SEPTA riders face big changes starting July 1

Posted: March 15, 2013

SEPTA riders will face sweeping changes starting July 1.

First, fares will go up.

Then, by the end of the year, new "smart" cards will replace tokens, passes, and transfers on subways, buses, and trolleys.

After that, Regional Rail travel will be transformed by subway-style gates in Center City stations, electronic card-readers in the suburbs, and new fare zones everywhere.

Gender designations on passes will be eliminated.

The cashiers who now sit in subway booths will emerge from behind the glass, retrained as "customer attendants" to help riders use the new fare cards.

More than 200 high-tech vending machines will be installed in subway stations and bus terminals to sell the new smart cards, as well as one-day magnetic-strip tickets for occasional riders.

"We will have to do a huge outreach on all this," acknowledged chief financial officer Richard Burnfield. "It's going to take a lot of education, marketing, and information about the new changes that are coming."

SEPTA will hold a series of hearings about the changes next month in Philadelphia and the four suburban counties.

After many years of false starts and delays, SEPTA's $200 million smart-card system is to go into use late this year, bringing the biggest change to public transit in the Philadelphia region since the opening of the Center City tunnel in 1984.

Riders will tap a card on an electronic reader that will automatically deduct the fare. They will be able to use any "contactless" bank card or SEPTA's own chip-equipped card. Some MasterCard and Visa cards are already contactless, with a miniature computer chip and antenna inside, and millions more are being issued each year.

Even some smartphones will be able to pay SEPTA fares.

SEPTA's new system will be one of the first in the country to use an open-fare design instead of a "closed" system that accepts only cards issued by the transit authority.

SEPTA expects the fare hikes will generate about $25 million in new revenue, but that would still leave a $38 million hole in its $1.4 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. SEPTA is seeking additional state funding to fill the gap.

New fares on July 1

The proposed fare increases are scheduled to take effect July 1 if approved by the SEPTA board. A second round of changes, tied to the full implementation of the smart-card system, is to take effect around July 1, 2014.

The proposed fare increases will be SEPTA's first in three years. SEPTA has been warning it would hike fares in 2013 ever since it last boosted them in 2010. Predictable, smaller increases are better, SEPTA officials maintain, than infrequent big hikes.

The proposed increase would hike the cost of a cash bus, subway, or trolley fare to $2.25. The fare has been $2 since 2000, although most riders pay less because they use passes or tokens. The cash fare would rise again, to $2.50, when the new system is fully in place.

The cost of a weekly bus and subway pass would go up 11 percent, to $24.50 from the current $22. The cost of a monthly transit pass would also go up 11 percent, to $92 from the current $83.

The cost of a monthly Zone 3 rail pass would go up 5 percent, to $163 from $155, and the cost of a Zone 4 pass would go up 9 percent, to $191 from $176.

(Zone 3 includes stations such as Jenkintown, Cornwells Heights, Fort Washington, Norristown, and Media. Zone 4 reaches as far as Langhorne, Warminster, Paoli, and Wilmington.)

A token would cost $1.80, up 16 percent from the current $1.55, but tokens would be eliminated when the smart-card system is fully installed on the bus, subway, and trolley lines in 2014.

Transfers will not be available for riders who don't use smart cards, so those riders will have to pay full fare for each leg of a trip.

Bus and subway passes will no longer be valid for weekday Regional Rail travel, which could more than double the transportation costs for Philadelphia International Airport employees who take the train to and from work. Currently, those Transpasses are valid for airport trains.

For senior citizens, free bus and subway rides and $1 train rides would only be available with the presentation of a state-issued photo identification card, such as a Pennsylvania driver's license.

Zones to shift

On July 1, under the current plan, Regional Rail fare zones will change, with the current seven reduced to six. Zone 5, which includes distant suburban stations such as Yardley, Doylestown, Malvern, and Downingtown, would be eliminated.

About 40 of SEPTA's 150 rail stations would shift zones, with about half being bumped to higher-priced zones.

The Center City rail zone will only include five stations: Suburban, 30th Street, Market East, Temple University, and University City.

Rail passengers will face major changes in their commuting routines, with entrance gates in Center City and a need for each passenger to electronically register on every trip. The new fare zones will make matters worse, said a passenger advocates' group.

"The last time SEPTA proposed something like this, they failed to do any analysis of how it would affect station-by-station ridership, parking availability, and riders coming in [to other stations] to get a lower fare," said Matthew Mitchell, head of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers.

"It's another awful side effect of their fixation on putting turnstiles in the Center City stations."

SEPTA will roll out a 30-day test of its new fare system this summer involving only some employees of SEPTA and system designer Xerox.

Another 30-day pilot program will be conducted during the fall with a handful of real riders chosen to try out the new equipment in a few locations.

Following a 30-day evaluation period, the public will begin to use the system during the winter as SEPTA first replaces half of its subway turnstiles with the new equipment, to allow riders to shift slowly from old to new.

By spring 2014, all 386 new turnstiles and 121 handicapped-accessible fare gates are to be in place in subway stations and 1,852 readers will be installed near fare boxes on buses and trolleys.

To start, SEPTA will get 1.2 million smart-cards and 13 million magnetic-strip tickets for single rides.

Hearings on all the changes and on SEPTA's proposed new operating budget are scheduled for these locations:  

Delaware County: April 15, 2 and 6 p.m. Delaware County Courthouse, 201 W. Front St., Media.  

Montgomery County: April 16, 2 and 6 p.m. Montgomery County Human Service Center, 1430 DeKalb Pike, Norristown.  

Philadelphia: April 17, 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. SEPTA Board Room, 1234 Market St.  

Chester County: April 19, 2 and 6 p.m. West Chester Borough Hall, 401 E. Gay St.  

Bucks County: April 22, 2 and 6 p.m. Bucks County Free Library, 150 S. Pine St., Doylestown.


Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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