That not only hurts the agency’s operating revenue (Port Authority gets about 25% of its revenue from fares), it also likely endangers future state funding increases since Pennsylvania allocates transit funding bases on increased passenger count.
But the transit advocates at Pittsburghers for Public Transit (PPT) believe they have some solutions to combat the problem, and it actually might involve reducing fares.
According to a new report from PPT, an emergency low-income fare program could allow Port Authority to quickly regain 9% of its ridership. PPT’s low-income fare program proposes allowing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)-eligible residents to show their cards when boarding in lieu of fare payment, and notes how some other agencies across the country, like in Los Angeles and Detroit, have continued to allow riders to ride for free.
“While we understand that transit funding is in crisis, we believe that the remedy is not to extract fare revenue off the backs of those who can least afford to pay,” the report argues. “Passing an emergency low-income fare program is a needed public health intervention for the region’s most vulnerable residents, and is an important first step towards addressing Port Authority’s own COVID-19 ridership crisis.”
From March 25 to June 8, Port Authority didn’t collect fares on buses, since riders were only boarding through the rear doors.
Here’s Bonnie Fan! 🌟 @bonniefantastic🌟All-star PPT Coordinating Comm Member and Ph.D. Candidate at Carnegie Mellon University. Bonnie explains some of data behind the report: that a low-income fare prgm can bring back 9% of ridership if implemented now. #CovidFareReliefNow! pic.twitter.com/1EgvVShYBk— PGHers for Public Transit (@Pgh4PubTransit) September 22, 2020
The report lays out two proposals that PPT believes will lead to increased ridership, even during the pandemic. One is the low-income fare program and the other is readjusting service priorities to better serve the people who are actually riding now. Basically, cut service to commuter routes that serve upper and middle income areas (since many of those workers are working remote and have not needed to travel) and boost service to low-income areas (since those riders still have to work in person in the service, hospital, or cleaning industries).
This discrepancy is highlighted in the report. According to a national rider survey from 2017, more than 20% of riders made more than 100,000 a year. And a COVID-19 survey from this year shows that the number of wealthy riders declined greatly, just as riders who make less than 15,000 a year increased from about 20% to about 35% of all riders.
In Allegheny County, transit riders have always been disproportionately low-income and disproportionately Black.
Using Port Authority ridership data, the report shows that routes that travel through predominantly Black neighborhoods like Homewood and the Hill District saw a decrease in ridership after full-fares were instituted in June.
recently readjust routes to better serve those riders who have been using the public-system during COVID, a move that was celebrated by PPT.
Port Authority spokesperson Adam Brandolph told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the authority is open to a program for low-income riders and was pursuing such a program, but has worries about the cost of a program.
“There are a lot of questions about the future of public transit funding, especially here in Pennsylvania, and keeping our system intact is our number one concern. We cannot do that with less revenue,” said Brandolph to the P-G.