It is noteworthy that city and suburban representatives on the SEPTA board were in unanimous agreement in approving the higher fares, which will take effect Sunday. The vote was 10-0. One member - David W. Marston, an appointee of the governor - was absent. There was regional consensus that raising base fares, however distasteful, was the best option available.
The increases will affect no more than 30 percent of SEPTA's riders, perhaps less than that. Seventy percent of riders currently use tokens or weekly or monthly passes, which will not increase in price. With base fares rising, there will be even greater incentive for regular riders to buy tokens or passes and get even larger savings than they do now.
Encouraging use of tokens and passes is a policy that makes sense. Security and collection costs of handling cash are reduced. Riders avoid the inconvenience of scrounging for exact change. Those who use passes (good for unlimited rides) are motivated to use public transportation for purposes other than going to and from work - such as shopping trips, dining out and visits to cultural attractions and other places of interest.
Tourists and others from out of town, as well as residents who use transit only occasionally, no doubt will continue to use the base fare. Unfortunately - and this is a matter of serious concern - the poorest of the poor also may be forced to pay the base fare because they cannot afford to buy tokens or passes. SEPTA has addressed this issue during the last two years by making tokens available in packages of five as well as 10 and increasing the number of locations where tokens can be purchased. It should do still more, perhaps in conjunction with community organizations, to make it more convenient for low-income riders to use tokens or passes.
The fare increase will generate a relatively modest $5.1 million from riders in the fiscal year beginning today, according to SEPTA estimates. But it will draw an additional $10 million from the state lottery fund to subsidize free rides for senior citizens. The amount of subsidy is determined by the base fare.
Thus the SEPTA board has increased fares in a way that will not affect most riders while increasing state aid - but it still faces a deficit of $30 million in the year ahead unless there is more assistance from Harrisburg. The House-Senate conference committee currently making budget and tax decisions should agree on substantial increases in state funding for all transit systems in Pennsylvania, most of which face deficit problems. More transit aid should have higher priority than a cut in the state income tax, for which there is no popular demand.