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Port Authority’s Fare Hike To $2.75 Could Actually Reduce Costs For Many Riders, But Not All

Ryan Loew
90.5 WESA

After more than two years of review, the Port Authority of Allegheny County proposed fare modifications for some, but those changes are unlikely to help the county’s poorest riders. If approved, the price of a trip would go up by 25 cents, to $2.75, for ConnectCard users. Transfer fees, meanwhile, would be eliminated.Under the proposal, when a ConnectCard user taps the farebox the clock would start on a pass to allow unlimited rides within a three-hour window. In addition, weekly, monthly and annual passes would become rolling. Instead of starting on a certain day, regardless of when a rider purchased it, the pass would begin counting down when the person began to use it.

The current structure requires ConnectCard users to pay $2.50 to board the bus or train, and then $1 to transfer. Cash customers pay $2.75 every time they ride, because Port Authority began to phase out paper transfers in 2015.   

CEO Katharine Kelleman said the agency’s aim in reviewing the fare structure was not to increase or decrease the price of transit, but to ask “what could we do to make it easier for passengers to be able to interact with us?”    

Getting rid of transfers means roughly $1 million in lost revenue each year, but Kelleman said the cost is mostly offset by operational efficiencies. That means it’s an easier recommendation to present to the agency’s board, but it’s just the right thing to do, she said.

“We absolutely know from our data that the folks who are paying for transfers are our lowest-income patron group,” she said.   

That’s precisely what worries Laura Chu Wiens, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Pittsburghers for Public Transit, which launced its "Fair Fares" campaign in 2020.  

“I think that free transfers are good, that’s definitely a huge improvement,” she said. “But there are many, many people that are also left out.”

The people who pay the most for transit “are the poorest residents of Allegheny County,” said Chu Wiens.

Eight percent of Port Authority riders pay in cash, and will not be able to avail themselves of free transfers; they will continue to pay $2.75 every time they board a new bus. Chu Wiens said that’s compounded by the fact that the agency did not recommend a dramatic increase in ConnectCard machines, which could make it easier for cash users to save. Nor did agency officials recommend fare-capping, where riders “unlock” a weekly or monthly pass when they’ve paid its cost in single trips. She noted that many people never have the lump sum needed to buy a pass, and so end up paying more than they would otherwise.

Kelleman said the recommendations made to the finance committee on Thursday are not the end of possible changes, “but we really wanted to focus this conversation now on what would be some immediate improvements for people.”

To simultaneously initiate rolling passes and fare capping would be time- and cash-intensive, she said. Her hope is that the current proposal will help achieve similar ends, but if it becomes clear they’re missing a lot of people, they will reopen the question.

Kelleman also acknowledged they need to figure out how to help cash riders, and will be looking for feedback in the coming weeks.

Port Authority’s board will meet next Friday and decide whether to open a 40-day public comment period on the proposed changes. If approved, they would likely take effect in July.

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Margaret J. Krauss is WESA’s senior reporter. She covers development and transportation, and has produced award-winning podcasts on housing, work, and Pittsburgh’s lesser-known history. Before joining the newsroom full time, she covered the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities as a statewide reporter, and spent another life as an assistant editor for National Geographic Kids Magazine in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at mkrauss@wesa.fm.