Fair Fares?

 

A friend who lives and works in the city texted me:

Please explain why the port authority would reduce zone 2 suburbanite fares??? $3.75 doesn’t cover the cost right now. When will they start sharing the costs of working in the city??? What are they going to do start driving?

She was reacting—maybe over-reacting, maybe not—to the Port Authority’s recent proposal to change the county’s fare structure. Under the new structure, Zone 2 fares would be reduced from $3.75, as it now stands, to $2.50, which is currently the cost of a ride anywhere within the city of Pittsburgh and the near suburbs. Of course it is unheard of for a public utility or public service to reduce its charges to the customer, so maybe we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

A recent letter to the editor in the Post-Gazette jarred me back to my senses. The author faulted the thinking that the Port Authority’s “mission is to provide OK public transit to those who can’t afford cars—college students and the urban poor.”  That stands in the way, the author argues, of our getting “world-class transit.”

Of course anyone who has followed our Port Authority knows that its executives truly want a “world-class transit” and they seldom let the obstacles of class and race stand in the way—the poor, the elderly, the disabled, low-income workers, and minorities are not a factor in their goals.

My friend is right. Subsiding suburbanites and the urban gentry has been a constant in Port Authority planning. A Mt. Lebanon resident working in the city and choosing to forego the current PAT option would incur truly onerous parking rates downtown on top of the fuel and maintenance of an automobile; the current T fare ($3.75) is not merely a bargain, but an overly generous subsidy. Moreover, PAT has provided suburbanites with 49 costly- maintenance park-n- ride lots (8,700 spaces are free) to entice suburbanites to avail themselves of these subsidized fares.

Similarly, the $3.75 (28X) city/airport bus is a hyper-bargain when compared to the alternatives: cabs or UBER ($30-40). There is simply no rational, economically efficient basis for the vast difference between the Port Authority fare and the cost of other options. Clearly, the 28X is a massive subsidy for those who fly frequently, those of a more elevated economic status.

And the downtown fare changes reflect the same preferential treatment for the non-city residents. Surface buses—formerly free for travel throughout downtown– will be charged $2.50 under the new scheme while travel between downtown T stations and through the tunnel to the North Shore will remain free. Free surface buses were of benefit to “college students and the urban poor,” to quote our unnamed letter writer, a benefit that they and others will lose.  Free T and tunnel service are of benefit to those going to and from the South Hills suburbs and those parking on the North Shore or attending entertainment or sporting events (Not surprisingly, the region’s biggest freeloader, the Pittsburgh Steelers, has stopped paying a subsidy for the free T rides to the stadium, though the PAT website still thanks them!). Unspoken is the fact that no one would ride the downtown and connector T if she or he had to pay, testament to the irrationality of these construction boondoggles.

It is a not-too-hidden secret that politicians, developers, and the foundation fuehrers have floated the idea that PAT redirect downtown buses to the periphery or to the North Shore in order to drive “undesireables”—the poor and minorities—from street corner bus stops so as not to offend the sensibilities of downtown condo owners. The downtown fare strategy reeks of that strategy.

Going forward, the Port Authority plans to charge a $.25 surcharge on cash customers in order to encourage the use of Connect cards. Did it escape the PAT executives and the Post-Gazette editorial writers who hailed the new fare structure that many of the urban cash customers are financially strapped and unable to take advantage of fare discounts available for Connect card users? Do they ever ride the bus and see who pays cash? Did it occur to them that offering a means-tested subsidy might be more socially responsible rather than placing an added burden on those least able to shoulder it?

Suburbanites get the $1.25 subsidy, the cash-reliant rider without the means to secure a Connect card suffers a surcharge! And $1.00 transfers are gone for cash customers as well; they must pay $2.50 to change buses.

So why has the frequently cash-strapped PAT management decided to give up an estimated $4.4 million in annual fare revenue in order to sweeten its already generous subsidy of the urban gentry and the suburbanites?

The answer lies in a report commissioned and issued in May of 2014 by the Urban Land Institute. PAT CEO McLean praised the $125,000 study (not surprisingly, since she used to work for the ULI) which outlined a series of reforms to “improve” the area’s transit.

Now the ULI previously inspired Mayor Murphy’s $4 billion failed effort to revitalize downtown as a retail business magnet (a program that threatens to arise again!). As a result, he was rewarded with the appointment of senior resident fellow for the ULI. The Institute is noted for channeling public funds into private projects, a challenge that Murphy enthusiastically embraced.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the ULI study endorsed the latest PAT boondoggle, the BRT. It also urged PAT to “focus more on transit-oriented real estate development” and to contract out service during peak times or nights (incipient privatization). Also in the game plan was the predictable acknowledgement of the “New Pittsburgh” fetish: “appeal to millennials” and make bus stops readily available to bike riders.

And, of course, it recommended that PAT simplify bus zone fares.

But understanding that this would come at a cost, the study also recommended that PAT charge a fee for park-n-ride, a change that would generate an estimated $3 million or more annually and radically reduce the revenue loss from the fare restructuring. PAT chose to ignore this recommendation.

While fare cuts to the far suburbs may benefit some low income riders, as local politicos like to repeat, there is every reason to believe that the PAT vision of enticing more affluent suburban riders is failing and will fail. For two decades, transit ridership nationally has grown twice as fast as the population. Allegheny County has not enjoyed that growth. While there are many reasons for this, the recent cut backs in service certainly play a big role in the latest ridership stagnation and loss. But lessons can be drawn from the restoration of many routes. PAT figures show that added trips and route restoration of 12 largely urban Zone 1 routes accounted for nearly all of the growth after funding was restored (Post-Gazette, March 14, 2015).  Does this not suggest that further improving services in the city and near suburbs might reap immediate and solid ridership rewards? And doesn’t this suggest that continuing to incentivize the more affluent suburban communities has impacted ridership very little?

Sitting on a $11.3 million budget surplus, PAT might give some thought to dispensing with glitz and incentives for the affluent and focusing on plain vanilla services: more routes, more buses, and more bus drivers. And maybe a little something for the workers who sacrificed their wages and benefits to put the system back on a sound footing.

–Greg Godels

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3 thoughts on “Fair Fares?

  1. Do you think there is any value in removing the perception that the bus is for poor people? We have to depend on the votes of suburbanites for PAT funding. If a lot of them think of this as a public subsidy to the urban poor, aren’t they less likely to support it?

    I’m not disagreeing with your premise — I’m very wary of everything going on in the region designed to appeal to relatively wealthy people — but I do think this is an important question for the sustainability of the transit system.

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  2. Lowering the fares to the suburbs won’t change the perception that public transit service is another “welfare” program; people who are prone to think that way aren’t guided by logic. It would make sense if the rationale for lowering the fares was to reduce the number of cars coming to the city, but as the author points out saving $2.50 a day isn’t going to motivate anyone of means to make this change.

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  3. I like the idea of means tested subsidy. It could work, but it will be a cold day in Hades before any leader in Pittsburgh puts it forward. Doesn’t fit the “New Pittsburgh” propaganda as Godels observes.

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