughly the same amount across modes, rather than looking at percent increases, and said city transit had the largest percent increase because it was, and remains, the cheapest fare on the system.

Officials, said, though, they would revisit the $10 minimum for buying and reloading a Key card.

The elimination of transfer fees won't happen this year, Burnfield said, and probably will not be revisited until 2019.

Michael Noda, a transportation expert speaking for 5th Square, noted that SEPTA got only $12 million in revenue from transfer fees, about 2 percent of its total revenue. A Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission report found ridership would increase 11 percent if transfer fees ended. "This penalty is a relic of an earlier time," Noda said. "It introduces inequity that discourages ridership."

jlaughlin@philly.com 215-854-4587