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Development & Transportation

Port Authority’s Fare Changes Criticized During Public Hearing

Margaret Sun
90.5 WESA

The public weighed in on proposed fare changes on Port Authority of Allegheny County buses and trains Thursday. At a virtual meeting, members of a newly-formed Fair Fares for Full Recovery Coalition criticized the changes as unhelpful to the region’s poorest riders.

The transit agency’s proposal would raise fares for ConnectCard users to $2.75; an increase of 25 cents. Transfer fees would be eliminated within a three hour window. Another change: weekly or monthly passes would be activated starting the day they’re purchased, instead of beginning the first of the month or beginning of the week.

Critics said the proposals will not improve access or affordability for cash riders who may be unable to get to a ConnectCard station frequently. Cash customers pay $2.75 every time they ride; something unchanged by the fare modifications.

More than a dozen speakers pointed to a low-income fare program proposed by Pittsburghers for Public Transit last year as something the agency should consider. The program would allow SNAP beneficiaries to present their EBT card for a free ride.

The Port Authority said such a program is unlikely, absent a permanent funding stream.

“We’re happy to see so many local organizations appreciate the vital role public transit plays in our region. Although public transit is already highly subsidized, we have been talking for some time about ways to create, administer and most importantly fund a low income fare program,” a Port Authority spokesperson said. “However, we refuse to sacrifice service or jobs without long-term dedicated funding that would be required to implement any such program.”

Members of several community organizations said public transportation costs are a barrier to accessing food, employment and health care needs.

Raymond Robinson, senior manager of partnerships with the Homewood Children’s Village, said his organization conducted a survey of their community and found that of the families who need food assistance, more than half did not own a vehicle. He said many who live in food deserts rely on public transit to get to neighborhoods with grocery stores.

Citing low income fare programs by transit agencies in other cities, Robinson said Port Authority should use some of the millions it’s received in federal stimulus dollars toward a low income fare program.

Barbara Warwick, a Greenfield resident and transit rider, said low-income cash riders are the Port Authority’s most reliable customers.

“It’s unclear why we aren’t just listening to what people are asking for and going forward with this extremely simple solution of letting people use their [Pennsylvania EBT] Access card to get on the bus for free,” she said. “The money is there. The stimulus money is there."

A Port Authority spokesperson said that the agency does not believe it can fund a program not already in existence with coronavirus relief money. “Examples of such programs that are funded with CARES funding already existed before 2020.”

Short of low-income fare program, advocates said the agency should extend free transfers to cash riders, too. Miriam Weiss, a pediatrician, said transportation is a significant cost burden for her patients who sometimes have to take multiple buses to get to their child’s appointment.

“On a daily basis, I’m seeing transportation be a significant barrier to children accessing health care, increasing the use of emergency departments and forcing children’s medical needs to go unmet,” she said. Sometimes her patients have to take multiple buses to get to appointments.

Andrew Hussein, a transit rider, suggested the Port Authority bring back paper transfers for cash riders, which the agency began phasing out in 2015. “It would be a simple, fair, equitable and reasonable process,” he said.

Port Authority CEO Katharine Kelleman told WESA’s The Confluence the fare changes were aimed at making riding easier for passengers, not increasing the price of transit.

“The cash fare has not changed since 2012, so we are not proposing any increase in the cash fare [which remains $2.75],” Kelleman said. “To find a fare that’s been constant for nearly ten years, that’s pretty remarkable, that’s pretty unusual in our industry.”

But advocates say the cost is already too high for cash riders. Nthando Thandiwe, a budget and policy analyst with the Pittsburgh Budget and Policy Center, said the financial impact of the pandemic has hit people of color and low-income residents the hardest.

“The Port Authority is a public agency and operates as a public service. As such, it must be responsible to the needs and financial circumstances of its riders.”