What is NEXTransit?
NEXTransit is Port Authority’s 25-year long-range plan. This is the first public planning document that Port Authority has developed in decades, and it will impact their policy and infrastructure priorities for the foreseeable future. In this final NEXTransit draft (p.38), Port Authority names fare affordability as the 2nd most highly ranked policy or program for them to pursue.
But that’s good news, right?
Well, it’s good that the Port Authority finally acknowledges that fare affordability must be a top priority, after years of advocacy and organizing by riders, social service organizations and businesses raising this demand. However, it’s deeply concerning that the Port Authority doesn’t actually propose any solutions, nor any investment to evaluate or plan to make fares more affordable. This is also coming on the heels of a decision to raise the base fare for CONNECT card users by 10% alongside the implementation of a CONNECT card free transfer policy.
It is also concerning that Port Authority’s top values stated in the Affordable Fares section reads: “Creating an affordable fare policy that is tailored to the transit agency is crucial to increasing and maintaining ridership in balance with revenue.”
We would say instead, “Creating an affordable fare policy is crucial to ensuring access to critical needs and employment for Allegheny County’s most vulnerable individuals. Port Authority is a public agency that should not be generating the bulk of their fare revenue off the backs of those who can least afford to pay.”
What is our call and the history of the fares advocacy?
In the NEXTransit draft, Port Authority says that public input around fares included “a broad, general push for continued and further efforts to support low-income riders.” (Italics added)
But the truth is that riders have actually been VERY SPECIFIC about the types of changes that they want to see. For years, thousands of riders and dozens of organizations have pushed for concrete policies to address fare affordability, yet none of these policies are reflected in the action items that the plan outlines.
To make it crystal clear to the Port Authority, here are the policies that riders and organizations have been asking for in the Fair Fares for a Full Recovery Campaign, with more than 45 organizational supporters, in the #FairFares Policy Platform, and in the Make Our Fares Fair Campaign:
- We need a fare relief program pilot for low-income riders to weather the pandemic, and that this pilot should be used to evaluate the need and effectiveness of a long-term low-income fare program.
- We need a more equitable fare for cash riders, who are the lowest-income users of the system, with the least access to CONNECT card machines and highest likelihood to have to transfer to get to critical destinations. As a result, cash riders are paying nearly double what other riders have to pay, and that gross disparity in costs is completely by design.
- We need fare capping, to ensure that low-income riders are not paying more than the cost of a weekly, monthly, or yearly bus pass in single-use rides, simply because they never have enough money on hand at any given moment to pay for the full cost of a bus pass up front. In fact, Port Authority’s recent fare consultant report is particularly damning on this front: it finds that the projected fare revenue loss for Port Authority for implementing fare capping is $4-10 million dollars. To put it another way, this is a $4-$10 Million Dollar annual poor tax that low-income people are paying ON TOP of the cost of a bus pass, simply because they cannot afford to pay the full cost of a bus pass all at one time.
The NEXTransit plan needs to document the steps the agency can take towards making them a reality. The success of the Port Authority’s system and the wellbeing of its riders depends on it.
Why are their long-term plans for fares grossly inadequate?
The NEXTransit plan includes some pretty grand plans – aerial trams from the Strip District through Oakland, Light-rail extensions to the North Hills, and brand-new downtown service stations. Afterall, as CEO Kelleman said, the NEXTransit plan is our opportunity to think big…
But this big visionary thinking gets concerningly narrow when it comes who Port Authority wants to serve.
There are critical failures in NEXTransit’s fare affordability policy recommendation (p. 38). Namely:
- There are no action items that actually increase fare affordability. They only mention increasing fare payment access and engaging in more studies.
- There is no mention of cash users, who are the lowest income riders and disproportionately harmed by Port Authority’s existing fare structure.
- Fare capping and low-income fares cannot be considered either/or solutions, because they are both needed, and they both address separate problems.
- Of the 17 total policies and programs that have been considered under the plan, of which this ranks 2nd, Port Authority does not propose any staff or any operating costs to address the issue. By contrast, they have proposed 19 other new paid staff positions and $2,280,000 in operating costs to address other policy goals, many of which did not even rank highly enough to be named in the report.
- The Port Authority is proposing to outsource a low-income fare program. We have instead been calling for low-income riders to simply be able to show their EBT cards to board for free, which would eliminate any overhead, administrative costs, or concern about difficulty accessing the program. An outsourced low-income fare program model could be good, if it were through a proven model in which another public agency like the County Human Services Department were to adopt it as part of their mandate. However, if nonprofits or businesses instead become the gatekeepers to accessing a low-income fare program, it can lead to low adoption and higher costs. And relying on philanthropic support for low-income fares rather than taxpayer funding is an inherently unstable solution.
Port Authority’s riders are already thinking big about fare policy – look no further than the #FairFares policy platform that was published Feb 2020 with dozens of policy suggestions. It is time that Port Authority follows through on their word and starts thinking big about making a more affordable system.
How can you get involved in this advocacy for fare affordability?
Public feedback is being collected on this draft plan until the end of August, so there is still an opportunity to influence it.
Review the full plan here, and use the NEXTransit website to submit your personal comment or a statement from your organization. Feel free to reference the talking points outlined in this blog.
The Port Authority has one final public meeting to collect feedback on the plan coming up on August 10th. We’re asking that all advocates join this meeting to uplift these demands:
Pittsburghers for Public Transit will also be doing outreach to riders to submit feedback. If you want to get involved in helping PPT’s Organizing Committee do some of this outreach, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org